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Post-truth world: Fight against fake news - Seismic 2016: International

When hard truths lose out to seductive lies

The spread of fake news worldwide has raised concern but it has also galvanised efforts to combat the problem

Did you know that the Pope already endorsed Mr Donald Trump as US president, urging faithful Catholics to vote for him months before Mr Trump faced the American electorate?

Were you aware that, once safely outside the European Union, Britain would be able to reconnect to its former colonies and recreate the splendour and prosperity of its old empire? And did you know that, recently, a teenage Russian girl was repeatedly raped in Germany by Muslim migrants, but that the German government hushed up the entire affair and allowed the perpetrators to escape unpunished because it did not wish to admit that Germany's immigration policies are filling Europe with dangerous criminals?

If you were not familiar with these stories, don't worry too much, though. Because they are utterly false, complete concoctions from beginning to end. Yet each one of these stories was believed by tens of millions of people during this outgoing year. And each one had direct consequences, by contributing to changed political realities in the countries concerned.

Welcome to our "post-truth" times, an era when politicians can get elected and nations can be persuaded to make fateful decisions not on the basis of facts, but on the basis of emotions, stirred up by often deliberately manufactured lies.

Oxford Dictionaries chose post-truth - an adjective defined as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief" - as its international word of the year.


In the US, Mr Donald Trump succeeded by transforming his lack of government experience and the absence of any experts on his electoral team into the very source of his electoral appeal. PHOTO: NYTIMES

And for good reasons, for this phenomenon of replacing truth with "believability" is hugely significant, and stands to undermine the very foundations of good governance and rules-based politics.


Mainstream US media outlets, including The Washington Post, have seen an increase in paid subscriptions even as the post-truth age widens its appeal. And social media like Twitter and Facebook cannot defend themselves by saying that they are just platforms for other people's ideas. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Post-truth is not, of course, an entirely new development. Think of Nazi Germany's systematic extermination of millions of Jews in facilities masquerading as labour camps. Think of the Soviet Union of the 1930s, when the "workers and peasant socialist paradise" killed millions of workers and peasants.

The battle against the post-truth age will not be easy, since "a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its trousers on", as Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime leader, is reputed to have said. Still, this is a fight in which governments are increasingly aided by many volunteer fact-checking websites, so the same technology which gave birth to the post-truth world is also helping us combat it. And individuals are also beginning to stir: Paid subscriptions to mainstream US media outlets such as The Washington Post have risen.


Many of these lies were either specifically manufactured or propagated by agents of foreign governments. Very few cyber or intelligence specialists in any Western country doubt that Russia's security services assisted in the bombardment of fake news which helped Mr Trump win the US elections, or that Russian front organisations are peddling anti-immigrant fake stories favouring extremist parties in Europe.

 

And recall the Great Leap Forward of Mao Zedong's China, which resulted in the deadliest leap backwards in Chinese history.

In each one of these events, the publicly proclaimed reality was diametrically at odds with actual reality.

Besides, resorting to lies for political advantage is hardly a unique phenomenon; for as long as human beings had something to say, they also uttered words which were untrue. And truth itself has often been a fungible concept.

Recall the spin doctors who were so popular a decade ago with politicians who wanted to massage perceptions.

Still, there is something particularly dangerous about today's post-truth world. For we are not talking about subjective interpretations of controversial events; what we are witnessing instead is the rise of a new phenomenon of completely invented news stories, concerning events which never happened.

The sheer quantity of such fake news is also staggering. In the final three months before the latest US presidential ballots, the top 20 fake news stories generated more engagement from the American public than the top electoral stories published by The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Statistically, therefore, lies have already become reality.

Furthermore, many of these lies were either specifically manufactured or propagated by agents of foreign governments. Very few cyber or intelligence specialists in any Western country doubt that Russia's security services assisted in the bombardment of fake news which helped Mr Trump win the US elections, or that Russian front organisations are peddling anti-immigrant fake stories favouring extremist parties in Europe.

