Fake news, gaslighting and the truth that can be known

By Jill Segger
August 8, 2018

Three or four years ago, we still had some trust in politicians. Facts and evidence held a significant, if not total sway in our thinking. The rot probably began to set in when Sean Spicer made wild claims as to the size of the crowds at Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony.

The White House Press Secretary insisted that the numbers gathered  in Washington’s National Mall on 20 January 2017 represented “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”

Both aerial photographs and figures shared by the Washington subway system soon showed this claim to be completely false. Nonetheless, Mr Spicer continued on his hopeless course, angrily berating journalists for “minimising” the new President’s support. Thus the concept of ‘fake news’ entered the lexicon.

Sean Spicer – a man in an impossible situation and arguably more sinned against than sinning – is long gone. But the idea that whatever evidence or experience may be inconvenient to power can be dismissed as ‘fake news’ has not only remained with us, but in Donald Trump’s increasingly morally and democratically impoverished world view, has expanded to a profoundly dangerous degree. Whatever is inconvenient to the president – and his own behaviour has greatly increased the content of this catalogue – is the work of an estate of democracy which, according to Trump, is “sleazy”, “scum”, “slime”, “among the worst human beings I have ever met”, and most recently, “enemies of the people”. This last epithet, favoured by Stalin, Hitler and Mao, increases the likelihood of violence against members of a free press.

We are all aware that the contagion has crossed the Atlantic and the Parliamentary Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport acknowledged and exposed this in their report last week.

The coil of malpractice and deceit between Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the Vote Leave Campaign is now clear to see. The Electoral Commission has found Vote Leave guilty of breaking electoral law on spending limits during the EU Referendum campaign to a degree which had “serious implications” for the result. These facts were leaked, then pre-empted, pre-rebutted and spun by those upon whom they have shone a spotlight. The checks and balances provided by our laws and constitutional systems are increasingly dismissed as ‘fake news’ and if we are to resist the rapidly growing danger this poses to the operation of democracy, we need to consider our own responsibilities in terms of reason and moral alertness.

Technology has made possible the abuse of data and micro-targetting. Tailoring partial information and misinformation to fit the opinions of individuals is now the game. But if we remain unaware of how we are being gamed, no amount of indignation will mend the situation. It is perhaps not altogether surprising that shelters of cynicism are being built on these shifting sands.

It is time for us all to take stock. Time to check facts and question sources. Time to acknowledge that complex situations are not unravelled by hasty responses. Time to reflect that conviction is not directly proportional to either noise or vehemence. Time to give root-room to intelligently and reasonably grounded trust while being diligent in digging out the cynicism which creates the violence of perpetual suspicion: the ‘gas-lighting’ which seeks to destroy belief in the very possibility of truth.

Because legitimacy is a process as well as an outcome, we, the people, have a part to play. It is easy to feel that things are spiralling into an ethical chaos in which we can find no foothold. This is exactly what the proponents of ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘false flags’ want us to believe. It must never be permitted to become the ‘new normal’ of a democratic society.

It is as important to remember that not all politicians are amoral, mendacious, racist and self serving as it is to recognise and push back at those who are. Realising that there are serious flaws in the way our mainstream media are reporting the political and social culture – often as much by presenting partial facts out of context as by outright falsehood, although the latter is not unknown – should not blind us to the inaccuracies and convenient omissions of the growing number of alternative online news outlets. If confirmation bias makes us willing to collude with attempts to mislead, or to overlook inconvenient facts, then we are part of the problem. And none of us are immune to this temptation. “People see what they look for and hear what they listen for”, observed Judge Taylor in To Kill a Mockingbird: a warning that the search for what is truthful is a good deal more difficult than seeking out factoids to weaponise.

We are experiencing very unstable times. The United States, the world’s most dominant military and economic power, is in the grip of a lazy, hyper-egotistical president with a short attention span and a marked indifference to facts, logic, law and the Constitution. In our own country, Brexit divides and dominates; the racist and xenophobic are growing in confidence. A minority government survives due to the purchased support of a Northern Ireland party which opposed the Good Friday Agreement. Cabinet Ministers mislead Parliament and remain in post. MPs shout obscenities and ill-evidenced accusations at each other. Leaks are fore-leaked and claims without clear attribution abound. The questioning of many of these behaviours make you a cuck, a snowflake, a libtard, a traitor, an anti-semite. In so many unpleasant and disturbing situations we find ourselves saying “I don’t know what to believe any longer...”

Confusion and fear, as was forecast by documentary film-maker Adam Curtis, are sown to make us feel constantly off balance and under threat. Let us not make this easier for those who would corrupt power to their own narrow ends. We can resist. We have the rule of law and a long-standing tradition of parliamentary democracy. We have our own consciences and we have institutions which are valiant in defence of all these strongholds. We can both take refuge within these and stand in support of them. It is never a waste of effort to make our views known: to politicians, to media organisations, to editors and to our fellow citizens. In doing so, we affirm the fact that there is truth and that it can be known.

Hear the prophet Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.