The author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote of his time in a Soviet gulag, “All history is one continuous pestilence. There is no truth and no illusion. There is nowhere to appeal and nowhere to go.” While this expression was borne out of suffering the likes of which most of us will never understand, little could Solzhenitsyn have known that it would perfectly sum up the unsteady, shifting nature of facts in the information age. Is Avril Lavigne dead? Is there any hard evidence to support the case? The fact that there is such heated debate across the battle-hardened killing fields of the internet demonstrates all you need to know; it doesn’t matter if she is dead or not. All that matters is that there are innumerable fonts of wisdom a mere click away that will espouse exactly the opinion you have, half-shaped, in your mind.
The world is of course no stranger to celebrity death rumours – just ask Paul McCartney – but it is only recently, with the advent of the internet and especially smartphones, that we have been able to pick and choose the way we receive information to such an extent. Of course, in the past you could choose whether to read the Guardian or the Daily Mail, for example, depending on your political preferences, but each of those publications would be created by professional journalists to appeal to a broad range of the British public. Yes, they will still present fake news occasionally, but they have a level of credibility required from a curated newspaper presented to the masses.
There are innumerable fonts of wisdom a mere click away that will espouse exactly the opinion you have
However, now most young people get their news from social media, be it Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat. This means that anybody with an internet connection can set themselves up to be a ‘journalist’ and deliver ‘news’ to a global audience and also, much more worryingly, means that people can curate their own news. In other words, a person with specific views, say an extremely right wing conservative who likes to believe in conspiracy theories, can curate for herself a news feed that tells her categorically that Jeremy Corbyn is so stupid he sometimes forgets to breathe, that Theresa May is the second coming of Christ (or third after Thatcher), and that Avril Lavigne has been dead for fourteen years. To the person reading that news feed, all those things are now certainly true – it doesn’t matter what the facts are, all that matters is that person has found other people who proclaim with certainty that her preconceptions are entirely correct.
This is of course an extreme case; most people with some sense can see that both Corbyn and May are intelligent, if flawed, creatures, and that Avril Lavigne is probably still alive, even if her career isn’t. But the scary thing is that even those of us who consider ourselves moderates easily succumb to this self-curation of news. It is not a conscious process, and is all too easy to slip into. We are all becoming the product of our own prejudices – allowing them to shape our ‘news’ rather than the other way around. There will always be a voice on the internet that claims with absolute certainty what we have always thought, and that creates a world in which we shape our own reality; the truth of the world shifts to fit our musings and we each become isolated in our own certain knowledge of the news. Of course this has benefits – I won’t have to tolerate anybody saying that Melissa likes wearing dresses whereas Avril liked trousers, and equally they won’t have to hear me blabbering about how if Melissa was going to take on Avril Lavigne’s identity, she would probably acquiesce to the deceased’s preferred clothing style. But of course, you don’t need me to tell you whether the epidemic of self-inflicted propaganda is good or bad; you have a plethora of other people on your timeline to tell you what to think about that. Just, whoever you like or follow or subscribe to, remember that that is no truth and no illusion. There is nowhere to appeal and nowhere to go.