But the most significant element is what this post-truth world tells us about the long-term consequences of the electronic age. When the Internet first became a platform of mass communication, the assumption was that this would be a positive development: With facts available at one's fingertips on every handheld device, policy choices will be better informed, more politicians will be held to account, and more people will engage in public debate.

In fact, precisely the opposite has happened. While the Internet expanded public debate, it also created alternative communities which blocked out the evolution of ideas and filtered out views they did not like. Twitter and Facebook as well as a whole host of chat rooms effectively operate as echo chambers, in which the more you engage with one view, the more the software algorithms of these platforms connect you to others who share similar views and prejudices.

The emergence of such "deaf communities" of people for whom the distinction between truth and fiction is only a matter of degree has impacted on global politics in three fundamental and wholly negative ways.

It has created an electorate highly susceptible to conspiracy theories, one which responds to impulse rather than reason. Millions of American voters were ready to believe any fake story about Mrs Hillary Clinton, the Democratic US presidential candidate, since they already spent years online castigating the Clintons as the devil incarnate. And extremist, racist European politicians are doing well because they are merely harvesting the votes of those who found refuge from politically-correct speech on various websites where race hatred is now the norm.

Online social platforms also marginalised the mainstream media, thereby lowering the intellectual standards of debate.

There are no longer quality filters, and no bars to what passes as news.

This week alone, news flashed across computer screens that US President-elect Trump has threatened war against Mexico, and that a terrorist bomb went off in Bangkok. Both were false items which any self-respecting newspaper editor would have nixed. But in the absence of information gatekeepers, both stories fooled crowds.

Facebook went as far as activating its "safety check" in response to the Bangkok "bombing".

Yet the most negative aspect of this post-truth age has been the rise of an anti-expert sentiment, the rejection of the idea that some people know more about a subject than us, and that we should therefore be guided by their views and experience.

 
 

"Britons have had enough of experts" was how Michael Gove, a British Cabinet minister, reacted when confronted by almost unanimous expert opinion that his country will be poorer outside the European Union. It was Mr Gove who won the argument.

And in the US, Mr Trump succeeded by transforming his lack of government experience and the absence of any experts on his electoral team into the very source of his electoral appeal.  Having a strong opinion about something is now considered the same as knowing something; a sinister strain of anti-intellectualism has now descended on the world.

Can anything be done to tackle this baleful prospect? Yes, a great deal. Governments should not be frightened to reassert their exclusive sovereignty over their electoral processes. That would mean that Western governments would have to relinquish their habit of pontificating about the "democratic credentials" of elections in other countries.

But that would be a small price to pay in return for preventing the manipulation of elections by hostile governments. Germany's determination to have 13,000 cyber security agents ready to defend the country's ballots in October next year is a commendable step in this direction.

Many more governments should also consider making participation in elections compulsory. Extremist politicians and ideas usually triumph when electoral systems are discredited and electoral participation is low.

Countries should also be less reluctant to police what is being said on social media. Google, Twitter and Facebook cannot continue to claim they are merely platforms for other people's ideas. Although technically complex, they should be compelled to find ways of discriminating against fake news.

And government institutions could play a more aggressive role in promoting the importance of professional expertise.

There is no reason, for instance, why national statistical agencies cannot take a more robust role in publicly refuting false claims made by politicians.

None of this entails the adoption of a patronising, condescending approach to electorates.

Experts are not always right, and challenging the veracity of news remains a healthy exercise.

But that should not prevent governments from defending the virtues of fact-based policies.

The battle against the post-truth age will not be easy since "a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its trousers on", as Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime leader, is reputed to have said.

Still, this is a fight in which governments are increasingly aided by many volunteer fact-checking websites, so the same technology which gave birth to the post-truth world is also helping us combat it.

And individuals are also beginning to stir: Paid subscriptions to mainstream US media outlets such as The Washington Post have risen.

An indication, perhaps, that the year which gave birth to the post-truth age may also has been the year when truth and accuracy in media reporting have begun to be cherished again.  

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline 'When hard truths lose out to seductive lies'. Print Edition | Subscribe