You’ve seen them before, and you’re seeing them more and more often – the stories, images and memes look so convincing, but are just slightly off. Maybe it’s Pope Francis in a big, puffy coat, or Vladimir Putin getting arrested. And while we might think, “I’d never fall for that!”, we will. The line between truth and “truth” certainly pre-dates artificial intelligence and social media – think of all the urban legends, bubbemeises and “just-so-stories” you heard growing up.
Social media and AI have made it easier to create and share these inaccuracies, but that inclination is not new. It’s actually a feature, not a bug, of our human evolution. For most of our history, it was smart to generally trust what someone was telling us. Not always, and not 100%, but on balance, it was better to trust someone, unless there was a specific reason not to. Otherwise, we’d need proof of every single statement, which would be mentally exhausting.
The problem is that we don’t know if something is true or not until we hear or see it, and once we hear or see it, we become anchored to what we’ve learned – whether it’s accurate or not. Once that happens, it can be very hard to move away from that perspective, especially when it’s based on a kernel of truth, and reinforced by a social component. We tend to trust the people we listen to, and much of our knowledge comes from others’ retelling, rather than our own first-hand experience. And often, what we hear about or see in that retelling is something we’re already predisposed to believe.
So while we might want to call out the hypocrisy of the crazy ideas others hold, Matthew Yglesias cautions: “People are prone to bias-confirmation and groupthink, and the mass public tends not to pay much attention to policy issues, even ones they find interesting enough to march in the streets about. This is a kind of tragic aspect of the human condition and not a specific failure of your political enemies.”
We see these questions of accuracy, groupthink, and its impact in this week’s portion, Sh’lach L’cha. Moses, traveling with the Israelites, sends scouts to look at the land of Canaan and give a report about the land. Their first report: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” (Numbers 13:27-28). At first, it seems to be an accurate description of the land, but the next word, “however” (efes in the Hebrew), the tenor changes: “However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…” They report that while the land is good, the people seem big and scary. The report only escalates from there: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are of great size;…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:32-33). That reframing then gets spread to the whole community.
Only a handful of Israelites have actually seen the land; the other Israelites simply hear it, which then anchors their perspective, and they become so scared that they ask to return to Egypt. At that, God makes the decision that no one of that generation (other than Joshua and Caleb, who exhorted them to go) will make it into the Promised Land – they are doomed to wander in the desert for forty years until a new generation arises.
The Israelites have already been predisposed to complain about Moses, Aaron, Joshua and God, so when they hear the scouts’ recounting, that becomes their reality. As commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes, “Superficially [the scouts’] words on the first occasion constitute nothing more than an objective report…[H]owever, if we examine their words closely, we shall notice that they were not really so objective. A subjective tinge can be detected in their reply, when they contended that all the good points of the Promised Land would avail them nothing, because the inhabitants were too powerful and their strongholds too formidable…Their crime…lay in the fact that instead of acting as neutral observers contenting themselves with the facts, they gave their opinions on the matter.” (Studies in Bamidbar, 138-139)
We are influenced by thousands of images, texts, stories, policies, videos and memes, and we often want to share them, either with our friends and family in person, or online through social media. But we are naturally anchored by our own perspective, ideology, values and community. We may think we are sharing facts, but there is always the danger of thinking that our narrow and limited worldview is the final and ultimate truth. Not everything that isn’t “true” is necessarily a “lie,” so as we look out at the world and act in it, let’s have the humility to remember that we are always inherently biased, and it is hard to overcome that. But even if that’s the case, we can try to unmoor from our own perspective, and see the truths that others may see.