We live in an era where it is feasible to manufacture things that seem like truths, and someone is always in the business of trying. If someone were to leak the entire contents of my active e-mail file, all 4.5 GB of it, onto some public wiki for the inspection of the entire world, folks would marvel at the astounding volume of all the bits of seemingly urgent, potentially life-threatening information I have somehow managed to ignore. There are apparently dozens of fellows who worked at, or for, or near Apple who have taken some secret with them out the door and have launched a startup with it. And it is absolutely amazing, the number of distressed foreign ambassadors who need my help in dislodging millions of dollars from American bank accounts.
You would think there was some kind of automated filter, an analysis system to separate the manufactured truths from the real ones. Indeed, industrious programmers are working to build systems that do precisely this. The problem is, more industrious folks are working even harder to devise methods to thwart such systems. The fake facts industry is becoming more clever than the real facts industry.
In Salon last Sunday, contributor Glenn Greenwald suggested that Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private held in prison on suspicion of leaking secret documents that made their way to WikiLeaks, should be lauded as a hero for bringing certain alleged war atrocities to light. (I use the word "alleged" because, as a practicing journalist, I have an old habit of labeling unproven facts.) "In general, whoever leaked those cables has done more to publicize the corrupt, illegal and deceitful acts of the world's most powerful factions -- and to educate the world about how they behave -- than all "watchdog" media outlets combined," Greenwald wrote. "In sum, whoever leaked those cables is responsible for one of the most consequential, beneficial and noble acts of this generation."
Noble, maybe, but more likely unknowing. No one really knows if Manning even read one percent of the documents he was leaking. If he were to have skimmed through a handful of them, like a fellow perusing 4.5 GB of someone else's e-mail, he might have come across one memo. It begins like this: "Excellency, I have the honour to address you in my capacity as Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions pursuant to Commission on Human Rights resolution 2004/37. I would like to draw the attention of your Government to information I have received regarding a raid conducted by the Multinational Forces (MNF) on 15 March 2006 in the house of... a farmer living in the outskirts of Al-Iss Haqi District in Balad (Salah-El-Din Governorate)."
It hit me as I read this document for the first time that, had my e-mail spam filter been trained on its containing folder, it would have been identified as spam. It has the style, meter, and mannerism of every pitch I've ever received, addressed to "Dear Mr. Kind Sir," pleading with me to help recover $15 million in lost foreign aid from some safety deposit box in Cleveland.
This document is, of course, the one uncovered by a McClatchy reporter amid the multitude of WikiLeaks items, purporting to tell the story of a U.S. raid on an Iraqi home where occupants as young as 5 were handcuffed and executed. The revelation of this story is credited with having convinced Iraqi authorities to discontinue the extension of legal immunity to U.S. troops after December, which may have prompted Pres. Obama's decision last week to withdraw remaining troops from Iraq before then.
Greenwald, also a practicing journalist, properly peppered his op-ed with plenty of "if's." Nothing about this set of circumstances is certain.
The revelation of this and other secret and private memos is being heralded as the truth being set free. Yet if I were an attorney rather than a journalist, and I were representing the United States in a court of law, I would have no trouble implanting the seed of reasonable doubt within a jury of 12. Sure, these documents have the right labels, they look very official, they tell a convincing tale. But, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, take a good look at the defendant, Bradley Manning, this disgruntled, disaffected, disillusioned private, a man with an axe to grind, and tell me with absolute certainty that you trust him as an authority.
Many writers have taken the media at large to task for not having reported on these latest revelations. "Report," in the modern era of the Web, often means to take information that someone else has reported, and repeat it. Thus WikiLeaks was such a reliable source in its early going, at least insofar as automatically generating headlines. Imagine, if you will, a machine that does your journalism for you!
We stand on the precipice of an era where nothing we read is certain, where the authenticity of anything that fails to surrender its own self-eminence by inserting "if" and "alleged" at the proper points, is automatically questionable. The public dissemination of truth is upheld as a fundamental American principle. But up until now, the responsibility for its upkeep has been outsourced.
Suppose WikiLeaks were to survive its latest travails, emerging from near-bankruptcy perhaps by virtue of a PBS-style pledge drive featuring appearances by The Temptations and Liberace. At what point would someone, perhaps inspired by Stephen Colbert himself, cleverly engineer a method to insert elements of manufactured truth-iness into WikiLeaks' document stream? Maybe it hasn't happened yet, but you can't imagine someone hasn't already tried.
And what then? What if the modern emblem of truth, this latter-day Matt Drudge, were to become impregnated with spam in the public eye? Who do we trust, and who gets to decide?
This is the danger of entrusting any single source as authoritative without the checks and balances to back it up. Last year, writing for the Washington Post, Ted Koppel brilliantly summarized this dilemma. "We are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers," he wrote. "We're now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers."
There was plenty of response from folks taking Koppel to task for, as they described it, whining because it no longer means anything to be an "anchorman." Folks take pride in tearing down towers of authority wherever they see them, and have no pity for those affected by the ruin.
But in the absence of authority and authenticity, and the presence of influences and disruptions from all directions, the clear and present danger is that people can choose their own sets of facts. Paul Revere can triumphantly warn the British not to confiscate our firearms, and the shots heard from Lexington and Concord can resonate throughout New Hampshire. If it's inconvenient for the Constitution to have actually said something about freedom of religion, we can just click "Edit." Arab Spring can be triggered by the iPhone and Facebook. Heroes can be invented or dissolved at will. Inconvenient truths can be deleted and alternate truths inserted. Massacres can disappear, atrocities can be cleansed, history can be corrected. What raid? What Iraqi village? Winston Smith can do his work in the light of day.
If we are to continue to hold certain truths to be self-evident, then we as a people cannot be selective as to how we apply them. At some point, when we're finally through disrupting and occupying stuff, we need to rebuild a source of trust for our progeny. Because we're leaving behind an awful mess.
The opinions expressed here are those of Scott M. Fulton, III, who is solely responsible for his content.