(Feature) A Case Study in Post-Factualism

In case you haven’t heard, The History Channel recently aired a documentary suggesting that Amelia Earhart survived her trek across the Pacific. The evidence was based mostly on a photograph, recently discovered in the National Archives (where it had apparently been misfiled), showing a woman with an appearance similar to Earhart’s sitting on a dock watching a boat haul a plane that also looked a lot like hers.

Almost immediately, a Japanese blogger posted some at-least-as-convincing evidence that the photo was published two years before her disappearance, which rules it out as proof of anything. Of course, there’s always some chance the blogger’s evidence is false — an error or a forgery — which seems doubtful, but if so, would only expand the intricacies of what is already a fascinating reflection on the question of truth in the 21st century.

The first issue is the presentation itself. Much of the information that reaches us comes completely unfiltered. In this case, a check of the Japanese national library would have revealed the photo in question and eliminated the need for a documentary. (But then, that wouldn’t sell advertising!) We spend so much time criticizing social media — and the internet generally — for its counterfactual claims, but it’s a general problem and one that existed before the telecommunications revolution. Yellow journalism has a long history.

If your response to that is something like “Well, The History Channel is hardly a bastion of investigative journalism and I’m smart enough not to rely on it,” then you’re not smart enough to have gotten the point and are very likely over-confident in your own sources (as people are) and your own ability to detect falsehoods (as people also are).

The point is: Exposure is not the same as engagement.

As a director at (what is now a division of) Nielsen for many years, I ran studies that dissected recall-based systems of media measurement. When asked to record what radio stations they heard in a day, for example, people overwhelmingly wrote down those they actively engaged with, often omitting the ten minutes they listened to a country station in the car or the oldies station their office neighbor played for several hours at work that day.

It matters. We can recall an ad — for a big department store sale, for example — and completely misattribute where we heard it. This is especially true where we didn’t consciously select the media, such as the in-store audio at a big box retailer, which most of us hear without realizing. We remember the ad and confabulate an erroneous source that we nevertheless have total confidence in.

So if your response was to dismiss The History Channel as irrelevant, you are almost certainly a victim of this effect, since it’s the over-confident who are most susceptible. We only have limited control over what we’re exposed to, after all. (Don’t worry. Your self-serving brain will invent a reason why you can be excused. The sun was in your eyes. Or you didn’t get enough sleep last night. In fair conditions, which these were not, you totally would’ve given the correct answer. TOTALLY.)

Given how much press the photo initially received, I can’t help but wonder how many exposed persons will be similarly exposed to the debunking, how many of them will believe it, and of those that do, how many of their brains will actually update their long-term memory versus simply remembering the original possibility that Earhart survived without recalling any details, including the later debunking.

Sadly, more information does not always equal more truth. It does at the outset, where we move from little to some, but there are diminishing returns. And past some fictional saturation point, just the opposite seems to be true: the more facts we’re given, the harder it is to know what’s real. If you’ve ever struggled with the counter-intuitiveness of that claim — or if you’ve never heard it before — this episode with Amelia Earhart presents a great thought experiment.

First you have to accept that truth (along with sanity) is socially defined; it is whatever the dominant members of a society think it is. That’s not to say it’s independent of facts, just that it can be — and in cases that threaten the dominant order, often will be.

In a society with relatively modest information density, where people live in small- to medium-sized cities and news is spread slowly by only a handful of outlets (i.e., newspaper and radio), any story can occupy the public consciousness long enough for it to be processed to some kind of resolution. It may not — see previous comment about yellow journalism — but it can. That capacity exists.

That means anyone in the modest-density environment who misremembered the Amelia Earhart story would likely be corrected by their peers. Yes, there were crackpots, even back in the day. Brains are not digital machines. The point is that in such an environment, there is a much higher likelihood of reaching a single socially dominant consensus. (This still left open interpretation of facts, but many of the facts themselves could be reconciled.)

These days, we obviously live in a high-information-density society, although I suspect it will keep getting denser. Someone living a century from now may look back to today as a time of idyllic simplicity, but to my feeling, we’re positively assaulted by information, not all of which comes to us through our active filter of cognitive engagement (which isn’t 100% effective anyway). Much of what we’re passively exposed to — on platforms such as this — is wrong, half-wrong, incomplete, or entirely without context.

If you think of each exposure as a colored dot on a screen, it’s easy to imagine the difference. In a modest-density environment, there are a limited number of dots and thus only so many narratives our brains can manufacture and still comply with the dominant consensus. But in a highly information-dense environment, where the screen is packed with dots of every color, there is ample raw material for out brains to find support for just about every narrative imaginable.

Furthermore, our brain adds meta-level tags to each exposure, tags that are rarely discarded with the rest. For example, there was an air of conspiracy to the Earhart story. (Why had the National Archives, usually such a paragon of organization and indexing, misfiled the photo?) If you’re already suspicious — that the Roosevelt administration knew about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance, for example — then when you heard about the photo, you likely saw further clear evidence of conspiracy. It would just seem obvious.

That subjective sense — that confidence in your beliefs created by the exposure, that snap narrative your brain used to place it into a wider context (See? I’m telling you, it’s racism all the way down!) — isn’t discarded later. Even if you come to accept the debunking, you still retain the sense of being right, that the world supports your point of view. Facts, then, rarely go deep enough to alter our narratives about the world.

So it is Trump supporters — who, despite the caricatures, have the same brain between their ears as the rest of us — will celebrate an erroneous story as true, even when they know it’s factually false, because they don’t trust the dominant media. They see History Channels everywhere! (Which isn’t entirely wrong-headed.)

In days past, serious questions likely would have occupied the public — which weren’t nearly as fractured into social media silos — until some kind of dominant resolution was reached. In this case, that Amelia Earhart did not survive. Or at least, that the photo in question was not evidence that she did.

These days, there are so many competing conversations, and they come so quickly, there’s no time to reach resolution, which is damned hard even in the best of circumstances let alone in an enormous and highly diverse society. Comment-box-sized arguments are thrown out — good and bad, for and against — with both sides claiming they “just want to contribute to a healthy discussion.” And on the sidelines, a cacophony of folks who only want to cause trouble. (Those people were always there, by the way — trolls and crackpots. But in, say, 1920, they just didn’t have a platform, save standing on a soapbox on the street corner, which is of course where we got that phrase.)

In such a world, especially where people believe they’re fighting a war for the soul of the culture, it’s not that truth or falsity doesn’t matter as much as everyone knows there are genuine practical constraints. Whatever we do or say must be done or said quickly, and so what matters most is moral rather than factual rectitude. It’s not really a lie if the moral — the conclusion meant to be drawn — is already known to be true based on “significant other evidence.”

So it is you’ll run into someone someday who’ll say something like: “I thought there was a photo that proved Amelia Earhart survived and was captured by the Japanese.” You’ll provide them a link to the debunking. They’ll check their sources and provide you a link to the debunking of the debunking, complete with annotations. And both of you will roll your eyes and walk away thinking the other is simply deluded, which is just further evidence of how good a handle you have on things, because that guy is an idiot, and thank God you don’t think like him.