Truth might be losing

Avatar of Eliot Hertenstein
News Column

For those of us who have taken Theory of Knowledge or a Philosophy class, this question might seem like a can of worms. However, I’m asking it in a more pragmatic sense: how do we determine if something is true or false? Is it good enough for there to be a consensus? What about if most experts agree? Where do we draw the line?

Luckily, our curriculum teaches critical thinking and source evaluation. As students, we often dismiss these lessons as “stating the obvious” – how many times have you had to “OPCVL” an article that was clearly trustworthy or untrustworthy? – but then apply those same skills throughout the day without noticing it. While scrolling Instagram, we evaluate the source of a fact before repeating it. We think before acting on advice from a TikTok. We are rightfully weary of sensationalist headlines, and dismiss articles written by untrustworthy media organizations. We, for the most part, check our sources.

At least, I hope we do. Over the past year, we’ve seen two major events strike the Berkeley Community, both at the cost of critical thinking: one political, one technological. The ongoing conflict in the Middle East has popped the “Berkeley Bubble.” Our community, once unified on most political fronts, is now riddled with infighting, the weapons being articles, Instagram Stories, and other pieces of content. As people are forced to “pick a side,” they move towards media that supports their viewpoint, rejecting anything that disagrees with their “truth.”

Advancing AI technology has only exacerbated this crisis. As convincing synthetic media only gets easier to generate, it gets harder and harder to determine if something is even real, let alone biased. There is also a tipping point, where AI-generated content becomes so good that it’s indistinguishable from reality. Past that point, evidence becomes meaningless. If it’s impossible to know if any video or photo is real, then bad actors can simply dismiss evidence as “AI-generated.” This is already happening. How do we operate a justice system without concrete evidence? How do we operate a society without a justice system? It’s only getting harder to dismiss questions like these.

And, worse of all, our only lifeboat is slowly sinking. Independent journalism as a medium is slowly dying, especially at a local level. While Wordle keeps The New York Times afloat, smaller newspapers continue to close down, struggling to pay their staff as advertising adapts to a digital world. It’s impossible to understate the value of local reporting: without small papers, we have no way of knowing what’s going on in our own communities. A genuine question: have you ever watched a city council meeting in full? Have you ever sat through the entirety of a school board meeting? Have you read through the entirety of complaints filed against BUSD? Have you spent hours researching funding measures before voting? For most people, the answer is no. 

The truth is, we need journalism more than ever. As a community, we are indebted to local news organizations, like Berkeleyside, The East Bay Times, and even the Jacket. If you have one takeaway from this article, it should be the following: support local journalism. By doing what you can, you’re protecting the fabric of our society. The erosion of objective fact is an existential risk, and we are the only ones that can prevent it.