-Essay-

BOGOTA — Truth has ceased to matter. In our times, everything depends on speed and efficiency instead.

If the Internet does not give it to you immediately, at the bat of an eyelid, if posts on Facebook exceed a paragraph or comments 140 characters, we start to feel we are losing out, or will be late for something. Where and what? Nobody knows, but just late. It transforms the very notion of time more stressful, and schizophrenic.

And yet, this constant information bombardment requires us to reflect before judging and doubt before hurling charges, or the right to defense before being condemned. And that is not what is happening.

You only need to glance at social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, where baseless accusations, bald lies, trumped up imagery and fictional visuals concocted are sent around the world, non-stop, every day.

Anyone with Whatsapp, the instant messaging application, knows what I'm talking about, with the constant urgent and (and almost always anonymous) messages "warning" this or "denouncing" that. It all takes on another dimension when something happens like the campaign for the referendum we just had in Colombia, as the messages become louder and more frequent. Those using these communication strategies know that people don't check the news through standard media anymore, and a chain message with a tendencious claim able to boost a prejudice, is both effective and cheap.

Just press Resend

The first fundamental problem with a world built on these messages is the speed at which they spread. There is no reflection or skepticism or pause here, just a mechanical push on the resend button.

Like robots? — Photo: Hernán Piñera

We act like robots, or just idiots. The great paradox of our time is that we've never had access to so much information, and yet have never been so badly informed. When the remains of the traditional press question the accuracy or veracity of an anonymous message, the public reacts by accusing the papers of lying or distorting. The fact is, truth doesn't matter any more.

Why are you so indulgent with anonymous messages reaching you via Whatsapp and so critical of press reports? Did you even ask yourself who sent the message, who wrote it, where their interests lie?

The second fundamental problem is the anonymity. At least journalism, which is often rightly criticized for its weaknesses and errors, has a visible face: its editors, contributors, radio or news presenters. Their information is never anonymous and their credibility, a crucial asset of their standing, is always at stake.

But chain messages, videos without authors or anonymous comments have nothing to lose. Their charges can have a vast impact; and even if finally shown to be baseless, the harm is already done.

In the United States, unnamed groups are formed to propagate lies against Muslims and America's first black president. They may send images of Obama with a beard, talking a foreign language; and a poll last year showed that nearly 30% of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim.

There is of course nothing new about conspiratorial fears or spreading lies. As the 3rd century philosopher Porphyry said, lying is far more typical of men than laughing. The novelty is the speed at which the lies now travel, and the tremendous distances they can reach. This makes journalism, struggling and imperfect as always, even more necessary today than ever.