Constructing belief in the post-truth era.

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What happens when you detach information from materiality? It’s a question I’ve been considering in my work for a few years, and one that digital humanists and archivists know to be important. Hilary Jenkinson believed the archivist ‘is perhaps the most selfless devotee of Truth the modern world produces’ [Jenkinson, 1947], because they are unobtrusive custodians of the real. But if we really have passed through a Baudrillardian mirror, and the image is now superior to the written word, what appears online takes on a new authority. What does that mean to how we construct belief?

My stepdaughter is 8 years old, and a huge Minecraft fan. She now only plays intermittently, and when she was visiting a month or two ago I asked her why she didn’t play on it quite so much anymore. She asked me had I heard of Herobrine. Herobrine is the product of a Creepypasta story: he appears in worlds constructed by Minecraft players, manipulating them and sometimes deleting them entirely. He takes on the persona of Steve, but has white eyes that glow in the darkness. He stalks players across the digital landscape.

There are myriad discussion threads on the subject of Herobrine. Minecraft players seem to delight in perpetuating his “ghost story”, particularly to new users of the game. My stepdaughter had obviously discussed him with other players and this had led her to question the point of playing if Herobrine was likely to delete the worlds she had laboriously creating. Also, I suspect, she was a little afraid that he would loom out of the Minecraft mist one day whilst she was playing, and scare her.

It struck me then that there was no means for my stepdaughter of truly checking the veracity of Herobrine’s existence. The discussion threads on which his existence is disputed are without reliable authorial attribution. Her pleasure and enjoyment of the game had been fundamentally affected by the myth.

Herobrine was probably influenced by the Slender Man phenomenon.

In 2014, two 12-year-old girls lured their friend into the woods in their hometown of Waukesha in Wisconsin, and stabbed her 19 times. They did this as a sacrifice to Slender Man, a character who was created for an Internet competition on the website Something Awful.

The idea was to see who could use their Photoshop skills to create the best new mythological creature…In the first of two photos, an unnaturally tall and spectral being in a prim black suit is seen in the shadows behind a group of young teenagers, followed by the vague caption: “‘We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them…’ -1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.”

Knudsen’s second photo was stamped with a fake library seal…several children smile towards the camera, while those in the back gather around a tall figure in a suit, summoning them with long and eerie arms. This time, the caption reads: “One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as ‘The Slender Man’…Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence. – 1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986.”

Slender Man: From Horror Meme to Inspiration for Murder | Rolling Stone Magazine, 2016

The development of the Slender Man meme was taken up by users of YouTube and 4chan, and a participatory relationship developed around the story. By 2011, the Slender Man had acquired Creepypasta status. The myth was made so real that Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, were prepared to stab one of their peers to death as a sacrifice to him. Both girls are to be tried in Court as adults, because the judicial system deems them capable of recognising right from wrong.

But are they? Once the usual referentials are discarded, and a perfect double of the real exists in the digital domain, how do we distinguish truth from fiction? If we are left with the simulacrum, what happens if the simulacrum tells lies?

There is a growing call for the dissemination of misinformation to be policed more effectively, particularly on sites like Facebook. In light of the recent US election result, Mark Zuckerberg has gone on record to dismiss the idea that Donald Trump’s victory was as a result of fake news stories perpetuated on social media.

Facebook wants to publish news and profit from it, but it does not want to act as a traditional news organisation would by separating fiction from facts using human editorial judgment. By relying on algorithms Facebook privileges engagement, not quality. It acts as a publisher without accepting the burdens of doing so. Yet, as Aldous Huxley noted, “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored”.

The Guardian view on social media: facts need to be labelled as facts | The Guardian, Editorial, 2016

What happens when the only source of information available to the majority is online, and that information is untrue? The least worst scenario is it drives people away from something that they enjoy. In worst case scenarios it leads to murder; and perhaps persuades a nation to vote in someone who espouses alt-right sympathies.

According to The New York Times, we have entered the age of post-truth politics:

According to the cultural historian Mary Poovey, the tendency to represent society in terms of facts first arose in late medieval times with the birth of accounting…it presented a type of truth that could apparently stand alone, without requiring any interpretation or faith on the part of the person reading it…accounting was joined by statistics, economics, surveys and a range of other numerical methods. But even as these methods expanded, they tended to be the preserve of small, tight-knit institutions, academic societies and professional associations who could uphold standards.

The Age of Post-Truth Politics | The New York Times, 2016

The problem is our critical faculties are continuously challenged by the material with which we are presented. That isn’t exclusive to the digital domain, of course: lies can be presented in ink as well as code. But the challenge is that if something like Slender Man, or Herobrine, becomes a participatory event in which people engage; when they create and develop in order to entrench a lie and become part of its origin story, and subsequent consumers of that material have no recourse to other sources of information that might contradict these myths, then how we construct our truth is fundamentally flawed. In addition, the critical skills that are essential to determine truth and authenticity are increasingly lacking.

I started this post with an anecdote about my stepdaughter’s use of Minecraft to construct alternative worlds for herself. We do the same thing with truth: we build it, block by block, and fashion our own hierarchies of understanding. Sometimes, the resulting edifice is destroyed by a lie. In a post-truth era, we should be careful on what foundations we rest our understanding upon.

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