“I don’t know. What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the Internet,” announced Donald Trump on Meet the Press last month. He was attempting to excuse his false assertion that a protester at one of his rallies “had ties to ISIS.” It was certainly a startling assertion, at least to me, bookish woman of the writerly profession that I am. Of course, everything that man says startles me—but this time it made me think about the general status of knowing, knowledge, and its online production.
The Internet is hardly the first technology of information transmission to be suspect. In Phaedrus, Plato described the Egyptian king Thamus and his suspicion of the written word. Thamus feared that writing was untrustworthy because it “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories…and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
I was thinking about all this because I was sitting on a train not long ago amid a group of exuberant young millennials. They were discussing religion and the election, including the influence of evangelicism in American politics. By general consensus, they couldn’t understand what motivated people to attend a mega-church whose minister owned a private jet. Then one young man piped up: “But the head of the Roman Catholic Church makes more money than any of them.” In fact, he continued, “the pope makes $200 million annually as his personal salary…. It goes into his personal bank account, and he can do with it exactly as he wants. He’s got all these homes and palaces, and he’s invested in all kinds of real estate…”
Ordinarily, I’m loath to intrude upon conversations between strangers, but for once I couldn’t restrain myself. “Ahem?” I offered by way of introduction. “The pope takes a vow of poverty. He arrived at the job with two pairs of shoes. He does not receive a personal salary of $200 million a year.”
The young man’s response was: “Google it. I’m telling you the truth.”
I didn’t doubt my facts. Even so, I did Google it—and he was right. Still wrong, but also right, in that the first thing that came up when I searched on the phrase “pope’s salary” was this: “Pope’s Personal Income: $200 Million Annually.”
I had to ask myself how it came to pass that the first result on Google was a 2011 posting from OpenTabernacle.wordpress.com. One has to assume that it’s received more hits than any other site when it comes to the pontiff’s salary concerns. However, Google truth is highly situational and epistemically fluid, since the same post showed up in second place when I looked two weeks later. Perhaps it’s a reflection of crowdsourced belief, or it could be as simple as a bot (or some troll) pushing it to the top of the list. But whatever the cause or motive, it is an algorithm that ultimately decides placement—and that algorithm has been able to erase, in some people’s minds, the entire history of the Roman Catholic Church.