“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” This accidentally poignant cartoon from The New Yorker in 1993 kicked off a long-standing tension between the internet and truth. Nearly 20 years later, when a 22-year old actress pretended to quit her job using a dry erase board and company-wide email it became apparent that many still believed the aphorism “if it’s on the internet, it must be true”.

In the 2010s, the seeming war between the internet and truth grew to unprecedented heights. The buildup to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections brought home to far more people, not just Americans, the reality of misinformation and disinformation––not only their salience for our experiences online but for core elements of the offline world as well, including democracy itself. There’s no simple answer to these challenges. But we’ll make progress most effectively by trying to figure out how to work with and not against the internet, because a war is not the right way to reach good policy outcomes.

The path to truth online has always been murky, and to be brutally honest, we humans are not always trying to find it. We’re not always rational on the internet. And as a TechCrunch piece from 2015 observed: “If it was just the Russians trying to use misinformation this way, it could probably be contained. It’s not though, since so many people are incentivized to create their own reality.” Making things worse, intentional falsehoods have moved far beyond text alone. Photography, audio and video “deepfakes” can be generated easily and are increasingly difficult to detect as forgeries with the naked eye.

The trend of intentional falsification leading to widespread misinformation is broader than the internet, of course. Kellyanne Conway famously referred to “alternative facts” in defense of a claim about Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd in 2017, a characterization that defined her legacy and provided a window of insight into Trump and his supporters generally. For the 2016 election in particular, the Berkman Center’s Network Propaganda book offers fairly convincing evidence of the role played by traditional media, including radio and television, in both originating and spreading public awareness and acceptance of falsehoods. This concern remains alive today, as evidenced by the February 22 letters from Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney on the carriage of Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network (OANN) by cable television services.

But the internet as an ecosystem is not without blame. In particular, the internet connects people, and we tend to trust other people, especially people we know. That very openness has itself contributed to the degradation of truth because it has occurred alongside a breakdown of institutions that once contributed fact and friction to human communication pathways. We used to consume and exchange information through official structures like newspapers or through non-scalable direct phone calls; now a single click conveys a message to thousands or millions.

We’re seeing substantial efforts from platforms, civil society organizations and researchers to limit the harm of intentional influence operations. I personally have been involved with both the Brookings High-Level Working Group on Disinformation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Partnership for Countering Influence Operations. Among other strategies, focusing on the “ABC”s (or Actors, Behavior, Content from Camille Francois’s 2019 framework) provides some traction for that front of the war for truth, though it continues to be hard-fought.

The QAnon conspiracy front of the war for truth is a different matter. Dan Hon wrote a great post comparing QAnon to alternate reality games, focusing on how it creates incentives for ever deeper exploration and commitment to search for an even truthier truth hidden behind a new conspiracy. Every story is more compelling with a villain, and in this case a hero; QAnon grew and gained new purpose through idolatry of Trump, villainizing all who would criticize him.

Gaining a handle on conspiracy, anti-vaxx and other “alternative truths” online is the sort of hard and important challenge governments must try to address, no matter how ill-suited their traditional playbooks may be. American First Amendment precedent and free expression rights worldwide make content specific regulations difficult, which by and large results in better policy outcomes rather than worse, as government forces must take a very light touch to content and speech. The European Union is trying a few new plays with its Democracy Action Plan, and we should all root for its success.

We need to do more than just encourage critical thinking. Vinton G. Cerf’s optimism in 1998 was understandable at the time. But even a decade ago, it was recognized that the “golden age of fact checking” we had entered would be insufficient. As Rebecca Rosen points out in “Truth, Lies, and the Internet” in The Atlantic, “narratives, ideas and ideologies are what fuel the world, not facts.” So services like NewsGuard, which tries to present easy signals of trustworthiness, struggle to reach mass adoption simply because people don’t like being presented with information that contradicts their previously held opinions. Similarly, regulating to mandate the presentation of contrary facts—forcing internet users to consume their digital vegetables—would be unwise for a range of legal, political and policy reasons (and in the United States, at least, quite possibly unconstitutional).

The truth gap online is a diffuse and complex challenge. No authority exists that can legitimize truth in all contexts for all humans, because of our different assumptions and biases. So we need to work on governance solutions that structurally incorporate multiple and inclusive voices and sources in our truth-validating. And we may need to put a little bit of friction back into our information flow to make space for that kind of reflexive structural thoughtfulness and evaluation. For that, the internet will be part of the solution, not just part of the problem. The internet can and should be a force for promoting truth—just like democracy, the free market and journalism.

INTRODUCTION – The Great War for the future of internet governance has begun.

PART 1 – The Great War, Part 1: The Internet vs Democracy

PART 2 – The Great War: The Internet vs the Free Market

PART 3 – The Great War: The Internet vs Journalism

PART 4 – The Great War: The Internet vs Truth

PART 5 – The Great War, Part 5: The Internet vs Happiness

PART 6 – The Great War, Part 6: The Internet vs Itself

Image credit: Iryna Kalamurza