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Google, Fake News, and the Crisis of Truth

When the Internet became a standard utility, it was widely believed that we were giving every friend of the truth the technical means with which to contribute, boldly but modestly, to the adventures of knowledge. Instead, we convened a feeding frenzy.

PARIS – Invited by Google Europe to attend a brainstorming session in Paris on the decline of truth, the rise of fake news, and ways to counter both, I began my presentation by placing the problem in historical context.

I cited George Orwell’s Looking back on the Spanish War, in which the author explains that, for him, “history stopped in 1936,” because it was there, in Spain, that he discovered for the first time “newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts.” It was there that he sensed that “the very concept of objective truth,” ruined by fascism in its red and brown forms, was “fading out of the world.” And it was there, in effect, that men like Joseph Goebbels (“I’m the one who decides who is Jewish and who isn’t”) and later Donald Trump (and his “alternative facts”) became possible.

But, as I went on to point out, several intellectual shake-ups occurred before and after the rise of totalitarianism.

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