Fact Check: More isn't always better
Living in a world of digital abundance.
Hey readers, welcome back. In last week’s entry, we touched on titular notions from L. M. Sacasas’s article “The Analog City and the Digital City.” Summarizing those notions, Sacasas writes:
We might say that our public sphere is now inhabited by the citizens of two “cities,” the Digital City and the Analog City. Much of the stress under which our body politic now labors, much of the strangeness of our moment, much of our apparent inability to move productively forward as a society, may be attributed in part to the emergence of the Digital City and its dramatic growth over the past two decades…
…Our political culture has been hitherto formed predominantly by the Analog City, which reflected to varying degrees both the inheritance of print culture and the conditions created by electronic media. What we are now witnessing is the ascendancy of the Digital City, which is characterized primarily by the advent of ubiquitous Internet connectivity, no longer just at home or work but also on mobile technology... The key parallel is that our participation in the public sphere is shaped largely by our loyalties to one or the other city and that we are witnessing the emerging dominance of one of them.1
While this article is long (clocking in at about 30 minutes of reading time per Grammarly’s estimate), the whole thing is a fascinating read.
For our purposes today, I want to zoom in on a passing thought Sacasas makes pretty early on about fact-checking in the digital world:
Take fact-checking, for example. As it became increasingly clear that all manner of deliberate lies, misinformation, and conspiracy theories were circulating widely through social media channels in connection with the 2016 election, many observers stressed the need for more aggressive fact-checking. The part of me that reflected the years I was formed within the Analog City nodded approvingly. The part of me that was beginning to recognize the significance of the Digital City shook its head in disbelief that anyone thought this an adequate solution. The part of me that was already being reshaped by the Digital City just thought to himself: ¯_(ッ)_/¯ 2
Beyond the on-point use of the shrug emoticon, and, regardless of your beliefs about the 2016 election (Sacasas wrote this article before the 2020 election cycle was complete), the underlying notion here holds: fact-checking is an Analog City solution to a Digital City problem.
But hasn’t misinformation and ignorance always been a problem? Yes, but like most things, the underlying issue has been transformed by the Digital City. Sacasas elaborates:
…When facts are few, persuading the ignorant is relatively easy. But information abundance, already characteristic of early modern societies, engenders a degree of skepticism: The more there is to know, the more likely we feel that truth is elusive. Information super-abundance, or the condition of “digital plenitude,” as media scholar Jay David Bolter has called it, encourages the view that truth isn’t real: Whatever view you want to validate, you’ll find facts to support it. All information is also now potentially disinformation. Fact-checking, however well-intentioned, does not solve the problem; paradoxically, it may in some cases make it worse.3
A helpful analogy in my mind is my spending habits. When more money is coming in than was previously coming in, I tend to loosen up my spending. I’m more willing to spend money on things I wouldn’t have because there’s more money available. The value of the individual dollars goes down as I have more of them.
Similarly, since we live in such a “fact” saturated world, the value of any individual fact seems to wane. There’s a counter fact for every fact; who’s to say that my points are better than your points. Sacasas summarizes a bit later:
Moreover, digital plenitude no longer sustains the hope that the truth will win out in the marketplace of ideas. Information super-abundance renders implausible the traditional ideal of the citizen as well-informed, critical thinker. Instead, it fosters the desire for tools that give users the ability to selectively censor their feeds, and the instinct to rely on moderators to restrict speech so as to conform with their values.4
So, what to do about this. Sacasas' article explores many other facets of the Analog and Digital Cities that readers will likely recognize, but he never arrives at a particular “point” per se. There is no magic bullet to deliver us from our current moment, but there is hope:
Freed from certain unsustainable illusions about the nature of the self and the world, we may now be called back to reckon with reality in a new, more chastened and more responsible manner.5
As was our conclusion last week, and to a certain degree, this whole Context & Content enterprise, the point is to challenge us to think more. To think more about:
How we think.
How the content we get is colored by the channels it comes through.
How the channels that deliver our information are colored by the content we get through them.
So while our urge to engage in debate and to “correct” others in digital milieus comes from a good place, the end result will almost never be what we desired. In a world saturated with facts without context, more facts aren’t the solution. Let’s aim for more context, better thinking about how we think, and working to walk with others so that we can all gain that better context together.
And with that, thanks for reading. See you again soon!
Notes and Further Reading
You can see some additional thoughts from L. M. Sacasas on “Democracy and Technology” here.
You can see a long-form discussion with Sacasas about the content of this article here: