Truth is the first casualty of politics in the digital age

September 23, 2016

By Greg Joslyn - Head of Content

“A lie will go ‘round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”

Consider that this quote was published in 1859. The Pony Express connecting the Eastern U.S. to California was just starting up and it would be another five years before the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable permanently connected Europe and North America.

Now fast-forward 150 years to a world encircled by fiber-optics and a constellation of satellites. You thought the odds against the truth were long in the mid-Nineteenth Century? Today they’re astronomical!

This sad state of play has never been more clear than in the current presidential race, where various distortions, prevarications, misrepresentations and outright fabrications have been propagating seemingly at the speed of light.

The traditional fact-checkers are doing their best to keep up with the litany of lies. PolitiFact.com, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker and other print outlets are doing yeoman’s work. The executive editor of the New York Times recently stated that the Gray Lady will call out objective falsehoods as such in its stories. And, refreshingly, one cable network, CNN, has even taken to running chyrons under video segments that correct what the candidate is saying in real time.

But if traditional media is at least trying to keep the candidates honest, social media is the wild, wild west of bad information. Who is checking the veracity of that dubious meme shared by your daughter on Instagram? Who’s the publisher of that sketchy website your uncle linked to on Facebook? The truth is, nobody knows. Worse, it’s all free. And the only thing that travels faster than a lie is a lie that costs nothing to share.

So where does that leave us? For fans of the truth (and in a democracy that should be everyone) the 2016 presidential race is probably beyond salvation. But maybe a backlash begins once the dust settles on Nov. 9—a return to quality content that has been, you know, edited and fact-checked ahead of time.

That would be good news for organizations doing great journalism, but the challenge will be crafting financially sustainable distribution models that allow their content to be consumed anywhere and on any platform. But they better move fast or 2020 will roll around and they’ll still be pulling on their boots.