Reality checker: How to cut nonsense from the net. By Jim Giles
Bold schemes are afoot to filter fact from fiction on the web, and all of us can have a crucial part to play
HOW many times have you believed a lie today? Probably at least once if you’ve read the news: long-running studies show that just over half of US newspaper stories contain at least one error. If you’ve looked up health information, you can probably chalk up another mistake: several surveys have found widespread errors in popular health websites.
Some falsehoods have spread so far and so wide, few people question them anymore. Guess, for instance, which of the following statements are incorrect: Napoleon was short, all bats are blind, you must drink eight glasses of water per day. Answer: all of them. Napoleon was of above average height for his time, many species of bat can see, and healthy people can meet their hydration needs by simply drinking when thirsty.
The notion that everyday life is rife with misinformation is hardly new, but plenty of people are worried that things are getting worse. Thanks to the internet, rumours, inaccuracies and lies have the means to bounce around social networks, blogs and news sites with unprecedented speed - and often with significant consequences. Take one of the biggest political fibs of recent years: the claim that US healthcare reforms would include “death panels”, groups of bureaucrats that would rule on the fate of patients. That suggestion spread quickly online, and corrupted honest debate about the reforms.
It’s no surprise, then, that a number of organisations are fighting back. They are converging on the idea that new technologies can prevent nonsense from spreading on the internet, and by extension through popular discourse itself. Several groups are about to roll out tools designed to flag up errors in any online content, and so nip them in the in bud before they spread. One group is taking aim at Twitter. Another has email in its sights. Several want to annotate the whole of the web. When combined, these systems may forge a future in which erroneous material, whether it appears on The New York Times website or a conspiracy-mad blog, comes with a warning sign. “That day is not far away,” says Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact, an independent fact-checking organisation. The question is: are we ready for a healthy dose of reality?
The idea that our daily information diet contains errors arguably dates back to the arrival of the printing press. And if errors are ancient, so are attempts to combat them.
Yet many people believe that the internet has upped the ante. They argue that, as well as acting as an almighty echo chamber for lies and falsehoods, the internet has given a more powerful voice to those who wish to sow confusion and conspiracy. Meanwhile, trust in mainstream news organisations of all political viewpoints has been declining for more than a decade - in some cases deservedly, in others perhaps less so (see graphs).
On the flip side, the technology underpinning the internet is also offering the opportunity to tackle misinformation in ways that have not been possible until now.
Pants on fire
The first of these tools has emerged in the political sphere, and builds upon work done by Adair and colleagues at Politifact. The organisation employs journalists to scrutinise around 35 political statements a week, awarding each a “Truth-O-Meter” rating from “true” to “pants on fire”. Their reasoning is published, as well as links to sources. For instance, PolitiFact has found that, of 400 statements made by Barack Obama, just over 1 in 4 were “mostly false” or worse. For Mitt Romney, Obama’s challenger in the presidential election this November, the figure was over 40 per cent. Between them, the pair have earned 21 “pants on fire” verdicts.
PolitiFact has made waves - it won a 2009 Pulitzer prize and has inspired similar groups in Europe - but its “pants on fire” determinations do no good if they are confined to its website. For a fact-check to change a belief, it needs to be available at the moment the information is consumed. And that is where the new tools come in.
Another initiative, Fact Spreaders, aims to integrate PolitiFact’s checks into Twitter, as well as those performed by FactCheck, a similar US organisation. It begins with software, due to launch later this year, that looks at whether tweets contain a URL linking to information that checkers have flagged as problematic. The team is also experimenting with artificial intelligence that scrutinises the content of tweets, says co-founder Paul Resnick, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Then volunteers post a Twitter response to the tweet, containing a link to the fact-check. “We need to have facts spread as far as rumour spreads,” says Resnick.
Others are using the PolitiFact database in different ways. Truth Goggles, a browser extension being developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Dan Schultz, alerts a user when they encounter a questionable statement on a web page. Clicking on the statement produces a window that summarises PolitiFact’s result. And Lazytruth, built by Schultz’s colleague Matt Stempeck and others, runs checks on email.
If these services prove popular, they would help to deal with many high-profile political falsehoods that get passed around. But what about all the other errors? It would surely take thousands of checkers to keep up.
