Aspen Ideas Fest: Did you lie today?
How much misinformation and bogus information is flying around on the internet and in general today?
Discussions about fake news, cyber trolls and outright political lies were at the forefront of multiple discussions Monday at the Ideas Festival, where the title of one seminar didn’t mince words: “Lying, Bullshitting, and the Meaning of Truth.”
Harmless white lies or an innocent fib are part of the human condition, noted essayist Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, whose “Why We Lie” article was the cover story in this month’s National Geographic magazine (the story starts with an anecdote about James Hogue, the notorious con man who illegally built a shack on the back of Aspen Mountain and was sentenced to three to six years in prison by a Pitkin County judge in March).
“It turns out lying is a very common human trait,” Bhattacharjee said, noting that people on average lie twice a day.
For sure, harmless lies are prevalent — like telling a friend you have just left for a party, while you actually just got out of the shower — “but we’re also telling the bigger lies,” he said.
Those bigger transgressions can come in the form of “political lies in order to create an alternate reality so they can create power,” Bhattacharjee explained.
A similar scenario can play out on the playground with children “who do the same things,” he said.
With children, however, lying is a natural progression that demonstrates they are developing a theory of mind, meaning they are beginning to grasp the way other people think.
But the bigger stage that is national politics, social media and public discourse is where the prevalence of misinformation has grave consequences, Bhattacharjee said.
“It’s really interesting what social media and (President Donald) Trump have done. … They’re sort of a Hurricane Katrina in the lying landscape, and they have shaken the boundaries of how much lying is acceptable,” he said.
If the same lies are peddled to an “army of believers,” those lies “can live on forever,” Bhattacharjee said.
In an earlier session Monday, “Is the Internet a ‘Gift from God?’,” Aspen resident and venture capitalist Jerry Murdock said the internet “in its current forum is like a mirror: It’s reflecting back on who we are.”
He called on internet users to “self-police” anti-social behavior and bogus stories online.
“This is where we need to say we need to get more sophisticated,” he said.
One of the biggest downsides from lying comes when the believers realize they have been fleeced, author, filmmaker and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. said in interview with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.
“When the utopia that Trump articulated and persuaded people to believe doesn’t materialize, what’s going to happen?” he said. “What are the people in West Virginia going to do?”
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