What happens when literally every single fact is called into question in a dishonest way? When, for example, a conspiracy theorist's views on vaccines or migrant workers are seen as equal to a person with decades of experience in that field?
When this happens, the person with the biggest loudspeaker usually wins, because they can outshout everyone else. The 'loudspeaker' here can be anything: a platform, a media company, millions of followers on Twitter or Facebook, an army of trolls, and more.
In such a situation, every single question becomes a shouting match between 'my facts' versus 'your alternative facts'.
When people can no longer agree on facts, they can no longer have a consensus on anything, and when there is no consensus, bad things can happen.
Here's a list of just a few things that have broken down, at least in part due to a lack of consensus:
- The way we assess the suitability of a political candidate .
- The way GDP is calculated .
- The notion that all humans ought to be treated equally .
- The idea that institutions are worth preserving (such as the independence of the press) .
- The idea of what is right and what is wrong .
The merchants of fake news thus find it easy to divide us and confuse us by calling into question simple, widely-accepted facts.
The ground for this state of affairs was prepared by a movement called Postmodernism. Over a few decades, starting in the mid-20th century, postmodernism began influencing everything: movies, books, art, architecture, cultural and social attitudes and more.
So what is postmodernism?
Ironically, it is essentially not definable. Or as the journalist and editor Matthew D'Ancona puts it, postmodernism "is notoriously resistant to precise definition, to the point that some deny it has any coherence as a school of thought."
Still, here's what the Encyclopaedia Britannica states:
"Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in Western philosophy, [is] a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power."
How does this relate to the idea of an objective truth?
The literary critic Michiko Kakutani puts it elegantly in her book The Death of Truth: "…very broadly speaking, postmodernist arguments deny an objective reality existing independently from human perception, contending that knowledge is filtered through the prisms of class, race, gender, and other variables."
This, we should point out, was not a bad thing. For centuries, the insistence that everything is black and white had led to an uncountable number of injustices. But thanks finally to the notion of 'subjective truth', several voices that had previously been silenced began to be heard loud and clear.
However, this notion of subjective truth was exploited, as Kakutani writes, "by those who want to make the case for offensive or debunked theories, or who want to equate things that cannot be equated."
An Indian example of this is the theory forwarded by some that Ganesha, the elephant god, got his head because of ancient India's mastery of plastic surgery.
Bottomline: When you take subjectivity to the extreme, you end up with a situation where there is no such thing as the truth. As Kakutani writes, there is "no such thing as an obvious or common sense reading, because everything [has] an infinitude of meanings. In short, there [is] no such thing as truth."
This is fertile ground for the phenomenon of fake news.
The modern fake news industrial complex knows this all too well. Political parties and trolls know that the point is to simply bombard people with misinformation.
They know that with so much of it around, we end up switching off our critical faculties. We stop thinking, because it gets too overwhelming. We are then, easily hijacked by people who appeal to our rawest emotions, such as anger and hatred. When one community turns on another community, part of the reason is that they have stopped thinking and are being influenced instead by malevolent actors.
This tweet by former world chess champion Gary Kasparov is illustrative.
The point of modern propaganda isn't only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) December 13, 2016
"Not only is there such a thing as objective truth, failing to tell the truth matters", says Michiko Kakutani, "we can't control whether our public servants lie to us. But we can control whether we hold them accountable for those lies…"
Elsewhere in her book, she writes, "without commonly agreed-upon facts—not Republican facts and Democratic facts…[substitute with BJP facts or Congress facts]—there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled."
So what do we do? Here are five strategies we can develop.
1. First, we must continue to train ourselves to not fall prey to fake news. This training doesn't happen overnight though. It takes weeks to just begin and years to completely understand the modern information ecosystem. (Plug: Reading MediaBuddhi will help, as you will accompany me on my own journey to understanding.)
2. Second, we must teach our children critical thinking and media literacy. Also, we must teach them to be skeptical without becoming cynical. Start as early as 8 years, or even earlier.
3. Third, we must realise that just because we know that an objective truth can be established for many questions, doesn't mean that we will automatically find out. In many cases, the truth emerges after weeks or months or years.
4. Fourth, find a way to support good journalism. Journalists need a support system which allows them to investigate a story for many months without interference and interview a 100 people for one piece if need be.
5. Finally, develop a conscious digital and non-digital consumption strategy. It's not that we don't already use a strategy. We all do. It's just that we do so unconsciously. For example, I happened to stop watching TV news when I left broadcast journalism in 2014. I was exhausted, yet I was hard on myself for my 'failure to track the news' (I was still tracking news through my work, and in print and online!). In hindsight, this 'unconscious' call was one of the best decisions I ever made. In contrast, when I recently stepped away from Instagram and muted some people on WhatsApp, it was a conscious decision.
In addition to these five strategies, there is also the zeroeth strategy that we've already embarked on, which is to recognize that when we relentlessly call into question some facts, we are preparing the ground for fake news to bloom.
As Tyler Cowen, the economist and philosopher at George Mason University puts it in Stubborn Attachments, his manifesto for a better society:
"I treat questions of right and wrong as having correct answers, at least in principle. We should admit the existence of significant moral grey areas, but right and wrong are a kind of "natural fact," as many philosophers would say. To put it bluntly: there exists an objective right and an objective wrong."
This piece was originally published here.