In which a nonpartisan “Institute for Information Dissemination” is tasked with fact-checking us all
Boston University Writing Lecturer Sam Sarkisian’s debut novel, The Institute, is a “dystopian thriller about misinformation in the media and political spheres” in which a nonpartisan “Institute for Information Dissemination” is tasked with fact-checking us all and streamlining the “most accurate” information directly to inboxes. Since his story sounds like the kind of world we may be living in sooner or later, we asked the BU instructor, who used to work as a photographer in the press office of former Mass Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration, for a terrifying preview via an excerpt from his new book.
A New Government Agency
A stout, smug man with razor-thin glasses and a chiseled chin covered by a thick, auburn beard was about to approach a mahogany podium in front of a room of reporters equipped with notepads, audio recording devices, cameras and other tools of their information trade. The man took his time backstage, sauntering, waiting for a cue from a little gray man in little gray suspenders wearing a little gray hat to cover what is left of his little gray hair. The little gray man stood meekly at the podium as the stout man stood offstage to his right, waiting for the little gray man to introduce him in a high-pitched voice that the stout man always thought too nasally for public service. It reminded him of his nephews playing the kazoo, and he didn’t much like his nephews.
All of the American media were present, eager to record and report on what promised to be a momentous occasion. There were penpoints resting anxiously on notepads, microphones nose up for the best acoustics. This was a big deal all right. The public had finally achieved a major victory against misinformation, but perhaps not so much a victory against disinformation as they or Sherman thought.
Fascinated or frustrated or both, the awaiting journalists’ dedication to the tenets of Newsworthiness meant they had no choice but to listen to the school-boy charisma of the stout Secretary Sherman:
“Ladies and gentlemen of the media, it is my sincere pleasure to announce the opening of the newest department of the United States Government: The Institute for Information Dissemination. In this age of information overload, an era with seemingly infinite opportunities to consume information via the web, Congress and our President believe a department dedicated to streamlining essential policy updates was in order. We have seen what can happen when such important news is unjustly filtered through the media, their job only made more difficult when government officials omit crucial details, hard-pressed by lobbyists and private interests. So, here we are.
As Americans, I know we stand firm in our belief that the public must be informed, as an informed public is the crux of our democracy. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said in the formative years of our great nation, ‘If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.’ His words resonate with us now more than ever. And we should heed his insightful warnings to a T!”
Secretary Sherman then raised and lowered his chest in a very exaggerated sigh before furrowing his brow and abruptly pounding his fist to the podium with great force. The podium shook, the sound reverberating in echoes throughout the silent, attentive hall. The reporters’ eyes spoke what could not be said, what dared not be said: “yes, but how the hell did we get here, listening to you, needing to listen to you?” Sherman continued:
“But how can we be informed, truly, accurately, as a democratic populous, when we have such a gross excess of malignant, uninformed opinions riddling the very foundation of our free, self-governing nation state? Information, vast and intimidating as it may be, is our lifeblood as Americans. We know after years of foreign interference in our elections, that nowadays warfare rarely takes the form of explosive, beastly man-on-man action, and instead favors a corruption of our information highways, polluted with filth, deceit, and lies: all to divide our country.
It is no fault of the common man that today it is nearly impossible to get reliable information. In hindsight, we now see our trouble with falsified news sprouted its ugly head when the public began to seriously distrust the media during the spiraling “Fake News” era of 2016. But we know to diagnose a problem is not to remedy it.
There is simply too much information, spinning and swerving in all directions. Even if a report is as accurate as can be, we may find ourselves flooded with naysaying counter-reports from just as well-meaning journalists. Americans can be fervent and shrewd in our research on happenings of the day, and still be victim to unreliable information. Why must we read competing stories—about the same topic mind you—with opposite facts, with snippets of the same source quote threaded together for opposite ends? It’s only natural the American public no longer knows where to turn, no longer knows who to believe.”
He then gestured to the increasingly nervous reporters who stood watching as their frantic pens spread ink on the page and their iPhone 32bs recorded audio.
“Listen. You all have an honorable craft. On behalf of the United States, we thank you for your service to our great nation. As reporters, writers, editors, photographers and videographers, your efforts have been more than commendable, but we can no longer rely on piecemeal efforts. And as I’ve said repeatedly, the release of American news and information cannot be patchworked in an information age. We no longer live in cities and states separated by days, hours, or minutes, but by fractions of microseconds, where Joe in West Virginia might know what happened in downtown Seattle before Mayor Quimby does.
We must work together to spearhead where and how Americans obtain information. Our success is imperative for the health and recovery of our democracy. We understand some of you may be upset, some of you may be angry, but we at the Institute for Information Dissemination would like to walk hand-in-hand with the media to spread reliable, trustworthy information to the public. Without you, there couldn’t be an Institute, and we trust you know this. You are our comrades in this war against misinformation.
As the first-appointed Secretary for Information Dissemination, it is my sincerest hope that you will all view the Institute for Information Dissemination as an ally, as a friend, as a companion in the noble pursuit of truth. We are not the enemy. We are here to help, and more importantly, need your help to get there together, so we can again regain the trust of Americans in what they read and what they hear.