Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Post Truth, the Big Brother of disinformation

MY first piece for Muslim Views for 2017 was meant to be a rediscovery of Shaikh Yusuf of Makasar. But events in Syria over the holiday period have presented more pressing issues, so Shaikh Yusuf is on the back-burner for now. This is because Syria has typified everything that has been going on in the media in the past year, an annus horribilis for us journalists covering world events.

What caught my attention was that the Oxford Dictionary had voted ‘post truth’ the word of the year. By definition, post-truth is when objectivity – or reason – becomes less influential than truth in shaping public opinion. To put it more bluntly, the post-truth era gives public figures the licence to lie.

The US comedian, Steven Colbert, called it ‘truthiness’, a belief that what you feel is true rather than what the facts support. In this scenario, it makes it easy to find a Zionist under every bush, or the forces of white capitalism behind every corrupted South African politician.

The Syrian conflict, representing a myriad of agendas from at least six foreign players, has been the worst victim. And when states can spread falsehood with such sophistication – as the US, Israel, Russia and Iran can – post-truth becomes a dangerous and divisive thing. Is Syria a US-Russia Cold War play? Is it about gas pipelines? Is it about the so-called ‘Shi’ah crescent?’

Most of us hear only what we want to hear, and the consequences are far reaching. It’s a cliché, but we do live in a worldwide village of overwhelming data – raw unprocessed data – and in this digital universe there is always someone prepared to pedal our worldview, despite its unreality.

In other words, conspiracy theories can be created at will. Climate change can be dismissed; politicians can use non-sequitir, or blame ghostly third forces, when facing our serious questions on economics, governance and accountability. Truth becomes relative, and not the absolute it should be.

The prime example of this is Donald Trump, a congenital liar tapping randomly into societal unease by spewing xenophobia, sexism and preying on genuine working-class fears. Indeed, Trump was click-bait deluxe; and by simply being Donald, he grabbed the headlines.

The US media, who’d feasted on his crassness, only realised too late that they’d let a genie out of a bottle. Middle America, yearning for a quick-fix to its enduring socio-economic woes, had been stirred by Trump’s armchair mantras, which sometimes hit the target, and sometimes not – except that when they didn’t nobody was listening.

Another phenomenon, together with post-truth, has been the advent of ‘fake news’ pedalled especially on Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes advertising ploys designed to generate mouse-clicks, and sometimes mischievous – or even genuinely satirical ventures – these fake news URLs have created havoc in the media.

With newsrooms already gutted by digital attrition and corporate cost-cutting, the few qualified journalists left behind have been left to deal with the damage. There is hardly a newsroom in the land that doesn’t have a list on its bulletin board naming fake news sites due their reporters having fallen for the trick.

The US website, BuzzFeed, reported that President Obama had banned the pledge of allegiance in schools. It clocked up two million hits before being found untrue. Other major fake news events were the Pope endorsing Trump, ISIS supporting Hilary Clinton and a woman defecating on her boss’s desk after winning the lottery.

Back home we had Zuma dying (several times), Mandoza passing on (he hadn’t), the government banning lobola, Trump threatening to capture Robert Mugabe and a gay baboon terrorising a village. And whilst some of the fake news is indeed funny, and difficult to take seriously, reports of people dying are not.

Where fake news and post-truth have their worst impact, however, is in parts of the world where there is conflict. When the Russian-Iranian supported advance on eastern Aleppo became news in December, it was an immediate headache. With ‘fake’ journalists abounding, from Syrian and other quarters, it became difficult to ascertain exactly what was going on.

From ‘embedded’ reporters in east Aleppo – whose phone batteries mysteriously never went flat – to Russian shills, it seemed as if one was dealing with entirely different universes. Reports varied from people cheering at Assad-aligned troops to women committing suicide at the prospect of being raped by Assad-aligned troops.  

In all of this, we journalists trying to make sense of things have also become victims – mainly of abuse – in a case of if your agenda doesn’t fit someone else’s, it becomes a case of shoot the messenger. There is no neutral space, and even humanitarian organisations have felt the trigger.

In emotionally polarised scenarios, it is so much easier for people to hang on to post-truth, than to interrogate events. Burst that bubble, and your life will become hell: the invective will be harsh, it will recognise no personal boundaries – and what is worse, it will come from mainly anonymous sources, themselves mirroring the worst of the sectarianism tearing the Middle East apart.

Of course, criticism is healthy and part of the job, but 2016 has definitely been the worst in four decades of journalism. And if we think 2017 is going to be any better, we are going to be disappointed – post-truth has been coming at us for some time, and terrifyingly, looks like it will be around for some time too.

Twenty-five years ago, a Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich first coined the term ‘post-truth’ in an essay entitled ‘A Government of Lies’He wrote in The Nation that after Watergate and Vietnam, the US public had come to equate truth with bad news. Consequently, it didn’t want bad news anymore, no matter how vital it was to the health of the nation. “We looked to our government to protect us from the truth,” wrote Tesich.

And whilst the initial context of post-truth is an American one, this Big Brother of disinformation in our digital century has ensured that its effects will be global. The implications for the future of the world community understanding itself are frightening. And a quarter of a century later, Tesich’s words are still poignant:

“We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams. All the dictators up to now have had to work hard at suppressing the truth. We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.”

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