To seek the truth or not to seek the truth - that is the question
This post explores how meaning is negotiated and created. To do so, it examines a meme and includes at least one alternative interpretation. It also reflects on the cognitive bias that can affect how we generate and disseminate meaning in our own social networks.
Have you ever heard of a story where instead of soldiers coming back from the front with fewer, or even same, number of soldiers, they come back with an extra one? The heartwarming tale of friendship made during troubled times of Austro-Prussian War of 1866, when, instead of 80 soldiers, 81 returned, is what Liechtenstein army can boast about, probably.
What happened is that Liechtenstein army was sent to guard the Brenner Press between Austria and Italy and upon returning from the mission accomplished they had an Italian soldier amidst their numbers. Now, there seem to be some different sources which tell one version of events, and others which propagate different. Some say that it was not really friendship which motivated the soldier to come with the army, but a possible future job prospect, others that the aforementioned man was an Austrian liaison officer. You can find further information here and on Wikipedia.
What attracted me to this story is that I did not know what it meant and it looked like a compelling piece of knowledge to have, so I researched a bit and discovered a couple of answers abovementioned.
As history would have it, many times we are not sure what is the real version of events, because, after all, usually the history is written by the victors and the people’s propensity towards distorting history is not something that should be disregarded. Today’s times could attest to that fact, many sources are proving to be untrustworthy, the science of clickbait is evolving, content and context collapse is on an all time high and the Age of the Information Glut is here. At first, the story made me laugh, it was amusing and inspiring, especially the version where the soldier went with the army because he befriended them and as the author of the first article opined that he would have liked that the “Italian” soldier had “made good friends with the strangers from a not so strange land, decided to go home with them and worked happily on a mountain farm for the rest of his life”, and as much as I would have liked that had happened, we still cannot be certain that that is the factual and true turn of events.
Although, this story is not of such an importance that it could cause an unmitigated disaster, in the text Why speculate., Crichton still manages to finely explain the jittery and nervous feeling that most people are feeling nowadays about media, politicians and speculation due to them trying to appear prophet and wise-like and do everything that makes them thrive. It seems as if people “have forgotten what real, reliable information is, and the lengths you have to go to get it” as Crichton writes, and that, after a while, does become exhausting. Nevertheless, the alternative and being blue-pilled could only work for a certain amount of time, after a specific point, people are forced to face the light and most even choose the red-filtered one.
So, Mark Twain’s quote about when we should and should not speculate, when we can and cannot afford to do it, rings the bell – not ever, therein lies the abyss.
At first glance, this meme appears pretty generic, perhaps even lazy. However, if we peel back the layers, we discover a world of history behind its minimalistic design. The boys come back with a green troll, an alien in every sense of the word, a foreigner who comes to Liechtenstein whether out of friendship, employment or simply because there is nowhere else for him to go. The image itself and the accompanying caption contribute greatly to the message, but the true meaning lies in the context.
In order to fully comprehend the context however, certain knowledge of history is needed. I can easily picture someone unfamiliar with it scrolling through 9gag, coming across this meme and dismissing it as either uninteresting or pointless. One would need to look up minute facts on the Austro-Prussian War so as to understand and appreciate its meaning, something we should all be doing more of in the political climate of 2020. Only, unlike a meme whose meaning we can choose to remain ignorant of and not have it affect our life in any radical way (after all, who but historians and history buffs is interested in the fate of one Italian soldier from a war that took place centuries ago?), our choice to dig for facts nowadays comes not as a result of curiosity, but rather necessity, thus rendering it not a choice at all.
As regards to the symbolic meaning of the meme and how it could be interpreted differently, through a different lens, I would say that another soldier appearing in the second picture might be seen as the rest of the “boys” somehow influencing the enemy soldier to betray his country and come with them as a way of recompensing his “sacrifice”, or it could have possibly even been a plan all along, they could have sent him ahead of the army to scout out the enemy territory and infiltrate into the enemy ranks. Additionally, in the comment section there is a humorous proposal that “they were experimenting with necromancy to reanimate their fallen enemies to reinforce their own ranks. Historians are divided on the matter”.
When it comes to the reflecting on cognitive bias exercise, Ciampaglia and Menczer’s article “Biases make people vulnerable to misinformation spread by social media” raises a number of interesting points and issues that necessitate further exploration, but our focus will be on the societal bias, the one existing independently of social media and the cyberspace. There are certain implicit biases we all carry within that shape our understanding of the world around us. These get carried over into the online world on a daily basis and, with enough exposure to them, the algorithm can know exactly how to manipulate us and what content to present to us.
As the authors of the article mentioned, this mindset can quickly devolve into ’us vs. them’ confrontations that are neither productive nor intellectually stimulating. This attitude, along with our innate fear of Otherness help create a hostile environment that further divides people along the political lines, instead of uniting them or enabling them to reach an understanding or a compromise. The excess of fake news doesn’t help the situation either as, all too often, misinformation has been known to create rifts nearly impossible to bridge.
It should be noted that, when looking up information, most people aren’t nearly as interested in factual evidence as they are in bending the context to support their own claim. Even when presented with hard facts, they prefer to stick to marginal pieces of information in the hopes of creating the flimsiest support on which to base their assumptions and pass them off as the truth. Hence, the majority of people seldom actually receive news. What they receive instead are stories carefully designed to reinforce the beliefs they already have. This becomes a vicious cycle of misinformation, egotism and bias reinforcement which can be difficult to break if the user remains unchallenged and never steps out of his or her comfort zone so as to seek information outside of this loop.