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perspective

When reality bites in a ‘post-truth’ world


It used to be that black was black, and white was white. Then came fifty shades of grey.

Beyond a point, it began to seem that the colour was whatever you said it was, provided you shouted loud enough or repeated it over and again. 
This, we are told, is the new “post-truth” world, where things are not always what they seem, and you neither have to mean what you say nor say what you mean.
In this new world, politicians have been busy reassuring US President-elect Donald Trump that no one really thought he would do as he pledged on the stump, and fewer still would mind if he simply forgot his campaign vows.
The reason for this is simple: Him doing what he promised is just too scary to contemplate, so isn’t it better if we let it slide, and all just get along?
That way, we might conclude that climate change is not a “hoax invented by China”, as Trump claimed, and instead “keep an open mind, to study the issue very hard”, as he now proposes.
In this post-truth world, “fake news” reports do not need to be checked or corroborated; all that matters is that audiences like, engage with and share content. The game is to get the story out and hope that it might just stick if enough people read it, “share” and begin to think that it is must be so.
The proliferation of such bogus reports has become a global phenomenon, with political leaders from the United States, Germany and Italy, as well as here in Asia, voicing concerns and calling for action to put it right.
Among them was US President Barack Obama, who pointed out that on social media platforms such as Facebook, an explanation of global warming by a Nobel Prize winner looks no different from one by a paid climate-change denier.
Today’s communication tools, he added, make it far easier to spread misinformation and wild conspiracy theories to hit out at opponents wildly.
The result: a sharply polarised society, in which it is “very difficult to have a common conversation”.
He added: “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not and if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.” 
An analysis by the Buzzfeed website found that, of the 20 fake news stories that generated the most “shares” on Facebook in the final months before the US elections, all but three leaned towards Trump. Furthermore, these stories held the attention of Facebook users longer than the top 20 stories from more traditional media organisations.
This has led to calls for Facebook to face up to its responsibilities for the content shared on its platform. But, lamentably, it was only after its initial assertion that it was not a publisher but a “technology company” was widely derided that it finally came out to say that it would work on curbing the spread of fabricated content.
The best riposte to this I have come across was from News Corp’s chief executive, Robert Thomson, who told the Financial Times that the likes of Facebook and Google “are in digital denial”.
“Of course they are publishers, and being a publisher comes with the responsibility to protect and project the provenance of news.
“The great papers have grappled with that sacred burden over the decades and centuries, and you can’t absolve yourself from the burden or the costs of compliance by saying, ‘We are a technology company.’”
And, as the world becomes ever more complex, the need for journalists and editors to seek out information and answers to help readers make sense of it all will grow, not diminish.
Yet, the prevailing wisdom in the Internet age runs the other way: disintermediation has enabled everyone to freely generate content, which social media platforms aggregate or circulate for free, leaving the marketplace of ideas to sift out the spurious from the sensible and sound. Or so the theory goes.
But while the social media have been a boon in many ways, allowing for more direct communication among people around the world, it comes with a downside whereby dubious content crowds out much that is good.
Worse, as social media platforms milk content from publishers, aggregating and monetising their efforts, with little in the way of payback or investment in news gathering or original content of their own, the assumption that this parasitic relationship could continue ad infinitum, even as newsrooms are leached of resources and talent, is proving to be false.
So, societies around the world are now having to ponder the impact on their democracies. How can voters be kept informed and able to figure out “what’s true and what’s not”? 
Social media is here to stay, and if society is to thrive in this digital age, we will have to do much more to educate our young to be savvy and discerning about the content they consume.
This begins with encouraging them to read widely and deeply, as well as to stay connected and engaged with current affairs. 
Pertinent here is the story of the advertisement that once ran in the Economist magazine.
“I never read the Economist!” it quoted someone saying, in big, bold print.
In finer font below, this daft declaration was attributed to “Management trainee, aged 42”.
To my mind, the best way to protect our young from this sorry fate is to engage and empower them to read, discover and figure out the world for themselves.
For ultimately, like people everywhere, they will find that, in truth, there is no such thing as a “post-truth” world. In the end, reality will bite, the truth will out, and the price for blissful ignorance or outright folly will have to be paid.

Published : December 12, 2016

By : Warren Fernandez The Straits Times Asia News Network