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Everyone Has Their Own Facts Now

May 22nd, 2024 | 3 min. read

By Patrick Miller


This post is part of a series exploring Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death chapter by chapter. You need not read the book or previous points to appreciate this one. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here, part 6 here, and part 7 here. In this essay, I will respond to Chapter 7: “Now… this.”

Writing in 1985, well before the popular advent of cable news, 24/7 news, news tickers, and everything most people pretend to despise about modern news, Postman observed that the news of his day had already transmuted into a jumbled form of incoherent entertainment. The main job of the news was not to inform people, provide nuance, or encourage deeper reflection on any given topic—it was to bounce from thing to thing without logical connection.

I wasn’t alive in 1985, but I grew up watching this sort of news. Anchors bouncing from a murder to a puppy puff piece without mourning the former or explaining how it might be connected to the latter. Postman writes that TV features “a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville.”

Of course, the problem has gotten worse. Half of Americans report that they retrieve their news from the great morass of contextless incoherence: social media. The odds of leaping from magic diet to mass shooting to surfing dog to influencer diatribe are high. The question is: What does this approach do to our thinking about serious topics? Postman’s answer in 1985 seems even more apropos in 2024.

“Everyone had an opinion about [every] event, for in America everyone is entitled to an opinion, and it is certainly useful to have a few when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions.”

Indeed, our very concept of “being informed” is changed by this context. We become misled in our opinions, not because someone lied to us (though plenty of that happens online) but because online information is disjointed, superficial, and contextless. It creates what Postman calls “the illusion knowledge” while leading its consumers further away from actual knowledge. As a result, Postman writes, “we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed.”

The problem is that you can correct ignorance. “But what shall we do,” asks Postman, “if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”

Ignorance masquerades as knowledge every day in the era of social media. For example, A friend of mine was discussing a matter of great import with a different friend. Both are highly intelligent and well respected. But not long into the conversation, it broke down because neither could agree on basic facts. When my friend supported his opinion with evidence, his interlocutor discredited his sources. He then supplied own counterevidence—which happened to be propaganda! It quickly became clear that, for every point, there would be some "information" to counterpoint with. My friend's opponent wasn’t informed, but he was armed with information.

That is the nature of the internet: there is a surplus of information, which makes all information less valuable. In the past, I’ve called this “information inflation,” because just as printing currency devalues existing currency, the creation of more information devalues existing information.

The internet is an information inflation machine. Between 1999 and 2000, the amount of information created by humans doubled in a single year. And the following year, it happened again.

Of course, calling all of this “information” is misleading. Perhaps we should call it content, because it’s not all equal and it’s not all equally true. But that’s part of the problem. What happens when you take a populous whose idea of an informed person is someone capable of juggling massive amounts of incoherent and contextless information (by "juggling" I mean, sharing it online with an emotive, self-justifying passion) and submerge them in a limitless morass of content?

You will find yourself in intractable impasses, in which even intelligent people cannot be persuaded. For that, you need people who have not adjusted to incoherence. People who can research a topic, reflect upon it, and address it with nuance. People who can follow a logical train of thought, and allow the logic to confront (and even correct) their own errors. 

But as it is, no one is really up to the task—at least not without a great force of will. 

In the past, I’ve challenged pastors to teach on media literacy, but the more I reflect, the more I realize that while it’s important to help people evaluate headlines and sources, all of that work will mean little if we don’t train people to think long thoughts, to evaluate those thoughts, and do so in a way that is less emotive and more logical. 

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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