The truth has no clothes

A year ago, I wrote The universe has no clothes, describing the way that, when your attempts to understand a system fail enough times, you stop believing that the system has any rules at all. This is the process that leads to users getting frustrated and just trying stuff at random. After all, there are no rules, no logic, why not just do whatever and see what happens?

I've been reflecting recently on the post-truth concept. How is it that untruthfulness is not even just something you can get away with, but a viable, even preferable political strategy? I think a lot of it comes down to how knowledge works in the information age. I wrote a bit about this in Concentrate; as we've gone from having limited to unlimited information, the tools and strategies we use with information have to change.

So here's the question: how do you lie when everyone knows the truth? You can't just make up an outright falsehood in the hope that nobody will bother to check; we don't live in that world anymore. Within minutes, not only will people have found information refuting your lie, they will also put up new information specifically calling out your lie to save others the effort. Historically you could hide the truth, or silence it, but on the internet that doesn't work, and often has the opposite effect.

But while we have unlimited information, we still have profoundly limited brains. To lie effectively today, you can't attack the facts, you have to attack people's understanding of them. You need to sabotage the character of the facts, exploit cognitive biases to prevent people from believing them and, above all, generate enough lies and present them confidently enough that it's no longer clear who's lying.

It's this last thing that I believe is the biggest driver of the post-truth phenomenon, and I think it exploits that exact same way you can lose faith that a system has rules or internal logic. You have some system for figuring out what the truth is, maybe it's who says it, maybe it's the language they use or the sources they cite, and that system mostly works. But what about when the noise level increases and your system has to cope with more data than you can handle?

You see a thousand articles, half of them say global warming is real, the other half say it's a lie. Are you going to read them all? You see a well-written post on a political topic, but then you read a well-written reply, then there's another reply, and another... Like two people arguing back and forth in front of you, you slowly tune out and decide it's not worth the bother.

When the system that tells you what's true stops giving you answers, you stop believing in it. You don't think one thing is true and the other false, you think both are "I dunno". And that to me is the essence of post-truth as a strategy, it's about raising the noise floor to the point where nobody knows anything. In that factual vacuum, it's much easier to get people to believe what you want. After all, there's no truth, no facts, why not just believe whatever and see what happens?