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I went viral with an AI fake
What does “real” even mean online?
It took me 5 minutes to prompt on ChatGPT to make the post.
In less than 12 hours, it got half a million views, thousands of upvotes, and hundreds of passionate comments:
In a stroke of genius, ChatGPT even featured an African Grey Parrot, a species Reddit has an odd obsession with.
What seemed like obvious fiction to me (the sister's name is "Jane" and the parrot's name is "Pepper") was taken as an actual window into people’s lives. Thousands of strangers even helped flesh out the backstory — speculating about the character’s parenting, state of mind, and social standing.
I started to wonder why these little stories online seem to matter so much.
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People get pissed when they find out these stories aren’t “real.” And I feel pretty damn guilty for tricking half a million people. Sorry – it was for “science.”
Hopefully, we learned something. What, exactly? Well, it turns out it’s incredibly easy to manipulate the narrative on social media if you know the right buttons to press. After this experience, I’m inclined to think this sort of thing is happening all the time.
Most of what we see online is perfectly designed fiction to grab our attention. To what end? It depends on who’s crafting it. Think about how much our lives take place online; how often social media inflames moral outrage; and even how it shapes how we treat our friends, family, and people in our community. Are our strongest opinions about truth and justice actually carefully crafted for us? Shouldn’t we want to know who’s benefiting from these narratives?
We saw glimmers of this way back during the 2016 election with the Russian bots. “Fake news” appeared on the world stage. But that was a hammer compared to the delicate tools we’ve developed now.
Remember that AI-generated photo of the Pope in the puffer jacket?
It took me less than 5 minutes to produce a fake story that was seen by over half a million people. Imagine if someone (or groups of someones) dedicated all their attention, money, and technology to understanding these patterns of manipulation so they can shape our idea of what’s “real” to anything they want. No doubt, they’re already working diligently on that. The algorithms of all the social media platforms are bent in that direction.
Now, imagine when we can make entirely fake videos with a simple text prompt. That’s not very far off.
So, what do we do? How do we tell what’s real?
If you believe in too many of these fake online stories, someone might tell you to "touch grass."
Funny. But, honestly, in the world of the internet and social media, is "grass" more real than online narratives?
I understand how annoying that question sounds. “Rational materialists" walk around acting like the only thing that's "real" is dirt (matter), and everything else is just “imaginary” “subjective” or "superstition." That’s a weird assumption once you start to think about it.
At a bar one night recently, I grabbed a ketchup bottle and asked my friend, "What's more real, this ketchup bottle or Harry Potter?"
The ketchup bottle, of course. Harry Potter? That’s made up by some British lady.
But look around us. Every person at that bar knows the name of The Boy Who Lived and was affected by him in some very real way. Why would we scoff at the idea that he's real? Because he's not made of meat? That's ridiculous.
We don’t even judge ourselves on that basis. We’re more likely to think our personality, memories, or relationships are more “real” than our physical bodies.
So, what the hell is "real?" And, to remind us, we need to know, because we're trying to understand how to sort out what's "real" online.
The point of knowing what is "real" is not to understand which things are made of solid matter or what things “really happened.”
If “matter” is not the benchmark for “real,” then what is?
Patterns. Math is an expressions of the pattern of nature, for example. But mathematics can’t tell you if math itself is worth pursuing. All mathematicians are nested in a deeper, personal myth (an emotional narrative framework) that says to them, consciously or not, “Studying math is good.” Otherwise, why do it?
If you don’t know your personal myth, then your behavior and beliefs are at the mercy of all the people who do. Marketers are working day and night to understand and bend your myth to their benefit.
That’s what Carl Jung and company were trying to say a hundred years ago. Since then, we’ve confirmed that human brains are narrative in structure. At this point, it’s not a debate. The only thing left to do is actually understand how to use this strange information.
Myths are what hold everything in our world together – even practical things, like the town or city you live in.
Let’s break this down.
A town is more myth than brick
I saw Oppenheimer last week.
Nolan, a master of visual storytelling (and myth), needs us (the audience) to understand that this random place in New Mexico has become a town. So, he shows us a 2-second clip of someone screwing a barber’s pole. That’s it. That struck me as funny. A barber’s pole! Yep, this is indeed a town, now.
Wood, sheetrock, and nails do not a town make. The walls remain a hollow facade without… what? Symbols, for one: barber’s poles, stop signs, front doors, living rooms, paintings, college diplomas, English words like “Town Hall” (themselves strange symbols). All these help us “conspire” with other bald apes to make “townness” emerge from nothing.
I watched this process happen in reverse.
I grew up in small-town Louisiana. And, like most small towns in the middle of America, it was slowly “dying.”
I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but I felt my home transform from a living, breathing, “real” place into the sheetrock and asbestos it happened to be made of. The feeling was a loss of meaning – loneliness. Buildings literally became less real.
It wasn't always this way. Small towns used to be a microcosm of meaning. You know – apple pies on windowsills, courthouse dramas, and mayoral elections. What happened to all that? As far as I can tell, mass media happened. Social media (a more powerful myth) absorbed young people's attention and diverted it away from football, Boy Scouts, and their summer job. This loss drained the “realness” from the very streets and replaced it with Walmart and meth.
What killed these towns had nothing to do with a lack of material resources — it was the erosion of the mythical patterns that held them together.
I’m not saying anything revolutionary. People have known for thousands of years that the most real things are patterns. We don’t need to say it explicitly – we express it, for example, by caring more about fictional people than real strangers.
We’re back to our original problem: how the hell do we sort out what’s real online?
The real deal
If you had a life-changing spiritual experience, you might cynically tell yourself, “All that REALLY happened was I stood in a room with pretty lights and sang some emotional songs.” What's considered “real” is the boring facts that gave rise to the “fake” subjective religious experience.
On the other hand, if you saw an Olympian on the high dive and claimed, "I could do that," your friend would rightly say, "Not if you did the real thing." In this case, the subjective experience of terror is what is considered “real.”
We need to resolve this confusion. We need to be reminded that cynicism isn’t more “realistic” than joy. We even need to allow ourselves to believe that something higher might be “real.” In fact, it might be the most real thing there is.
For instance, in a recent study on psychedelics done at Johns Hopkins, the patients would report transformative “religious” experiences. They seemed to tap directly into the deepest personal myth. When asked, they said it was the most “real” thing that had ever happened to them.
As a result, their lives improved in nearly every measurable way.
This shows us the deepest patterns are, by definition, religious. They touch on the myths at the very bedrock of our culture, biology, and psychology. They are the symbols, like the symbols of a town, that help us to “conspire” to bring ourselves up out of the muck and mire of our tribal past.
They are real.
But, like the small town I grew up in, that “realness” can be slowly drained away – leaving people hopeless and without meaning, little by little. That’s what’s happening to our culture. Without regular contact with “the most real thing,” we slowly lose our desire to bring good into the world. We even stop believing we can. What is the antidote?
Read old books.
They aren’t just important; they are urgent. To survive the AI landscape, you need to have a feel for which stories win on the longest possible timeline. Start believing in those a little more. Stop believing in the “latest thing” a little less.
To sort out what’s real online, we have to get in touch with what is most real. Did that shocking news story “really happen?” Who cares — it doesn’t change how real it is.
The more time I spend with what is most real (great books, churches, reflection, community, etc.), the less I care about fleeting political outrage, and the more I care about other people and building something that will last.
That’s what’s real to me.
Thanks for reading,