The solution may be to recruit that army online. Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to use the crowd to purge the internet of falsehoods is a tool called Hypothes.is, which is due to launch next year. Dan Whaley, the founder of the non-profit organisation in San Francisco that is developing it, decided to act after watching the confusion caused by the debates around healthcare legislation and the banking crisis: “Like the rest of us, I feel the pain of trying to understand what is going on and what information to trust.”
His solution is to build software that would allow the annotation of almost any assertion online, be it on a webpage that hosts a video on foxnews.com, or a single sentence in an article at nytimes.com. Whaley calls it “the internet, peer-reviewed”.
This involves building a browser extension that lets people place layers of annotations onto a web page. Crucially, the original publisher cannot hide or delete them. To avoid crowding the screen, Hypothes.is users will see a “heat map”: a thin bar along the side of their screen that directs them to disputed statements. They can then click on the bar to see what annotators have said.
Judged by the mixed quality of comments left after news articles, this might not be appealing. So Whaley’s team is developing a sophisticated ranking system to prioritise insightful annotations. It will feature a voting system that draws on advice gleaned from the likes of reddit, a news-sharing service that makes it easy for users to vote on others’ submissions. The system will also employ “meta-moderation”, a process in which high-ranking users are asked to rate the contributions of others. A favourable rating will increase a user’s reputation score, which in turn will increase the visibility of their annotations. And the moderator is chosen at random, which will help prevent distortion by a group of annotators with an axe to grind.
The beauty of Hypothes.is lies in its flexibility. An annotator can link a political fib to a fact-check at PolitiFact, or a health scare to a page of reputable medical information. In principle, efforts could range from correcting serious scientific misinformation to common myths like the idea that Napoleon was short.
The potential is huge. But Hypothes.is will surely face a recruitment challenge. According to programmer Rob Ennals, it’s the “chicken-and-egg” problem. In 2009, Ennals launched Dispute Finder, a browser extension that linked users to counter-arguments for whatever they were reading. It was intended as a demonstration, and Ennals shut the service down when he took a job at Google. Even so, his experience was enough to convince him of the difficulty in basing such a service on user submissions. Many contributors are needed to build a database of annotations or rebuttals, but users do not have much incentive to join until that database is already in place.
Still, think of Wikipedia: few people were aware of it when it launched with a small but committed group of contributors in 2001. The site managed to attract enough like-minded folks, and even though most people today have never edited a Wikipedia article, the English-language version alone now boasts more than 4 million entries.
Whaley and colleagues will try to pull off something similar when they launch. Hypothes.is will begin by focusing on a specific type of content, perhaps legislative documents or scientific papers. For science, there is arguably already a demand and, perhaps, a dedicated workforce: a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life project showed that 80 per cent of people have tried to fact-check scientific information they have read online. If the system attracts informed and intelligent users, everyone will benefit. Many sites will come with “fact or fiction” warnings.
Yet hanging over all of the projects is a cynical but important question: do people really want to hear the truth? Pretty much everyone claims that they do, but recent research paints a more depressing picture.
For starters, there is the effect that psychologists call “naive realism”: the mistaken belief that our views are based on a rational analysis of the world. Consider what tends to happen after a controversial call in a football game, when fans of opposing teams often reach opposite conclusions about the decision.
Such disagreements can be shrugged off in sports, but the same mechanism underlies political controversies too. When Bill Clinton was accused of lying to a 1998 investigation into allegations of sexual harassment, some liberals saw a witch hunt. Many conservatives decided he should be impeached. People on both sides of the political spectrum sincerely believed that they were being objective, even though their opinions matched their party allegiance. Psychologists also say that everybody suffers from a “bias blind spot” - an inability to see that their interpretation of facts is inevitably shaped by their own biases and world view.
Still, surely unambiguous corrections help change minds? Several studies suggest that the situation is more complex. In one experiment, political scientists Brendan Nyhan, now at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University, Atlanta, asked students to read news stories wrongly stating that George W. Bush had banned all stem-cell research. Some stories included a correction. Many students who were sympathetic to Bush took the correction on board, but their liberal-leaning peers did not. A second study using a false story about the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq produced similar results. In fact, reading the correction made some more certain that WMDs had been found.
“It’s threatening to admit that you’re wrong or that your side is wrong,” says Nyhan, who is working with Resnick on Fact Spreaders. “So people think of reasons to disbelieve the information that they are given.”
