With increasingly divisive news sources and emerging technology that could allow us to forgo the real world altogether, how will we distinguish between fact and fiction in the future? More concerning yet, will we even care?

Conflicting Evidence

In an era of increasing discord, the only subject that everyone seems to agree on is how deeply our disagreements run. Opinions are not simply formed from thin air, they are an amalgam of the experiences and information that we have accumulated throughout our lives.

Based on how thoroughly Americans to disagree on the most basic of issues, from the environment, to women’s rights, to the size of the crowd at our most recent inauguration, the only reasonable explanation would be that we are experiencing alternate realities.

Although physically impossible, this is precisely what our digital world is facilitating.

Early Signals: Political Elections

An early signal of how our realities are diverging from a happy medium is, unsurprisingly, political elections.

The one that comes to mind most easily is the 2016 election, where two polarizing figures ran in a tumultuous race that ended in an even more startling finale.

By the end, those on the left not only disagreed with the right’s political opinions, but felt outright animosity towards them for these beliefs, and vice versa. Personally, I fundamentally could not understand why anyone in their right mind would vote for the republican candidate. When I discovered that he would indeed win the election, I felt a genuine sense of confusion as to how so many people could have voted for him.

The answer, as it turns out, was because the people that did vote for the republican candidate were experiencing a completely different election than I was. They watched different news channels, tuned into to different political rallies, and most importantly, viewed different social media fields.

All of these information sources led to a completely different understanding of the political candidates. As a result, people voted for whoever their sources of news, however dubious, told them to. In the end, it seemed as if whichever one screamed the loudest to the most number of people was the one that won.

Although the dangers of current news sources have become clear and organizations such as Facebook are trying to make up for their mistakes, the issues have only worsened over time.

The recent election to determine whether Catalonia should remain a part of Spain or become a separate state displays the same issues illustrated in the 2016 presidential election, only worse.

As the article below mentions, a rumor will get started on Twitter or WhatsApp, and “people start forwarding it along because of how it reinforces whatever their personal politics are, and then it snowballs from there.” Worse still, “one of the largest sources of fake news has become Catalan and Spanish politicians, who appear to be trying to use the digital free-for-all to help their political agendas.”

People are frolicking to social media sites because traditional media has been unable to make sense of the the static. Instead, traditional media sources will simply pick up stories “not saying that they were true, but saying like, ‘this is a story that’s gone viral.” And this “makes them go even more viral. And they’re not saying that they’re true, they’re just saying that they’re viral. And people are being taken in by them.”

Current Trends

There are a few trends that are enabling this confusion to occur. Despite recent efforts, none of them are likely to go away. In fact, they are likely only going to worsen over time.

The reason that the last media input mentioned, social media streams, is the most powerful and dangerous is because is due to its subversive nature. Unlike news channels and newspapers, where one chooses from among a range of options, every individual only has access to one Facebook feed; their own. As a result, even against their better judgement, one gains the understanding that this feed is a generally accurate representation of world events.

However, this is far from reality. Based on Facebook and Youtube’s extraordinary ability to personalize our information streams, we are actually being shown a small slice of reality that reflects our own beliefs.

One term that has been thrown out an extraordinary amount this year is ‘fake news.’ The term is interesting because of its paradoxical nature. If an article that claims to be an accurate depiction of events gets out into the world and reaches millions of eyes, it must be real, right?

As recent events have showed us, this is about as far from the truth as one can get. However, this was not always the case. Before the emergence of forums such as facebook, twitter, reddit, and yes, medium, getting an idea out into the world was a difficult task. One had to get the attention of a major news outlet, be a significant cultural figure, have a lot of money to spend, or be some combination of the three. Therefore, there was some degree of validity behind any major story.

For better or for worse, this is no longer the case. In order for something to ‘go viral’ one’s idea must simply be compelling enough to catch someone’s attention and motivate him or her to share it. If this happens enough times, one’s idea will snowball into a major story, regardless of its validity.

Scarier still, this snowballing effect can be fabricated by fake sharers in order to reach real audiences. The ability to do so will only become easier as AI and machine learning improves, which will the covered in more detail later.

One of the reasons why its so difficult to differentiate between reality and fiction is because of the sheer quantity of news items availible to us. Since its becoming easier to put information out into the world, more people are doing it increasingly often.

This excess of information quickly becomes overwhelming. As a result, attention spans become shorter and readers opt to glance over titles instead of actually read an article from start to finish. Assumptions are confirmed, articles are shared, and opinions are formed without anyone consuming any actual content.

Emerging Technology

Although our current perceptions of reality already seam dubious, certain trends in technology, such as fabrication enabled machine learning and virtual and augmented reality, will only make matters worse.

From Samson, an OpenFrameworks project by Ben Snell; http://www.ben-snell.com/Samson

While machine learning algorithms improve by leaps and bounds, so does our concept of how we can apply them. One equally appealing and terrifying application is the fabrication of images, text, video, and audio.

Current experiments, such as creative programmer Gene Kogan’s meat puppet and University of Washington’s Synthesizing Obama, explores the possibility of generating believable visuals of political figures doing things that they never actually did. Such technology will only improve over time, opening up the possibility of making anything appear as if it happened, regardless of real events.

Information Apathy?

Being Told What We Want to Hear

How can you verify news in a world where everything, even images and videos, can be fabricated? Perhaps you could rely on witness testimonies — until people could be fabricated as well.

social vr on fake reality

  • buy fake friends (or a fake friend) of differing opinions
  • mute the ones you disagree with until you just end up back with your own opinions
  • a company says they’ll diversify opinions but then you end up only listening to people of your own opinion

how do you validate information when everything can be faked? blockchain?

waking up from a faked reality

paying Facebook for clarity

  • paying fb for alternative perspectives
  • paying fb to show what the filters are
  • perceiving reality based on differing opinions (everyone is entitled to their own opinions/perspectives, but if multiple opinions are in direct contrast with one another, there must be multiple truths)
  • the truth becomes irrelevent
  • Intro: A series of hashtags, headlines, and article clipping flying by depicting increasingly relativist centric philosophies and dubious events.
  • Video click: Someone scrolling through their future device that is specifically geared towards their worldview and tuning out the rest of the world/reality.