Fake News Isn’t The Greatest Threat To Democracy. Total Transparency Is.

Staying afloat in today’s flood of information means understanding the subtle relationship between transparency and trust. And it is not what you might think ― the more transparency, the more trust.

The reality is the opposite: when everything is exposed, all information is equal, and equally useless. When no one knows things that others don’t know, and there are no institutions or practices that can establish and preserve credibility ― as is threatened today with the new dominance of peer-driven social media ― then there is no solid ground for a democratic discourse.

We all need to keep secrets. You can’t be an effective actor in the world if you expose your knowledge, plans and preferences to all people. If you reveal all your knowledge, you also reveal all your ignorance, and if you reveal all your desires, you reveal what you don’t have and what you might be fearful of losing. So the vaunted ideal of complete transparency in government is a massive confusion.

If you reveal all your knowledge, you also reveal all your ignorance, and if you reveal all your desires, you reveal what you don’t have and what you might be fearful of losing.

Leaders, democratic just as much as autocratic, need to keep secrets if they are going to be effective. There is an obvious reason why the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps its new employment rate statistics and other economic indicators secret until a precise moment when everybody gets to learn them at the same time.

But leaders also need to be trusted when they make statements, promises and denials. They can’t divulge too much and they can’t lie too much. Very often saying nothing is the best policy, for obvious reasons, but they must also communicate often with both their people and their opponents. So as far as I know, nobody has ever devised a formula or recipe for how much to communicate and when. We want leaders we can trust, but we also want to trust them to keep secrets when it is in our interest to do so. The problem is, not all leaders understand the nuance.

U.S. President Donald Trump is one of them. The leader of the free world apparently has no concern for his credibility. He is constantly caught in demonstrable falsehoods, which he never acknowledges and for which he never apologizes. And his supporters seem all too willing to say they believe his whoppers, or just forgive him, or even applaud his disruption of ambient trust. But what will happen when he gets caught telling them whoppers about what he is doing for them? He will be tempted, of course, to pile on more lies in order to get out of his tight spot, but a rich vein of wisdom running through all the lore and literature of the world is that such lying cannot be shored up indefinitely with more lying.

Sooner or later Trump will run out of allies, time or money. We just don’t want to be victims when his house of cards collapses, as it will.

Eventually, the truth overpowers the lies and the result is ruin. Trump seems to be unaware of this. He seems to be like the gambler who thinks that by just doubling his bets he’s bound to regain his losses eventually. We know that this is a fallacy; sooner or later he will run out of allies, time or money. We just don’t want to be victims along with Trump when his house of cards collapses, as it will.

Before Aesop made it memorable with his fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, people already tacitly knew that telling cannot survive without trusting. But recently, the environment has undergone a transformation. With electronic media ― not just the internet, but cell phones, transistor radios, cable television ― the “friction” has gone out of the task of information-gathering, and this new transparency has set off a free-for-all of exploration and exploitation, an arms race of ploy and counterploy. Some of the moves in this competition are systematically self-defeating, the most obvious being Trump’s constant “fake news” accusations, accompanied by fake news. He’s like a used car dealer warning all his potential customers about the unreliability of used car dealers. It works for a while. So do threats and promises designed to keep one’s team members in line. But in the long run, mutual trust is the only antidote to universal leakage.

We used to take the word of our religious leaders, science, The New York Times or some other established authorities as “gospel,” but we have become warier, thanks to overreaching by the authorities and even more by attacks on the authorities by their enemies. Are we being told the truth, or are we being played, seduced, nudged, hypnotized? Now we have had our trust betrayed so often that we tend to think that only the direct testimony of our senses is worth relying on, but that, too, is being eroded by science and technology. Is this photographic evidence, or a bit of undetectable computer graphics fiction?

Are we being told the truth, or are we being played, seduced, nudged, hypnotized?

As usual with arms races, both in human warfare and in natural selection, advances in offense are cheaper than the defensive responses to counter them. This is especially true in epistemology, the world of fact, knowledge and belief. No matter how carefully you, or your organization, gathers, tests and evaluates evidence, your reputation for objectivity and truth-telling can be shattered with a few well-aimed lies by your opponents. With your reputation shattered, your goods, however valuable in fact, will be almost unsalable. Skepticism and doubt is cheap, confidence is expensive. This asymmetry is a major problem, and it will take patient and unrelenting effort to restore confidence in sources that deserve confidence.

An interesting wrinkle of evolutionary theory relevant to gauging our current credibility problem is the phenomenon of “costly signaling,” a set of insights first devised and defended by Amotz Zahavi many years ago. Many animals “tell” would-be predators “don’t bother trying to catch me ― I’m too fast and strong for you. Save your energy and go after a weaker prey,” and many predators are wise enough to follow this advice ― but only when the adviser can demonstrate credibility by a costly display. With social media providing essentially cost-free signaling, there is plenty of grounds for skepticism: why bother speaking truth to power when speaking falsehood to power (or about power) is easier and often just as effective? But there’s hope, too.

If we can inculcate a healthy appreciation for the principle of costly signaling, and for its implications ― speakers must earn our credence, and doubters are best ignored until they have made their demonstrations of credibility ― we can, perhaps, restore something of a ranking of reliability, which will be a valuable asset indeed, so valuable that those who have a high ranking will protect it fervently, by telling the truth. Those who don’t like the truth will of course redouble their attempts to destroy the credibility of the truth-tellers, but if people are made alert to the ways of testing these attacks, we may be able to return the world to a more stable and transmissible set of sources of reliable information.

We should settle for knowing less than everything about everything, but knowing enough to make informed choices.

Part of the cost of false attacks on reliable sources should be heavy and unremitting condemnation of those who get caught doing this, along with penalties imposed on them in the coin of whatever matters to them. If they value their honor, they should be dishonored; if they value prestige, they should be ridiculed and belittled; if they value privacy, they should be exposed.

We should not expect any such policies to be self-sustaining. For instance, the ploy of patiently building reputation in order to exploit it in a master stroke of deception will always be attractive to some, and the internal security of organizations will always be vulnerable to moles. Aesop’s fable about the education of the country mouse by the city mouse ― and of the city mouse by the country mouse ― continues today, with the stakes raised.

Once we set aside the impossible, indeed undesirable, ideal of total transparency, we can start rebuilding islands of reliable trust. These already exist by the hundreds of thousands in local communities and larger political units, where public servants and private citizens have earned the respect of their neighbors and fellow citizens for their knowledge and honesty. What we need to do is enlarge these islands, patiently building from small to large, creating resilient webs of trust to replace those that have been dissolving in the onslaught of the media. We should settle for knowing less than everything about everything, but knowing enough to make informed choices, the very foundation of democracy.

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