If Nyhan is right, no amount of fact-checking will change the minds of, say, climate change deniers or anti-vaccination campaigners. That might, however, be the wrong way to look at the potential of the fact-checking services. The battle for hearts and minds of those groups has indeed been lost, but new conspiracy theories will emerge. If services like Fact Spreaders and Hypothes.is are up and running, they could nip those theories in the bud.
Take the example of the “death panel” rumour that almost derailed US healthcare reforms. It began with a political commentator named Betsy McCaughey. She claimed that the bills would “absolutely require” elderly people to attend sessions at which they would learn “how to end their life sooner”. The claim spread widely online before extra fuel was added by talk-show hosts and by Sarah Palin, who asserted on Facebook that it meant that the government would set up death panels to rule on the fate of patients. Could the falsehood have been extinguished if web browsers had highlighted it early, before it reached the mainstream? Possibly.
There is also hope of overcoming people’s resistance to being told they are wrong. Nyhan and Reifler recently reviewed the social science of misinformation and came up with advice on how to maximise the impact of corrections. They recommend not using negations, for example. Saying “John is not a criminal” risks people becoming more familiar with the allegations against John, so “John is exonerated” would be better.
It is also often better to provide a visual correction. Take the rumour that the Obamas had decided to call Christmas trees “holiday trees” and banned religious ornaments from the White House. A written rebuttal might have helped, but a video of the Obamas talking about the religious meaning of Christmas would probably have been more effective.
Such thinking will help shape Fact Spreaders. Resnick says that its volunteers will be advised to try and align themselves with the people they are attempting to correct, perhaps using phrases like “I was shocked by that as well until I found out it wasn’t true”. The idea here, borne out by studies, is that people are more likely to be persuaded if they think the messenger shares their world view.
These advances will not banish lies or convince conspiracy theorists. But we should not expect them to, say the people behind the fact-checking technology. Instead, we should see the services as tools that will strip the junk out of our unhealthy information diets. And if there will always be people who are willing to fabricate statements, there will also always be people who prefer to base their arguments on evidence. They will continue to fight lies where they find them, and the new technology gives them a better means of doing so. “We’re going to have an ongoing arms race,” says Resnick. “It’s up to those of us who care about the truth to participate.”
Jim Giles is a consultant for New Scientist based in San Francisco
So there was a mass shooting during a Batman movie and, goddamn it, it turned out the killer owned a Batman mask and called himself “The Joker.” By now, several talking heads have come to the conclusion that the movie somehow triggered the massacre, or whatever. You know the game at this point — sadly, we’ve seen this whole cycle play out more than once.
As always, this knee-jerk reaction by old, scared talking heads will predictably result in most of our audience scoffing and saying that movies can’t influence people to do anything, because movies are make-believe and every non-crazy member of the audience knows how to separate fact from fiction.
Well, the thing is … that is equally wrong. But not for the reason the talking heads think.
#5. No, You Can’t Separate Fact from Fiction
You’ve seen Braveheart, right? You know that’s based on a historical event — the movie makes it clear that Mel Gibson’s character, William Wallace, was a real guy who really lived in Scotland back in the horse and castle days. You also know that Hollywood spiced things up for the movie — the real Wallace probably never assassinated a dude and then jumped his horse off a balcony in slow motion.
So if you don’t mind, just quickly tell me which parts were fiction. Without looking it up.
Probably the part where more than the six people directly in front of him could hear what he was saying during that speech.
Like the evil king they were fighting — was he a real historical figure, too? What about Wallace’s palooka friend, Hamish? Or the crazy Irish sidekick? Were those real guys? That part where Mel Gibson’s main ally (Robert the Bruce) betrayed him and sided with the English in that big battle (aka the turning point of the entire story)— did that really happen? What about the bit at the end, where Wallace has sex with that princess, revealing that the future king of England would actually be Mel Gibson’s son? That’s the most historically important thing in the whole film, surely that was true, right?
You don’t know, do you? But who cares, right? It’s not like that impacts your life at all. It’s just historical trivia. OK, now consider this: After Jaws hit theaters, we nearly drove sharks to extinction with feverish hunting, to the point that their populations may never recover.
“Fetch my spear gun. These bastards will pay for what they did to Quint!”
Every single person who saw that movie knew that it was fiction, and that those characters were just actors. They probably knew that, in real life, there isn’t a shark big enough to eat your boat. But, when the genius scientist character in the movie agreed that killing the shark was the only way to prevent dead tourists, we assumed that part was true. The same as we assumed you could really blow up an oxygen tank by shooting it.
