Writing is not intrinsically true. When people stop believing in what’s written, it has a profound effect on their behavior. For example, the writing on a toothpaste package is supposed to be certified as accurate, the ingredients are supposed to be as they say they are, and the product quality is supposed to be certified by a couple different Federal agencies.
When people stop believing in the authorities underwriting the accuracy of all those written reports, they start to behave erratically, distrusting official sources of information and looking for alternatives. In this way, people tired of popping prescription pills take supplements instead. Or, unhappy with a psychiatrist’s explanation of their son’s diagnosis, they start joining mobs which forsake the use of vaccines, which was a profound medical innovation.
This distrust in authority has a cumulative effect. Much of ‘serious journalism’ exists to shore up the credibility of the rest of the institutions of society. This is why journalists are supposed to be neutral, and are portrayed as such, even when they tend to act as agents of the state in practice. When the government makes a mistake, professionals are supposed to bring it to public awareness, and then the legitimate authorities are supposed to rectify the wrong.
Video, the spoken word, and photos have an inherent credibility over words, just because they seem more real — but owing to how much production effort goes into them, they’re often more artificial in reality.
When people believe in authority, they believe things like advertisements more readily, which reduces the cost and wastage that goes into convincing people to buy this or that. If they believe the ad’s trumpeting of its seal of quality the first time, the inventory at the washing-machine-warehouse will sell out faster, and the ad won’t have to be run so much.
But because of depleted social trust, when people see that washing machine ad, they may think that the seal of quality is a sham and that the brand is trying to screw them over. And they may very well be correct — retailers like Sears have hollowed out their reputations, and product quality for many basic machines (especially dishwashers) has declined as time has gone on. Shoddy manufacturing gets passed off as improved technology with added features which are also useless.
Journalism works as a business when the publication prints accurate information and polices everything printed in it. When people trust the information channel, they trust the advertisements also. If they don’t trust the channel, they don’t trust the ads either, and those ads lose persuasive impact, as do the articles themselves.
Lies crowd out truth in the same way that bad money chases out good (the latter being phrased as Gresham’s Law). It’s now nearly universally acknowledged that the second Iraq war was promoted on mostly false pretenses, and that it has resulted in a still-unfolding catastrophe for all the powers and peoples in the region. But these sorts of big deceptions have knock-on effects throughout society which impact completely unrelated areas.
If the highest authority lies about issues related to war and peace routinely, why should anyone trust the AMA or the FDA? Even when either institution speaks the truth, people don’t know whether or not to trust them.
Cynics might say that running a government oriented towards truth is overly idealistic, and that politicians must use lies in the same way that carpenters use nails. The reason why the cynics are wrong is that societies that trust one another, and reward one another for that trust, succeed in ways that more paranoid ones don’t. It confers a major competitive advantage in warfare and trade.
When people adopt a protective cynicism, it prevents them from incurring losses, but they become walled off from one another and from productive society. Simply telling people who are cynical that they should be more trusting isn’t going to work, because they’re protecting themselves from real dangers. They distrust because they’ve been burned before. The trust can’t be legislated, either, because trust can only be maintained when the majority of a given society share the same sort of moral outlook, and feel safe within it.
While people are more apt to disbelieve much of what’s said by the official sources, they still need to signal their moral affiliation to the people around them, to show that they’re in communion with the leading class. People who refuse to do this will tend to find themselves marginalized by the crowd, even when the crowd has gone mad, as crowds usually do.