Discover more from under the influence
On the post-truth internet and wanting to believe
Everything recently has felt weighted with personal meaning, which is an indication of mindful, holistic thinking, and also depression. The Antelope Poppy Reserve is barren this year, according to the live cam I watch before I can get out of bed most days. In Okinawa, there’s a beach with star-shaped sand. Two men carried out shooting sprees and Chet Hanks says it’s white boy summer, which is unrelated, but so, so related. And then, there was Shrimp Guy.
A caveat: I like Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. I like the Styrofoam-cardboard hybrid texture, the anodyne approximation of spice, and the way a stack of sugar squares sits on the spoon like a grand mesa on a plain, blasted with a sunrise of cinnamon. So when Shrimp Guy (Twitter user Jensen Karp) claimed to have found shrimp tails in his box of CTC, I was emotionally invested—first skeptical, and then slowly shrimpilled, as I read more and more comments to the effect of “Why the fuck would someone make this up?”
Why would someone lie on the internet? First of all, pretending to have consumed shrimp tails and rat shit for attention transgresses many of our cultural norms around desirability and social acceptance; what is there to gain, beyond months of litigation? Beside that, though, these comments posed a different, and more interesting, question: even if Karp found some value in this lie and its ensuing chaos, would the internet just… let this happen? General Mills would investigate. We would investigate. Some abstract authority would intervene. With an infinite capacity for fact-checking, data assessment, and information processing, how could the truth not come out?
Of course, it never did. While it’s very likely a bizarre hoax, the mystery of the shrimp tails’ veracity and origin is technically still unsolved, swept away with the ever-shifting tides of online attention, buried in a back-and-forth between Karp and General Mills and some vague promise of “lab testing” (to prove what?). And more importantly, as information surfaced, we collectively realized that tainted cereal was beside the point. Several past partners and employees of Karp revealed alleged patterns of sexual and physical assault, emotional abuse, and racism, as well a history of dishonesty in and out of marketing agencies. Honestly, I hope he did eat rat shit.
A week before Karp, Pennsylvania mom Raffaela Spone created deepfake photos and videos of her daughter’s rival cheerleaders to get them kicked off the squad. The Lifetime adaptation writes itself: Spone’s pursed lips and heavy eyeliner are straight from Stage Mom Central Casting. But beyond the primetime plot, there’s the compelling idea that AI is more accessible than ever before— any suburban Facebook mom can learn to professionally doctor media from a Pinterest infographic. Reality is more readily manipulated than ever. We don’t even need to do anything: the website This Person Does Not Exist, for example, uses AI to passively and endlessly generate realistic human faces. The results are both creepy and hypnotizing. Creator Philip Wang— a software engineer at Uber, which feels abstractly significant to me— also created sites that generate (sometimes less accurate, and thus more unhinged) horses, cats, art, and chemical structures; ostensibly, his open-source algorithm could be used to fake anything. In an interview with Motherboard, Wang hints at a far more artificial future: “Most people do not understand how good AIs will be at synthesizing images in the future.”
Some of the ways that the internet is fundamentally untrue are compelling, even freeing. Cybermedia sometimes feels closer to the world as we actually experience it—memory is porous and fallible, our perceptions narrow and flawed long before algorithms. You could argue that the internet has done for writing what the photograph did for painting: No longer burdened with the responsibility of accurate representation, painting could be looser, more evocative, “real” rather than “accurate.” Photography became a widely available public medium around the 1860s; soon after, Impressionism boomed, followed by Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, etc, etc, movements that privileged subjectivity, form, and aesthetic over mimesis.
The aim of Impressionism wasn’t explicitly to subvert our understanding of the world— as in photography, the work relied on an immediate rendering: artists painted en plein air, in public, without sketches. They strove to capture direct experience, seconds as they passed, sunlight as it burned and faded. In contrast to cameras, the painter couldn’t help but preserve their very human process in their final product. A wide brush stroke—or a misspelled tweet, or an impassioned text—doesn’t obscure reality; it’s a side effect of reality. The internet’s capacity for immediacy and expansive reach allows for strange pockets of raw humanity, visceral, tender spaces that can feel every bit as immediate and intimate as life in the flesh. The internet also helps platform marginalized voices and experiences— a reminder that for centuries, the means of narrative production belonged to those already in power; it’s not like we were getting the full or true story from them, either. There’s a deep and troubling history behind the assumption that we ever had the facts.
The issue, maybe, is in the overwhelming deluge of data, the inability to distinguish objective from subjective, fact from hot take from misinformation from intentional deception. An exploration of truth and media from the Pew Research Center quotes Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly: “The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth… Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact and all these counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.” Critical thinking is, in short, exhausting to many, and we’re tasked with both deciphering and valuing new information as well as constructing the identities we sell to others. We’re charged with managing our own realities like those old high school TV show episodes where the kids have to take care of a baby doll for a day and everything goes haywire. Is this teaching us responsibility? I’m not sure I’d believe that. What do we rely on when photo and video are fallible? What does this new reality mean for us as creators, and consumers, and witnesses?
I’m constantly amazed that humans are as able to trust as they are to lie. There are, of course, certain truths to the universe—gravity, for example, or the assignment of certain bird calls to certain kinds of bird. I know this because in the middle of writing this I started to feel less real than ever, so I went outside. “Touch some grass” has become a lazy Twitter retort, shorthand for “So what if I’m wrong—you’re a bigger loser for caring about this argument.” That being said, as a personal practice, instead of an imperative, it feels really fucking good to go touch some grass. I don’t know how to swerve nihilism, or avoid getting duped, however temporarily, by some Twitter asshole. I don’t know how to stop the next Brexit or anti-trans health bill, born of bigotry and malicious misinformation campaigns. I’m haunted by the fear that I’m a fraud. I’ve never seen the beach of stars in Okinawa, but I believe in it. I’m trying to stay open to expression, and also skeptical of both anecdotal and authoritative information; I’m trying to ask myself not only who has authority on a story, but who benefits from how it’s told. The only other tool I have is time— maybe we can resist the internet’s impulse to metabolize information at robot speeds, and instead gather data slowly, forming flexible opinions. The Impressionists’ first salon was a joke, a failure; while the movement was devoted to capturing the fleeting nature of a moment, only the slow pull of time made it matter. I don’t know what the future looks like— but maybe it’s a step in the right direction to admit I don’t have all the facts.