So, we killed all the sharks, based on what the make-believe movie told us.
Ah, but that’s one oddball isolated incident. Hey, did you know that after Top Gun, Navy aviator recruitment skyrocketed by as much as 500 fucking percent? Or that the number of kids taking martial arts classes exploded after The Karate Kid? Or that the popularity of the CSI TV shows has resulted in a glut of students going into forensic sciences? Or that I could cite examples of this until you hit your monthly bandwidth cap? How many of you left Fight Club thinking you knew how to make napalm? Which of us haven’t forced a baby to do that wanking motion after watching The Hangover?
“Dude, it’s not funny. You made him do the Nazi salute so much, he does it on his own now. Not cool.”
I know what some of you are already saying: “So, what, because some gullible people do what movies tell them, that means a Batman movie made that guy shoot up the theater? So I suppose watching Bridesmaids made us all start shitting in sinks.”
No. You’re intentionally reaching for examples where it doesn’t happen, and ignoring all of the ones where it does — even if some movie straight up told you to become a mass murderer, it’d be working against a lifetime of society pounding the opposite message into your brain. The point of this article isn’t to pin violence on movies. The point is that it’smuch bigger than that. Because …
#4. Stories Were Invented to Control You
This isn’t some paranoid conspiracy theory — it’s a fundamental part of how human culture came about. Ask yourself: Why do we go watch superhero movies? After all, variations of these stories about brave, superhuman heroes predate recorded history. We used to tell them around campfires before written language even existed.
They were created as a way to teach you how to behave.
Thousands of years ago, when your ancestors were living in tribes and hunting gazelles for food, nobody knew how to read. Even if they could, paper wasn’t a thing, parchment was rare and precious. They had no written historical records, they had no educational system that could devote years to teaching history to the kids.
This was a problem. Once humans started forming civilizations, the guys in charge didn’t just need the next generation of children to know how to fish and hunt, they needed citizens who would fall in line and fight for the tribe. That meant the kids needed to understand the big picture: why preserving the tribe is important, why we hate the tribe across the river, why our tribe is better than that tribe, why it’s important to go off and fight in the next war no matter how scared you are.
“Why don’t we all just pick fruit and have sex together? Oh, they worship a baby-eating rape-demon? Well that changes everything.”
Now, to do this, they could either A) bore the kids to death with a years-long recounting of the history of the tribe, which nobody has probably written down anyway or B) tell them a cool story. They could tell the thrilling tale of Kolgor the Valiant who, when the evil neighboring tribe came to slay all of the women and children, stood alone and fought bravely through the night, with four arrows in his chest, until the enemy retreated in terror. You want to be like Kolgor, don’t you, little one? Otherwise, he will have died in vain.
Clearly “B” is the one that is going to stick in the kid’s brain. It doesn’t matter that the story is either fiction or grossly exaggerated — it gets the job done, it makes the kid conform to be the kind of citizen the tribe needs him to be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — your tribe may very well be better than the one across the river, your real history is probably full of real heroes whose sacrifices were just as important as, if less romantic than, Kolgor the Valiant’s. The tribe didn’t go with the fictional version because they were liars, they went with it because it was the only way for the “truth” to survive.
So while we use the word “myth” these days to mean “a lie that needs to be debunked,” often the myths were simply more efficient versions of the truth. They’re easier to remember, they don’t take as long to tell and they eliminate a lot of the messy ambiguities that can confuse the point. Also, they won’t bore the listener to tears.
“Hey, instead of history notes, I wrote down 716 words that mean ‘dick’.”
The point is, this is why stories were invented — to shape your brain in a certain way. A guy named Joseph Campbell wrote whole books about it, you should read them. These basic stories, these myths of the hero overcoming the odds, the great man who sacrifices himself for the greater good — they’re what make civilization go. In a society, the people and the buildings and the roads are the hardware, mythology is the software.
And while your ancestors had their heroes that they heard about around the campfire, you have Batman, and Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter. And yes, the movies you watched this summer serve the same purpose as those ancient myths. Sometimes this is super obvious (clearly Rocky IV and The Day After Tomorrow are trying to cram a message into your brain with the subtlety of a sweatpants erection). But what’s the message behind James Bond? Or Iron Man?
“There isn’t one!”
That literally isn’t possible.
