In a newspaper recently I read an editorial about "the L word," the L word being, in this instance, "Liar."
Apparently it's rude in politics to call someone a liar. I was actually not aware of this. I thought you were supposed to call liars by their name. Isn't to do otherwise a lie? I understand the concept of "spin" and being selective about which facts you offer an uninformed sucker, and even the term "intentionally misleading." But what about lies? Do they exist anymore in politics?
I had thought the internet would solve all this. How can anyone lie when the truth is just a Google search away? But I was very, very wrong. The "fact checkers" on both sides tend to explain how one side's lie is a misunderstanding, or a misstatement, while the other side's lie is sinister and cunning. The problem is that "truth" is elastic in the right hands.
This reminds me of a catchy song from my Christian upbringing, in the vein of the Jackson 5:
Stretching the truth is telling a lie
Angels are honest, that's why they can fly
The irony here is that, as far as I'm aware, honesty is not responsible for the flight of angels. This style of selective, catchy talking points from the candidates over the past few months was the real problem for me. During the debates, a candidate would couch a lie about the other candidate in the form of a fact check. They'd use their rebuttal time going back and forth saying stuff like "my esteemed colleague is misinformed on that last point, I never said the word [insert word here]."
The primary two words in contention from the debates, as far as I am aware, were "terrorism" and "bankruptcy." Obama asserted that Romney said he "wanted Detroit to go bankrupt," and Romney asserted that Obama didn't call the attack on the embassy "terrorism" early enough.
These were just the most obvious and superfluous contentions. There were plenty more assertions made by each man about what the other man's policy positions may or may not be.
So I watched, powerless, as the assertions continued to pile up
This is where things got really frustrating for me during the debates. When the candidates would say "just Google it, man," I couldn't. As a minor league political junkie, I've always tried to play the fact check game, and this year I couldn't. And so I watched, powerless, as the assertions continued to pile up.
At one point, Romney said people could just look at his website to see what Obama was saying about his math wasn't true, and Obama said that he had looked at Romney's website, and that the numbers just didn't add up.
I love this mental image of the candidates firing up Internet Explorer 6 and browsing to each other's websites. Calculators in hand, they crunch the numbers and scratch their heads.
"Oh my, these don't any make sense! And the folks in the middle class will be hardest hit. The American people must know!"
What scares me is that the existence of the internet, assumed to hold the unvarnished truth at Google.com, might merely lend an air of credibility to what the candidates say, as opposed to helping rebut it.
"How could they possibly lie," the middle class voter asks himself, "when the fact-check is just a click away?"
Either Romney and Obama assume that we won't actually Google it, or that if we do we'll find conflicting statements and end up just as confused as when we started. And anyway, Obama told me he Googled it, and Romney has Obama's website in his favorites, and Romney's voice is so velvety smooth and Obama's speech patterns are so rousing and... eh, why bother.
The post-debate debriefs from the major networks score on posture, force of delivery, intonation, relatability, and pandering — "Hoo boy," they say, "did you see the way that guy got up off of his stool?" They do rapid-fire "fact checks," but this discussion turns to which candidate stretched facts the most effectually. The fact-checking debate correspondent is broadcasting from the "spin room," after all.
My main man Neil Postman used some big words to describe this phenomenon in Amusing Ourselves to Death:
"If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude."
The hope is that our culture's shift to the internet as its primary medium for information dispersal can reverse this trend, that we will indeed "Google it." But Google's algorithm for authority is still that of credibility, in the form of incoming links and popularity, over reality. A search for "Santorum" can quickly help demonstrate this, and I hear Paul Ryan's abs are more popular than his budget these days.
Twitter's primary metric is freshness and retweetability — the latest, funniest tweet about the debate is the most relevant one. On Reddit, curated information can be dispersed rapidly and widely, but it can also be censored surprisingly effectively.
I do still think the internet is the great digital hope for facts, but for now it trends too far toward mob rule and transience.
In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr blames, in part, the effectiveness of modern information retrieval for our inability to parse it:
"As the technologies for data processing improve, as our tools for searching and filtering become more precise, the flood of relevant information only intensifies... Information overload has become a permanent affliction, and our attempts to cure it just make it worse."
Thanks to our difficulty in parsing out the truth, the "facts" in contention are now a mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They're paintballs, used to win points, but not arguments. And before we can settle on a winner, the candidates are on to a newer, slippier assertion.
Despite all this bellyaching, I'm not an undecided voter. I do believe one candidate has better ideas, and that the other guy lies about facts more often. But the debates, and the coverage of the debates on television and newspapers, did nothing to help me reach this conclusion. It's silly of me to blame Google for this, because it theoretically can't touch me during this year with "no internet," but when I see CNN break down a debate with random tweets and online polls, I still feel like taking a shower and quitting democracy altogether.
What I'd love to see, someday, is a debate of ideas
What I'd love to see, someday, is a debate of ideas, not a contest to see who can stretch the truth the furthest without it snapping. Unfortunately, ideas need facts to be tested. And so we're stuck back where we started.
Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.