Discernment vital in 'post-truth' world

Regardless of whether we keep up with world affairs through books, newspapers or other means, such as social media ("Read political tomes? Newspapers good enough" by Mrs Marietta Koh, Jan 18; and "Can Singaporeans read?", Jan 14), what is paramount is that we always exercise sound judgment as to the veracity of the information.

In this regard, we should trust that books, newspapers and other authoritative means of communication would be more credible than social media.

We must always be wary of "fake news" that abounds on the Internet, such as the reports which played an outsized role in the recent United States election as well as Brexit.

Indeed, in our "post-truth" world, public opinion has been swayed by distorted facts and even outright lies.

Verifiable facts, it seems, have taken a back seat to sentiments aroused by emotions and populism ("When reality bites in a 'post-truth' world"; Nov 27, 2016).

In recent years, psychologists and political scientists have revealed the extent to which we are susceptible to manufactured claims - which feel right, even if they have no factual basis, and which people want to believe, as the claims fit their pre-existing attitudes.

In an ideal world, people would determine which facts to believe by carefully weighing the evidence.

However, we are prone to biases, and our reasoning often begins with our preconceived notions. We tend to find "facts" that support what we already believe. And if we are presented with facts that contradict our beliefs, we find ingenious ways to dismiss them.

Widespread use of social media has been blamed for the ease with which fake news has been disseminated.

In the aftermath of Mr Donald Trump's election as US president, Facebook has been criticised for giving the same credence to fabricated stories as it does factual ones, which has entrenched and polarised public opinion.

The truth may be uncomfortable or inconvenient, such as the evidence regarding climate change, but we can solve problems only by embracing a rational set of accepted facts rather than believing in lies masquerading as facts.

Singaporeans should always exercise discernment.

We should always be on our guard against dubious claims.

It is our duty to help dispel fake news which may harm our society.

Maria Loh Mun Foong (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2017, with the headline 'Discernment vital in 'post-truth' world'. Print Edition | Subscribe