That’s like saying this sculpture is nothing more than men hugging the thighs of another man, their thumbs gently grazing his testicles.
You see …
#3. The Writer of a Story Always Has an Agenda
Quiz Time: What do these hugely popular hero characters all have in common?
Frodo from The Lord of the Rings
Finn from Adventure Time
Got it yet? They’re all orphans.
And that’s why all orphans wear capes.
That’s kind of weird, right? Do you think that’s a random choice? Do you think the writer just flipped a coin? Or do you think there’s an emotional button that is being pushed there, the writer reaching around the logical part of your brain and triggering something inside you without you knowing it?
That sounds devious, but those little subconscious tricks are Fiction Writing 101 (we covered a bunch of them here). It’s a scary power to entrust someone with, if you think about it. Especially if you, as the audience, don’t pay close attention to what they’re doing. You leave the theater a different person than you were when you came in. It’s a difference in millimeters, sure, but you’re going to watch a thousand hours of the stuff in the course of a year. It builds up.
“I think it’s high time I punched a robot and stared at some titties.”
“What, so you’re trying to tell me there’s some hidden agenda behind the Transformers movies? It’s freaking robots punching each other!”
No, there is no intentional hidden agenda (well, maybe a little), but there is certainly a set of assumptions that the filmmakers are passing on to you. In the case of Transformers, the assumption is that combat is beautiful and exciting, that military hardware is sexy, that destruction is gorgeous and fun and completely free of consequence. And, most importantly, that the solution to all conflict is to be more masculine, powerful, aggressive, confident and destructive than the bad guys.
“But the people already think that! These movies are just giving us what we want!”
Business Stomp … Rated R.
Right, but why do you want that? You think you came out of the womb thinking that military hardware was cool? If you grew up in a real war zone, and didn’t have movies and TV, would you have the same opinion?
I’m not saying Michael Bay is a secret tool of the military industrial complex trying to brainwash you into supporting the next war, no more than the makers of Jaws were trying to wipe out the sharks — they were just trying to make a scary movie, and Michael Bay is just a dude who likes explosions. It doesn’t matter why the message is there — it soaks into your brain either way. This is what everyone misses when debating this stuff — one side says, “Hollywood is trying to brainwash you!” and the other side says, “Michael Bay isn’t smart enough to brainwash an armadillo!” and they’re both missing the point.
This is why, when some people point out how racist the Lord of the Rings stories are (i.e., orcs are evil by virtue of being born orcs, dwarfs are greedy because they are dwarfs, Aragorn is heroic due to his “blood”), it’s both correct and unfair. It’s correct because, yes, that is the way Tolkien’s universe is set up — nobody in the stories hesitates to make sweeping generalizations about a race, and they’re always proven right when they do. Frodo’s magical sword didn’t glow in the presence of enemies, it glowed in the presence of a certain race (orcs). Go write a movie about a hero with a gun that glows in the presence of Arabs. See what happens.
“Seriously, Sting? That’s profiling. And I won’t allow my cutlery to take part in it.”
But it’s also unfair, because Tolkien clearly didn’t sit down and think, “I’m going to increase the net weight of racism in the world in order to firmly establish white dominance! And I’ll do it with elves!” He was just writing what he knew. Of course a guy born in 1892 assumed that Nordic races were evolved and graceful, that certain other races were born savages and that midgets love axes. Hell, he could have been the least racist person he knew, and he’d still be the equivalent of a Klansman today. Whether or not the agenda was intentional is utterly irrelevant.
I can’t emphasize this enough — there is no conspiracy. Yeah, you’ll occasionally have a movie like Act of Valor that is transparently intended to boost military recruitment, but 99 percent of the time, the movie’s “agenda” is nothing more than a lot of creative people passing along their own psychological hang-ups, prejudices, superstitions, ignorance and fetishes, either intentionally or unintentionally. But they are still passed on to you, because that’s what stories are designed to do. Michael Bay feels a certain way about women, and about the role of women in the world, and you will leave his movie agreeing with him just a little bit more than when you came in.
“Dude! There was a homeless family of four living in there!”
Knowing that, it’s even scarier to consider that …
#2. You Were Raised — and Educated — by Pop Culture
Quick quiz: If you get arrested by the cops, how many phone calls are you legally allowed?
One, right? “I want my one phone call” — somewhere there’s a suspect saying that exact phrase to his arresting officer. He may even insist that it’s in the Constitution.
