Truth and Consequences: This Newsletter Theme

It is now a commonplace to say that our societies face a crisis of fact and truth, but it does not lessen the gravity of the problem.  Phrases like ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ are now a part of our vocabulary.  The insurrection of January 6 is now falsely attributed to Antifa. Q-Anon is alive and well.  As many have asked, how can we reach the rough compromises needed for life together if we cannot agree on even the most basic sets of facts, particularly in situations where the stakes are high.

Of course, misinformation to influence public opinion and to steer individual behavior is not new.  But the problem seems particularly acute, in part because of how transformative technologies such as social media and the use of descriptive, diagnostic, predictive and prescriptive analytics are impacting the way we as individuals and communities see and respond to the world.  Indeed, misinformation is itself part of a larger phenomenon where the lines blur between our brick-and-mortar and on-line worlds. In those interstices, what is real and what is not?

Hence the theme for this month’s newsletter.  The various faith traditions and forms of spirituality purport to honor truth and wisdom; what then do they have to say about the issues raised by the impact of transformative technologies on truth?  As we prepared for this issue of the newsletter, we came up with a short list of matters that the various traditions might address:

  • Belief, opinion, truth, and untruth in real and online life. Can meaningful distinctions be made between these concepts, particularly when we switch constantly between offline and online, virtual worlds in which we can create alternative identities and lives?
  • Moderating online content.  What do the faith traditions have to say about preventing misinformation, particularly misinformation spread through large platforms?
  • Communities, real and virtual, faith-based and secular, as bearers of truth and untruth. Many faith traditions are predicated on communities of faithful people and recognize the need for most people to be in community with shared commitments and language.  What insights do those traditions bring as we decry the fragmentation of people into bubbles with little interaction with others?
  • Freedom of expression. In many societies, there is a recognition that part of human dignity is tied to one’s ability to express one’s views, beliefs, and positions.  At the same time, this freedom is often understood to stand in tension over and against the need to prevent some forms of misinformation.  How do the various traditions view this tension?
  • Synthetic media and its implications for truth. We are rapidly entering a world where we will not be able to tell the difference between human and synthetic speech, writings, and faces.  Seeing will no longer be believing.  Can the faith traditions help us navigate this new world?

The list is certainly not exhaustive, and no one issue in a newsletter can even begin to identify, let alone address, all aspects of the matter, so we expect we will need to revisit them in future newsletters.  Nevertheless, this month we begin this task with the following articles:

  • In an interview, Charles Arthur, former technology editor for The Guardian, journalist and speaker, surveys the landscape of technology and points out concerns about the impact of algorithms on our conceptions of what is truth, as well as the impact of the technology on traditional journalism
  • Michael Sacasas, one of our newest Founding Members, discusses how the current media ecology has transformed our news sources from narratives to databases, and the challenge that poses to our usual tools for discerning truth.
  • Founding member Gil Berenstein introduces us to the new world of synthetic media and discusses how it stands to become ubiquitous in our daily experience
  • David Brenner, board chair of AI&F, puts on his legal cap and proposes a taxonomy of truth, belief, opinion, and lies informed in part by the law’s approach to those matters.

As mentioned, these articles are just the beginning of a wider and deeper exploration of these matters, not only through this newsletter, but also through the various activities AI & Faith is planning.  We look forward to continuing this conversation.

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