Truthiness is about having the right to one’s own opinions and facts. It becomes a problem when objective facts diverge from the opinions of supposedly trusted sources promoting their perspective as the truth.
When Stephen Colbert exercises truthiness (a term he takes credit for coining) he is doing so on Comedy Central and framing it as a caricature of the truth. He and John Stewart act in the tradition of court jesters speaking truth to power through comedy — And they make it clear that is the case.
Contrast this to a qualitatively different use of truthiness; when Glenn Beck makes truthy assertions on a news channel, relates much of what he doesn’t like about progressives to either national socialism or communism, and indicates in all seriousness on his radio show that he is channeling god. He is using truthiness to advance an agenda that he is serious about, on a channel that defines itself as news with the moniker “We Report, You Decide”?. I use Beck as the most egregious example rather than Keith Olbermann on The Left because Beck is helping to spur an actual political [Tea Party] movement while Olbermann just doesn’t have that impact. However, truthiness disguised as news on both the left and right is equally problematic. Unfortunately cable networks are in a ratings war and use infotainment to supplement news. Infotainment does not necessarily have to be truthy but if truthiness serves up better Nielsen numbers it’s used – In fact, this sentence could sadly be the mission statement for FOX or MSNBC.
Truthiness has both a dark and light side:
In the case of faulty conjecture on Intelligence data, it has cost thousands of lives in the last decade.
Truthiness can also be useful for serious issues if it acts to self-correct; That is, if it spurs objective inquiry to get to the truth. This occurred in the vaccination debate where perceived truth based on conjecture that vaccines caused autism led to further scientific research — which disproved the original conjectures and even led to a legal opinion against them in the so-called vaccine court.
Truthiness seems to be used more, and more effectively, on the conservative side of the debate to question objective science like global warming and evolution, as well as a range of other objective truths, (like Obama being born in Kenya, the so-called Clear Skies Act actually reducing air pollution controls, the mandated use of death panels in the Health Care Bill, WMD in Iraq being a slam dunk, etc.). It’s not that The Right is neccessarily better at truthiness, it’s that it is far better at its dissemination; effectively framing its message and forwarding its agenda. Thats because it tends to be more organized, is narrower in its range of disagreements and is better at subordinating individual viewpoints to achieve the group objective. By contrast, the definition of a liberal firing squad is a circle – gaining consensus is like herding cats. One would be hard pressed to argue that the Obama administration has used truthiness as an official tool either more or more effectively than the Bush administration. Another definition of truthiness is that it is the truth you feel. Bush famously worked from the gut while Obama works from the mind.
The viral nature of the Internet combined with emergent social networks offers a unique host to transmit truthiness — like a virus. It’s not that difficult to imagine an intelligently placed truthy rumor causing enough panic to become a security threat in its own right. It’s far easier to imagine truthy information masquerading as junk fact or science and echoed on page after page on the Internet (for example that vaccines cause Autism). Online social networks accelerate this trend by bringing like-minded people together in large numbers, allowing opinion promoted as fact to quickly become fact if repeated enough times and by enough people. There has never been a medium that’s had a more profound effect on mass group dynamics and interaction in 1) real time and 2) without regard to the limitations of geography.
What is also interesting about truthiness in democratic societies and online is that it is not forced by Church or State but democratically promoted by the group and to a more or lesser extent influenced by the celebrity of the truthiness-teller. Witness Sarah Palin’s Twitter and FaceBook following.
What interests me personally about truthiness is that I defined my career at OSI promoting Open Societies through the provision of access to information on the Internet. As the Internet has evolved however, I see the need for mediation that turns information into knowledge and limits the more damaging effects of junk information one receives along with useful information online. Truthiness in broadcast media lasts a news cycle or two and is then lost. Truthiness on the Internet has staying power, and gains new life with every search result. A good green tea metaphor for truthiness is that it flows through the Internet like a free-radical with the potential to cause cancer if not subjected to the antioxidant of objective facts.
Jonathan Peizer is the Principal of Internaut Consulting supporting foundations, nonprofits, governments and socially responsible private sector initiatives. He is the former CIO/CTO and Director of the Open Society Institute’s Global Internet Program.