News stand in India

[This opinion piece appears in the latest edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. Opinion articles do not reflect the position of the Round Table Editorial Board.]

‘An army of Pinocchios will turn the truth against you.’

Pity the journalists of South East Asia. Recent legislation makes any Malaysian writer accused of disseminating fake news guilty until proven innocent. It is hard to imagine a mental climate less favourable to a free press.

Nor are things much better in Asia more widely. In India, just now, there is no legislation specifically dealing with fake news, though the government proposes an amendment to the Information Technology Act. Laws in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka disproportionately target journalists and stifle free speech.

How did we get here?

Lying has been part of politics since early humans gathered into tribes. The digital era has allowed fake news to assume its most virulent form but it has a long history, stretching at least as far back as the Gilded Age of American history between the Civil War and World War One.

What is new is the extent to which the digital environment of social media privileges emotion and has driven truth into retreat. The right not to be reasonable – the ‘reason of unreason’ of Don Quixote – is back in fashion. Attitudes are now more decisive than facts. Veracity is no longer the ideal that it was.

This process threatens to eclipse our inherited insistence upon the truth as the main criterion in political contests. It has been underway for some time. Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal said in a national TV broadcast: ‘I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.’

George Saunders, writer and essayist, argues that something pivotal occurred with the US media’s reporting of the O.J. Simpson case. ‘Because the premise of the crime’s national importance was obviously false, it had to be bolstered. A new style of presentation had to be invented … this erosion continued through the Monica Lewinsky scandal … and dozens of lesser cases and scandals, all morbid, sensational, and blown out of proportion, often involving minor celebrities – and then came 9/11.’

The rise of the misinformation industry is another important factor, with its roots in the tobacco industry research committee of 1954 which disputed the existence of a scientific consensus about harmful effects of smoking. This provided climate change deniers with a model for their own campaigns. The trick is to keep the discussion going at all costs without ever settling the question in public (a technique that has been called ‘pernicious neutrality’). Endless confrontation of talking heads gives the illusion of a contest between equally legitimate positions.

Those Malaysian lawmakers acted in so draconian a fashion because they want the big digital social media players to take responsibility. But the zeal to regulate fake news, to many, is just as problematic as fake news itself. The Anti-Fake News Act in Malaysia was criticised by the Malaysian Bar Council for being ‘far too wide’. The Act imposes hefty fines and jail time on ‘any person who, by any means, creates, offers, publishes, prints, distributes, circulates or disseminates any fake news or publication containing fake news’.

The fake news problem is collective and systemic but the proposed solutions are individual, boiling down to such pious exhortations as investing the time we save with computers in checking facts. This approach seems quite inadequate when we stop to consider what is at stake.

As long ago as 2004 one of George W. Bush’s aides told The New York Times Magazine writer Ron Suskind that his journalistic approach was laughably outdated. ‘The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do”.’

If you think this is fantasy, think again. Powerful people in many places worldwide now subscribe to this doctrine.

What then should we do? Search me. But a constructive last word is offered by the philosopher Simon Blackburn in his book Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed: ‘We can take the post-modernist inverted commas off things that ought to matter to us: truth, reason, objectivity and confidence. They are no less, if no more, than the virtues that we should all cherish as we try to understand the bewildering world about us.’

Martin Mulligan is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.