Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Fake News and the Age of Cynicism.

We live in an age where knowledge has never been so widely or cheaply available.  The results are all around us: the computer device you are reading this on, the artificial fabric which keeps most of us warm either in the house or on the street, the car or bus that most take to work.  All fruits of knowledge and the labour of teams of experts who wrought this knowledge into material goods.  Knowing and doing is how most people earn their living.

There is one area of life however where knowledge seems to be unwelcome and that is the public sphere.  Especially in Anglo-Saxon society, it can be considered rude to show off one’s education outside an academic or applied setting.  On one level this is fine: it is an attempt to put others’ at ease who, through whatever circumstances, may not have shared in the advantages of a good education.  In another way, it is also a defence against any bad feeling that may result from excessing erudition.  “Know-it-all”,“too clever by half” or “too clever for his own good” are peculiarly British insults for those deemed boorish or precocious thought the use of too many big words.

It seems though that this suspicion of knowledge and those who possess some (for long gone is the age when anybody can claim to know everything), has moved into a new higher level.  This did not come about by accident but instead has been long in the making.  
The media have had a long history of skewing the news to fit their particular agenda.  When it comes to newspapers that has been long accepted as people are free to purchase the news that appeals to their own sensibility.  As for state-run media, the free-to-air stuff where most people get their daily news, it is more dangerous.  If the facts are tailored to fit the government view, this will work while the the media outlets are still relatively limited.  In the age of the Internet though, that is no longer the case.

Obviously the Internet changed everything and what the world is seen since is a constant struggle for control.  Some nations like China have been particularly heavy-handed with the setting up of the Great Firewall.  Others like Russia have more relied upon monitoring of internal consumers and  that for the majority of the population, English is still not widely spoken or read.

What happens though in the West?  It is impossible to suppress the news completely.  Facts can be challenged and checked.  So the answer is to attack the facts themselves.  This is not a competition between facts so that a path ahead can be mapped out based upon some reason, but rather the undermining of facts by downright contradiction, making it less possible to see reason at all.  

Contradiction and outright lying in politics has of course a long history.  It’s theoretical basis is outlined in the beginning of Plato’s Republic: rulers occasionally have to lie to the population, concealing a current truth in order to bring about a beneficial outcome.  

What happens though when the desired outcome is not beneficial to most, but rather to a narrow clique?  In order for this to be achieved, the last thing that most people should be told is the truth. Instead people will have their prejudices pandered to.  Something going wrong?  It cannot be Our fault can it?  We are wonderful!  It must be Their fault.  It doesn’t really matter who They are, as long as there is a recognisable difference.  The point is that it is Them that are holding Us back.  There might be too many of Them here.  Their culture does not fit with Our culture and ways.  They are a burden on society.  If it wasn’t for Their rules, we would be free to do everything better.   Even worse, the Elite is on Their side!  Elites cite Facts in order to bamboozle ordinary folk like You and Me.  Unless You are one of those who go around citing Facts?  Are You an Expert?  In which case You are a member of the Elite and thus either one of Them or, even worse, a traitor to the rest of Us.

I am not even going to pick a side here to attack.  There are so many to choose from nowadays.  Once political debate is reduced to the Them versus Us, facts and reason no longer matter.  The people who buy into whoever version of this are lost to both.  Instead their opinion is putty in the hands of whoever feeds them dialogue.  It is not even news.  It does not even have to be a version of reality because the motives of anybody who contradicts the dialogue must be acting from the worst of motives.  People have been trained to be cynical.

I will leave you with a suggestion.  If you automatically dismiss everything said by somebody you identify as an opponent.  If you are in the habit of branding certain parties as evil.  If you object to certain people simply by their presence. If you call for freedom from dictatorship without having any clear idea or knowing solid examples of what form that oppression takes.  If you only use facts to further your cause. 

If any one or more of these points rings a bell with you, ask yourself these questions:

Who is doing the thinking for me?  
What do they hope to achieve?  

Why am I not getting the all the facts so I can make up my own mind?

Then go and get those facts and be careful of those who would have you disbelieve that it is possible to do so.  The Internet is here: use it well.