On the Internet, not much. That’s what a week of hoaxes teaches us.
“As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
You’re telling us, Rummy.
Take Representative Anthony Weiner’s revelation that he made up the whole Twitter-hacking story.
Or the unfounded report of a mass grave in Texas based on a psychic’s tip.
The deceiver who impersonated actress Emilia Clarke on Reddit.
Or the questions that surfaced about whether a blogger who claimed to be a gay woman living in Damascus — and who disappeared amid the turmoil in Syria — had ever actually existed.
We already knew not to believe anything a member of Congress says. But can we trust anyone online, ever?
The challenge online communities face is one of trust. I’d argue that’s not new: We have always worn masks in public, to guard our intimate secrets or simply to maintain a sense of self.
But it’s different now. The Internet combines the inescapability of a small town — you can’t avoid your neighbors — with the anonymity of a metropolis.
Are we who we say we are? Sites like Facebook are supposed to represent our “real” identity. Reality, it turns out, is not a best practice. Sites like Reppler, which analyze your profile for its scandalizing potential, suggest your life online should be at least lightly laundered, if not invented from whole cloth.
And Anthony Weiner’s inadvertent sharing of a bulging-underwear pic on Twitter? At least he was real for that one moment: a real horndog. That’s a rarity on Twitter, where for years celebrities have sought professional help to be their authentic selves.
That behavior is moving downstream, where ordinary people now seek to seize control and define themselves before others do, like Jenny Malik, the mom of an inadvertent viral-video star.
It’s a small step from constructing a real reality to constructing a fake one. Hence the Internet’s hoax season. We might be cheered by the armies of fact checkers who swarm around any claim of identity; no faker gets away with it for long, it seems.
But is there a cost to keeping our bullshit radars on perpetual alert? What might happen if we swallow our pride and try trusting each other for a change?
I doubt it will ever come to pass. So that will remain the ultimate unknown unknown.