Social media are too often used as tools not to uncover truth, but to fortify our favorite preconceptions. Photo: AFP

In James Cameron’s curiously prophetic 1984 movie The Terminator, a cyborg assassin is sent back from the year 2029 by Skynet, an artificially intelligent military defense system that has grown smarter than its human inventors and taken over the world.

The mission of the Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is to kill 19-year-old waitress Sarah Connor before she can give birth to a son, John, who in time will become the leader of a resistance movement that will defeat Skynet and restore human supremacy.

While hugely entertaining on the big screen (in 1984 we were still a decade away from the birth of streaming), at the time the idea of a collaboration of super-sentient neo-neural networks that had been created by humans but had developed the power of independent thought and action seemed laughable.

But then again, in 1984 we had no social media, no smartphones, no smart watches, no imminently ubiquitous autonomous vehicles, no GPS systems plumbed into every device, tracking our every move, no Alexa listening in on all our conversations, no omnipresent surveillance, no Google logging our online activity, no Amazon tracking our every purchase – and, crucially, no Internet, through which all these digital systems collaborate.

It has all happened so swiftly, and yet so smoothly, that we haven’t really noticed. Instead, we have eagerly adopted every new digital development as simply another convenience, while failing to see the bigger picture.

In 2022, Skynet is already here, a vast digital network of interconnected things in which we are all irretrievably enmeshed.

Don’t expect to see any cyborg assassins traveling back in time from seven years hence, however, because Skynet is doing just fine. Unnoticed and unchecked, it has already done far more damage than Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, for the simple reason that it has succeeded in terminating our relationship with the truth.

High hopes

When the Internet was conceived, it was hailed as an invention that would bring the world together, uniting disparate peoples and cultures.

Briton Tim Berners-Lee, who in 1989 unlocked the potential of the Internet by inventing the World Wide Web, the background software platform, viewed the Web as “a tool for democracy and peace.” Ha.

Knowledge, we were told, would flow like water, creating a super race of human beings empowered by truth, and equipped to transcend the artificial constructs of borders, nationalities and cultural differences.

There would be no more war, we were told, because people would no longer be fooled by the propaganda of vested interests. Instead, people would be able to see those cast as their enemies by war-mongering leaders for what they really were – fellow human beings just trying to make their way in the world.

Social media are currently flooded with footage, imagery and claims about events unfolding on Europe’s eastern border. In vain, mainstream media outlets when reporting some of these claims add the rider that they “cannot be independently verified,” but this serves only to perpetuate the myths.

Claims that the war is a gigantic hoax are obviously false, but widely disseminated and believed on social media.

Ukraine is secretly developing biological weapons? False.

Images of farmers towing away Russian tanks and aircraft with tractors? Old photographs, taken at airshows and the like.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, once among the most trusted of international mainstream media (MSM, to the conspiracy enthusiasts), has even felt the need to appoint “specialist disinformation reporters” tasked with exposing fake news.

Mass media, mass distrust

But when they draw conclusions such as “one of the prime sources for fake news on Twitter comes straight from the Kremlin’s network of Twitter accounts,” a sizable proportion of the Twitterati is certain to respond with skepticism.

Mainstream media, which in the past have served as a reference point for reality, are fighting a losing battle to hold the high ground.

Thanks to the Internet, everyone has a voice and a platform and, as a result, truth has never been so elusive, and the role of the “MSM” never so distrusted.

Mass “debate” has led not to rational meetings of minds, but instead to an entrenching of positions reinforced by an overwhelming deluge of information. On social media, we follow like-minded users, reading threads whose authors’ views accord with our own and, in so doing, cut ourselves off from other viewpoints.

Truth is important. Having access to it helps us to make well-informed decisions about our lives – and, in some cases, the lives of millions of other people – based on reality, not fantasy.

The problem with not knowing what is true is that we end up taking refuge in what we believe to be true or, worse, what we would like to be true. Either way, this makes us extremely vulnerable to manipulation.

We saw this on a gigantic scale in the global “debate” over the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccinations, which left many people unprotected simply because they were unable to separate fact from fiction.

“Cancel culture,” the deadening hand of censorship laid on many of those who dare to speak the truth (one of the latest victims: Harry Potter author J K Rowling for her stance on gender rights) is a child of social media.

In 2022, truth has never been so important, and yet never so elusive.

In 2029 Skynet will have no need to invent time travel and send back a Terminator to protect its interests. There is no Sarah Connor among us and, instead of mounting any kind of resistance, we have become willing collaborators in the destruction of reality and the death of truth.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.