Last weekend, Pope Francis was caught wearing a trendy white puffer jacket adorned with a low-hanging crucifix. For many who saw the image on social media, the first thought could well have been ‘Balenciaga’ and there may not have been a second. Francis is, after all, a progressive, and they wear this kind of stuff. If the Church of England is happy hosting drag shows, why wouldn’t the Vatican finally embrace the ecclesial fashion fantasies of Federico Fellini’s 1972 Roma?
That the Holy See did no such thing and that the photographic image was generated by Midjourney AI is irrelevant. Hundreds of thousands of people saw the image, blinked, and then moved on to the next bit of content down on their timelines. They may have realized their error only later scrolling past a headline remarking that hundreds of thousands of people were duped by the AI Pope, a headline written by the kind of journalist who will soon themselves be replaced by AI.
But my writing these two paragraphs and you reading them is already more attention than the event deserved. There’ll be dozens of similar consciousness-altering items in the news today, dozens more tomorrow, and we simply don’t have the time or cognitive capacity to evaluate the veracity of them all. And this is a problem because I don’t want to be one of the gullible masses duped into believing that the US blew up the Nord Stream pipeline, that the Great Reset is a thing, or whatever fake news the media (read that last bit in your best Donald Trump voice) concocts next. I could diligently read the misinformation experts’ views of these events, but I tend to lose interest in the events by the time they are published. I could also get off Twitter altogether, but, erm, I’m too vain.
This calls for drastic measures. Anticipating that the post-truth condition will only deepen, I have decided to believe nothing new from now on. I will believe nothing unless I’m there to see it with my own eyes. I mean this seriously: if you want me to think that the Earth isn’t flat, you’d better have a hot air balloon ready to show me the curvature of your so-called ‘oblate spheroid’. This isn’t merely some ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ that would leave room for checking sources or getting second opinions, I’m simply not going to believe anything that doesn’t happen directly to me.
This decision has been years in the making. I started mistrusting the papers a long time ago and I developed a habit of challenging every piece of news – propaganda, I mean – served by the BBC because of its at once left- and right-wing bias. This was entertaining to start but time-consuming: for every ‘fact’ I read in the Guardian, I found one in the Telegraph and another in the Spectator. Vice-versa also, although I quickly learned that one Guardian ‘truth’ is worth two in The Times and about three-quarters of one in the New York Times, which made maintaining a fair and balanced diet difficult. Worrying that I would end up in an echo chamber, I vowed to read the Guardian less in each of my new years’ resolutions.
All this eventually became tiresome because it’s hard to remain seriously sceptical of politicians fiddling their expenses, airliners crashing, or the kind of tedious dog-bites-man stories that regularly make the front pages. Covid brought some much-needed relief, tickling my desire for seriousness, measurable factuality, and unequivocal certainties. And perhaps I would have enjoyed finding alternatives, except that there weren’t any because an army of fact-checkers did a better job of explaining them away than I could have dreamt of. On that note, the old me perversely enjoyed the #TwitterFiles hearing in US Congress which explained that the state worked hand-in-glove with media companies to suppress free speech – harmful speculation – but the new me won’t be watching it.
It’s nothing novel that every fact comes with evidence to its contrary. Indeed, this was once the bread and butter of science, research, and debate. In February, I interviewed Toby Green and Thomas Fazi about their book The Covid Consensus, a pandemic post-mortem which presents a crushing account of the consequences of lockdowns. The book is filled with hundreds of examples, citations, stats, and studies. No one would be capable of fact-checking every one of them but the writer and activist Richard Seymour has repeatedly accused Green and Fazi of playing loose with facts, proposing a drastically different appraisal of the health, social, and economic outcomes of the pandemic.
Fair enough, I thought, that’s the debate. I began by reading up on the example of Sweden, the European odd-one-out that did not impose compulsory lockdowns because both sides claimed that it supported their position. I realised, however, that this was futile because Green and Fazi measured a different aspect of Sweden than Seymour and, even if apples and oranges could be adequately compared, this one exercise would convince neither. And here, the terms of the discussion changed. In one regime, the truth of the argument hinged on adjudicating thousands of complex claims and counterclaims, which each side could contest with a long list of the ‘what abouts’. In another, the performance of trying to settle the score was merely padding to an ideologically predetermined outcome.
In the event, I sided with Green and Fazi while Seymour went on to charge them with “moral idiocy”. But the new me wouldn’t be so naïve to get drawn into such discussions because they have been fruitless since the dawn of time. Asked to provide an example to support this last assertion, Chat GPT suggested that a disagreement between Sparta and Athens on public health measures was one of the key issues that sparked the Peloponnesian War. I won’t believe this, of course, and neither will I concern myself with the robot’s mention of “control of trade routes and access to resources”, casually listed among the conflict’s other causes. But if we take 2016 as the year which ushered in the post-truth regime, and the 5th century BC as pre-truth, the Enlightenment project flames out into insignificance.
Of course, there’s nothing phenomenal about AI’s counterfactual hallucinations. Artists have been rendering barely believable fictions since an art school opened in Lascaux and the success of Christianity can be at least partly attributed to its investment in disinformation through images. Museums are filled with paintings of fantastic beasts and angels, so voluminous and elaborate that they may as well be true. But I won’t believe any new images either, however convincing you think your snap of the Loch Ness monster is. How could I, when Sergey Loznitsa’s 2018 fiction (?) film Donbass which showed the first stage of the Russo-Ukrainian war as a sophisticated false-flag operation choreographed for the camera foretold 2022’s massacre in Bucha?
The doctrine of nihil novi would have spared me moments of cognitive dissonance and discomfort, too. Take, for example, the ‘academically rigorous’ journal The Conversation explaining that I misunderstood consumer price inflation by trusting my own experience at the supermarket till and that “such misperceptions can hurt government popularity deeply.” Reading the article tomorrow, I would simply not believe it and laugh its technocratic dystopia off.
Had I learnt my lesson earlier, I could also have avoided some serious moral peril. Because I initially believed the outright false, according to PolitiFact, reports that the US race riots of 2020 claimed the lives of some 38 civilians and injured 1000 police officers, rather than the understandable, also according to PolitiFact, 19 and 700, I formed an ethically flawed understanding of the events. Because of this deficit, I held the reprehensible view that the data kid David Shor shouldn’t have been fired for his tweet proposing that non-violent protests have historically been more likely to achieve their goals. Rather than agonise over this, I could have enjoyed myself on the sofa watching the January 6th Capitol Hill insurrection with popcorn and a copy of Osterweil’s In Defense of Looting.
Just imagine all the anguish and anxiety, let alone time that I will spare myself by simply refusing to take any such ideas to heart. Taking my friends and neighbours as evidence, I will continue to believe that most people are decent and kind. Confronted with the news that a few days ago, activists in New Zealand waving the rainbow flag assaulted a woman in the name of equality, I will shrug my shoulders in disbelief. Surely, no one would do such a thing, so there’d be no need for the Guardian to make excuses and suggest that maybe she deserved it. And no longer will I lose sleep over revelations of the UK Government’s horrendous attitude to its populace emerging from the Hancock files. Like most media did the first time around, I’ll give the question a wide berth. You see how this works?