And this is when the cop has to explain that it’s an urban legend, and that he’d already know that if he read Cracked. This criminal, and you, only believe the “one phone call” rule because you saw it in movies and cop shows.
In fact, pretty much everything you know about the criminal justice system came from actors on a glowing rectangular screen. Have you ever been called for jury duty? Did you sit through the morning training session where they have to carefully explain that real trials are not like TV shows?
That’s why movies are so effective at shaping your personality: because you subconsciously assumed that large parts of these fictional stories weren’t fiction. Sure, you knew True Lies was a silly Schwarzenegger action movie, and you knew that, in real life, nobody could really ramp a dirt bike off a Washington, DC, skyscraper. But you didn’t know that the city doesn’t even have skyscrapers at all. Even though the movie was fiction, you didn’t doubt that part, because you had no reason to.
No, seriously, that’s DC’s flatass skyline. You can’t ramp shit there.
Now take this one step further, and think about how many other aspects of your life you’ve only experienced via Hollywood. If you’re from a rural area, how do you know what it’s like to live in the city? Or vice versa? If you’ve never been to Paris, where does your mental image of it come from? Some of you reading this very article loved The Sopranos because its depiction of the mob was so much more “realistic” than all those stylized movies that came before it. How do you know it’s more realistic? What are you comparing it to? All those real mobsters who come over at Thanksgiving?
The reality is that vast piles of facts that you have crammed into your brain basement were picked up from pop culture, and for the most part, you don’t realize that’s where the information came from. This is called source amnesia, and I’ve talked about it before — you know that giraffes sleep standing up, but you’ve long forgotten whether you heard that fact in school or in a tour at the zoo, or saw it in a cartoon. Either way, you will treat that fact as true until something comes along to counter it — this is the entire reason MythBusters is still on the air.
And why they have become rich by telling people shit that seems to require just basic common sense.
OK, so who cares if gas tanks don’t really explode when you shoot them? So what if a lot of your interesting party trivia isn’t accurate?
What, you don’t think this same principle goes for the important stuff?
When you went on your first date, you had a picture in your mind of what that should look like — how both of you should behave, what type of activities couples do together, which one of you should pay, etc. Where did that picture come from? Did you take a dating class in elementary school? Did your parents sit you down and tell you? Bullshit. You saw it in a TV show, or a cartoon, a solid decade before you were even old enough to drive.
“One day, I’ll meet the right grotesquely muscled deliveryman and settle down to a life of kissing on top of washing machines.”
If your parents were poor, where did you get your idea of how rich people live? Where did you get your concept of what success looks like — how successful people dress, or what they drive, or how they decorate their apartment? Hollywood, Hollywood, Hollywood — the only reason you’ve heard of Armani suits is because the 1980 movie American Gigolo launched the brand. The reason you think smoking is cool is because you’ve seen a thousand handsome, smooth leading men smoke cigarettes.
“Not me. My friends and I all dress and think alike out of sheer coincidence.”
In other words, fictional stories shaped your entire world. You will instinctively reject this idea because you hate the thought that anyone but you has made you who you are. But every single point of data will prove you wrong.
“Bullshit! I just watch movies and TV shows for fun! It’s escapism, it lets me turn off my brain and relax while things explode behind Samuel L. Jackson!”
Right, but why does that relax you? Why have you been trained to feel a release of stress when you see a bad guy explode? Why do you prefer that world over your own?
Let me put it another way. “Escapism” and “fantasy” are fun because they let us leave this boring old world and go to a world that we would prefer to live in. And we are defined as a people by those fantasies — after all, we will spend our whole lives trying to make the real world look like the fantasy. Science fiction came first, space travel came later.
Of course, their original thoughts on the matter were pretty stupid, but you get the point.
Mythology still drives us, and defines us. Now stop and ask yourself who we’ve entrusted to write it for us.
Which brings us to the heart of this whole matter …
#1. Everything in Your Brain Is a Story
Let me ask you this:
Why was it so easy to rally Americans around the idea of winning World War II, to the point that we were willing to ration and sacrifice and send an entire generation off to war, when it’s so hard to get us worked up about other things like curing cancer or fixing global warming?
I’ll come back to it in a moment.
