We don’t just have a fake news problem. We have a fake reality problem.
Reading time: 6 minutes 34 seconds
On the 28th of June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo. His last words were “Es ist nichts” – It is nothing. Not exactly, Franz. Not exactly. A month later, Austria declared war on Serbia, and the First World War began. Estimates are that 14-17 million people died as a result.
On the 27th of February, 1933, the parliamentary building in Berlin, known as the Reichstag, went up in flames. You know who blamed communists and used it as an opportunity to seize more power. Just six years later, he (Hitler) tried to take over the world. Estimates are that 66-80 million people died as a result.
It could be argued that these two events were central to the two greatest wars the world has ever seen. The truth is, however, it was not the incidents themselves but rather the stories that people were told about the events that led to the precipitating events of World War One and World War Two.
Yellow journalism is a form of journalism that focuses on using sensationalism and eye-catching headlines to increase sales while reducing the importance of solid research and accurate reporting.
One of the earliest examples of this is in February 1897 when William Randolph Hearst published a story in his New York Journal newspaper entitled ‘Does Our Flag Protect Women?’ It had a photo of a young Cuban woman being strip-searched by Spanish police. This made-up story was one of the catalysts that triggered an anti-Spanish movement which eventually led to the Spanish-American War. War is good for business.
The stories we are told about what has happened and why it has happened determine how we experience the world. It’s not just false stories that are the problem. It’s the fact that it changes the very way we live in the world. It’s not just news. It’s reality.
Fake news is defined as false or misleading information presented as news. We watch our favorite news channel or social media app and learn about a news story. This is a problem. But not the biggest problem. News is just information. The biggest problem is that we start understanding the world differently as a result. Fake news is simply a catalyst that gets us to believe in a whole new reality.
The red or blue pill
In July 1999, I reclined in a dark cinema in the center of Manhattan, eagerly awaiting what had been raved about everywhere: The Matrix. I sat spellbound for two hours, thrust into an incredible world. The plot involves a simulated reality (called The Matrix) controlled by machines to trap humans.
Our hero, Neo, is given the choice by his guide, Morpheus, to take the red pill or the blue pill. Do you stay in the matrix, or do you wake up and face the harsh reality of real life? He took the red pill and chose to be aware of what was actually going on.
In many ways, this brilliant metaphor of life suggests that the reality we live in is based on the limits of (i) our senses and (ii) perspectives.
In terms of the senses, we know from the field of neuroscience that we don’t actually perceive what is there, but our brains construct reality based on predictions of what they think is there. We see what our brain tells us to see.
In terms of perspectives, we filter our world through narratives we tell ourselves about what is going on. Depending on what side we are on or our previous convictions will dictate how we interpret the events that we perceive.
Perceptions are gambles
The wonderful author Robert Anton Wilson put it this way:
“Every kind of ignorance in the world results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see, and then we believe our interpretation of it. We don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality.”
In order to wake up from your own matrix, you first have to acknowledge that you are living in it. By understanding that it is all interpretation, it can help you to think about things differently.
Understanding that what you see is not there but the product of a top-down process coming from your brain can help you to recognize we filter everything. We also can do this in terms of the way we think about our experiences.
One of the best ways to avoid getting lost in our interpretations is by using a language known as ‘E-Prime’. Invented by David Bourland and based upon the work of Alfred Korzybski in his book ‘Science and Sanity’, the language is basically English without the verb ‘to be’. So instead of saying ‘It is an awful day’, you would say ‘It seems an awful day to me’.
Taking ownership of your own interpretations is so helpful in distinguishing between reality and perception. It makes your language much more accurate in describing your experience.
Journalism at its best does what it can to provide us with a sense of what is going on without exaggerating or sensationalizing the facts while taking a side. Journalism at its worst has a different goal. Its goal is to grab the attention of the masses by feeding them whatever will make them care, regardless of accuracy.
The reason that such a fake reality is so problematic is that we find ourselves living with an array of limiting beliefs that often trap us in lives that we hate and futures we dread.
How to break out of the matrix?
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Come to terms with the fact that most of your perceptions and perspectives are interpretations and guesses.
When you realize that you often confuse the ‘truth’ with an opinion or ‘reality’ with an interpretation of reality, you will get a chance to rethink your experience and see things differently.
2. Be more accurate with your language (even to yourself).
Describe what you are experiencing and be careful about the judgments you make and the use of the verb ‘to be’. Take ownership of your experience and differentiate it from what can be verified universally by everyone.
3. Change your beliefs.
Work on your beliefs. The field I have been developing for a number of years, ‘Belief Leadership’, is all about finding ways to change disempowering beliefs and cultivating empowering beliefs to help you and others believe better. There are so many things that can help you to do this.
For more information, check out NLP, CBT, Mindfulness, and excellent books such as “Think Again’ by Adam Grant and “How Minds Change’ by David McRaney. A large part of how you will change your beliefs is to recognize the stories you are telling yourself. The stories you tell create your beliefs and the beliefs you develop help influence the stories you tell yourself. Your inner narratives offer you an opportunity to change your beliefs.
4. Impact the world.
Focus on what you can do to impact the world. Your actions make a difference to what other people experience. Every human-made object in the world, from rockets to the pyramids, the internet to Michelangelo’s David is a result of actions that were taken. What actions can you take to impact and change the world in some way, if only at a micro-level?
5. Influence others.
When you can learn to cultivate belief in others, you get to shape reality. Reality is not just a result of what we do but of how people perceive and interpret what we do. Success comes about not just from action but from our ability to influence others about the action.
What stories can you share that provide people with a new way of thinking about a topic that matters to them? The very best non-fiction books and TED Talks do this, from Brene Brown’s re-invention of the concept of vulnerability to Sir Ken Robinson’s brilliant talk on creativity and schooling.
These five suggestions can help you start to take more control of the reality you live in every single day.
Learn to believe
In ‘The Matrix’, Neo had to learn to completely let go of the limitations of his experience inside the Matrix to fulfill his destiny as the one. He had to believe in himself to succeed. That’s good advice. When you learn to believe in yourself, you are far less likely to be imprisoned by the limitations of the world around you.
One of the most popular thought experiment games involves the question, what would you do if you could travel back in time? One of the most popular answers is that people say they would go back in time and kill Hitler.
The truth is, however, that such a scenario is rarely likely to happen. What can happen is that we can learn from the past. Whether this is learning our lesson at a societal level so we don’t end up killing millions of people or learning our lesson at a personal level so we can succeed more in our lives, it’s so important that we do.
So when you hear the news in the future, every once and a while, stop, take the red pill, and ask yourself ‘What do you believe?’
P.S. If you are interested in catching up on any of the past editions of Inner Propaganda, you can find them all here.