So, knowing the history of stories and all that stuff I talked about above, it makes sense that our brains are built to try to process everything we see as a story. We want all of our information packaged this way — it’s the way data has been fed to us for the last thousand generations, it’s how you’ve been absorbing it since the first time your parents read you a bedtime story. And every story needs to have two elements: a defined set of good guys and bad guys, and a neat structure with a beginning, middle and end.
“Can anyone tell me why they were telling the man to squeal like a pig? Anyone?”
The fact that we need everything fed to us like this, and have trouble getting interested in a situation without it, actually makes solving some problems almost impossible.
For instance, the answer to my question above is that we cared about World War II because it was a story: it had villains (Hitler and the rest), it had heroes (the Allies), it had a distinct beginning, middle and end. Cancer doesn’t have any of that — there’s no one guy we can blame for cancer, and “winning the war” against it is actually a series of tiny incremental advancements that may never result in “victory.” Global warming is even worse, because there it looks like the villain is us.
So as a society, our entire process for figuring out and solving problems involves clumsily trying to make a story out of them. When we follow a complicated subject like politics, we need that distinct hero and villain, so we’ll ignore the shortcomings of our guy and amplify the shittiness of their guy, to make them fit that mold. When we hear about a war, it’s almost impossible to think of it in terms of multiple factions all acting in self-interest — we need one side we can root for, usually under the guise of the underdog young rebels overthrowing the evil old empire (i.e., the Arab Spring).
“Look, all I want to know is which side is Han Solo.”
Likewise, we lose interest if our news story doesn’t have a clear beginning, middle and end (in the biz they call this the “narrative bias”). Are American troops still in Afghanistan? How is that going? Do you even know? When’s the last time you checked? We were all on board for the first act of the story (the 9/11 attacks) and the second act (the military goes in and deposes the Taliban), but then the third act (the troops come home to victory parades and everything is back to normal) never came. So, we just kind of forgot about it.
Now here’s the key: This innate urge to shoehorn every single piece of information into a story format is very well known to the people who run political campaigns, or write advertisements, or cover news stories. So, when there is a crisis, they know you need a bad guy. No problem can simply be the result of a flawed system or a bunch of factors that are nobody’s fault (or, God forbid, the result of anything we did — we’re just the audience!). No, there has to be a villain we can pin it on.
Tim Jorgenson of Grand Rapids, Michigan — we’re coming for you.
That’s why, to this day, we’re still trying to figure out who “caused” the economic collapse, as if we’ll find a cabal of a dozen shady bankers in a room who made off with all our money, rather than a flawed system that millions of investors and consumers drove into the ditch because of a steadfast refusal to think five minutes into the future. Look at the last few wars again — we can’t get past the idea that terrorism will end if we just blow the shit out of the bad guys. Why? Because that’s the way it works in the movies. In Star Wars, when the Emperor died, all evil died with him. The same with Sauron, and Voldemort. If we kill/imprison all the drug kingpins, the drugs will go away. Right? Guys?
You can find this in your personal life, too. If something goes wrong at the office, somebody has to get blamed. Everyone goes into ass-covering mode, because they know the bosses will need a villain in their story. When you take on some personal project (a new job, losing weight, whatever), you expect the same three-act structure that you’d see in a movie (see problem, take it on, experience your darkest moment, eventually triumph), and you get depressed when it doesn’t happen (that “triumph” part often never shows up). Why are people always so obsessed with the apocalypse? Because every story has an ending, and the idea that the human “story” can just drag on forever, aimlessly, never progressing toward any particular goal, is just unimaginable. We can’t process it.
The reality is, it will probably still look like this, long after we’ve been exterminated by the robots we designed to protect us.
And our expectations of what these real world stories look like, and how they should play out, are programmed into us by pop culture.
So, yes, for the fucking love of God, movies matter. TV shows matter. Novels matter. They shape the lens through which you see the world. The very fact that you don’t think they matter, that even right now you’re still resisting the idea, is what makes all of this so dangerous to you — you watch movies so you can turn off your brain and let your guard down. But while your guard is down, you’re letting them jack directly into that part of your brain that creates your mythology. If you think about it, it’s an awesome responsibility on the part of the storyteller. And you’re comfortable handing that responsibility over to Michael Bay.
It’s just something to keep in mind, that’s all.
David Wong is the Senior Editor of Cracked.com and has this important message about the giant spider that might be living in your mouth.
For more Wong, check out 5 Ways to Spot a Bullshit Political Story in Under 10 Seconds and 6 Things Rich People Need to Stop Saying.