As a new survey finds that fake news travels faster and convinces more people than real news, Elizabeth-Anne Wheal gives a perspective on truth in the age of information warfare.
Will anyone ever tell the whole truth about the Salisbury poisoning? We probably know the answer to that, and in light of the available facts many of us, including the UK and US governments, have already decided to forgo waiting for a confession and make our own judgement – our own truth. This will have significant consequences, political and economic, but I admit I’ve got other concerns.
As a historian and journalist, I know that the truth and lies equation is not a binary one and that establishing what’s true has never been a simple process. I know that the truth (as opposed to a truth or fact) is at best an alloy, not a pure substance, although we operate a cultural consensus that tells us otherwise. Above all, I know that, like a rare plant, truth can only exist by husbandry, in an ecosystem that supplies its key nutrients, and these include trust, honesty, consensus and cooperation. Truth is also ephemeral and elusive. It drifts, it slips through fingers, it gets tainted by possession. It’s sometimes intuitive too. And that is fine, as long as we all know, and we all agree, that those elastic, porous and contingent characteristics prevail.
But in an era of Internet-based, information warfare, the battles aren’t just being fought by global business. Governments and state actors, terrorists, criminals and even children are engaging – C4 traced one fake news boiler room to Serbia, where teenagers were cashing in by creating entirely fictional political headlines in support of Trump – and the truth about truth is being thoroughly overwhelmed. Truth is now being made not sought. It is being appropriated, hypothecated, rebranded and weaponised in the fight for soldiers, voters, consumers and subscribers. This new alloy is called post-truth. Secret, post-truth boiler rooms are burgeoning, like satanic mills, around the globe, using sockpuppet and spambot armies to fashion horrifying (un)truth out of fiction, and demand only blind faith in payment. A global daily deluge of tweets, posts, blogs, podcasts, pronouncements and articles stridently declares ownership of the whole truth about something, while simultaneously denouncing as lies the truth proclaimed by rivals.
As this monsoon of truth, lies, fake news, post-truth and statistics rains relentlessly down, we’re in danger of drowning – and while we’re drowning, more and more of us seem to be grabbing for and clinging furiously to whatever ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ offer the least ambiguous, most certain route to anything that looks like dry land. And because we’re scared and angry, we’re ready to give up our high-maintenance husbandry of the truth, ditch our trust, empathy and cooperation and listen only to the guy who says he will save us from the flood. We haven’t got time for the messy, ambiguous, boring story of truth. We want simple, sure solutions, and we want them now. It’s a natural response, but not a healthy one.
Truth was a simple absolute for me, until I was about six: the first time I remember hearing my mother tell a whopper of a ‘white’ lie (an oddly quaint notion these days) which was then instantly and permanently entered into the record of Truth by the person she was talking to. I remember my mother’s glance at me as she told it, and how it felt to be drawn into the conspiracy: nervous-making and grown-up all at the same time. As I got older, I became an increasingly fascinated observer of the ways in which all of us humans individually and mutually mythologise experience, touch up, smooth over or simply invent and reinvent our truths, often out of benign motives.
Fast-forward to me as a nerdy, teenage history student, and I’m indignant to discover that even published history isn’t true. I learn that ‘historical truth’ too often means a simplified and/or often glaringly partial cover-version of complex subjects, written by a few men pursuing their own agendas, who often had no direct experience or knowledge of the subject at hand. Later, though, as the author of books about 20th-century war and politics, I had to concede how challenging it really is to tie down anything you could confidently call historical truth. And further, that the requirement to deliver even an approximation of the whole truth on a subject, in anything shorter than a thousand pages, often ends up by warping it. In history, as in life, the demand for truth often obscures the reality and complexity of causality, and finally damages truth itself.
Years later, while researching for a multi-part television drama involving a murder trial, I was given the phone number of an eminent legal contact to call for a general discussion about criminal trials. He turned out to be one of the authors of the PACE law – one of the most important pieces of late 20th century justice legislation – so I felt I was going to get a definitive perspective. I began by asking what I hoped was an intelligent question about the way truth is arrived at during a trial. There was a distinct intake of breath on the other end of the phone, followed by a brief, stifled titter. “My dear,” he intoned with supreme condescension, “you must know that truth often has little to do with the matter.” I swallowed my reaction and asked him to explain. “Our adversarial system offers the jury two narratives, constructed using a careful selection of facts. The job of the advocate on either side is to convince the jury that their assemblage of facts tells the most credible, most coherent story. The truth,” and here he paused for effect, “may or may not be party to that process.” This was a great note for my research, even if it took me a while to get over my sense of shock that justice could be served even if The Truth wasn’t necessarily being welcomed inside our courtrooms.
But the broader lesson was an important one. Truth is in part an aspiration, an ideal to aspire to, a rallying call to our better natures. Truth is precious, because it is hard to find and keep, and requires our best efforts at all times. These best efforts keep truth alive, but they also underpin our society and our democracy at a fundamental level. If we stop listening (and sometimes conceding) to others, if we no-platform people whose perspectives we don’t want to hear, if we stop caring what lies we tell to win an argument, if we sell truth for clicks, I worry that we humans will struggle to survive at all, let alone thrive.
If this sounds hysterical or naïve, I should reiterate that I’m naturally inclined to pragmatism rather than idealism. The art of the possible. I understand, for example, that politics always has been the art, in part, of selling a fantasy – a vision of society and nation as it is, and as it could or should be – then persuading its public to believe in that vision. This art of political fabrication is employed by centrists, not just extremists. And it’s sometimes necessary – we have to envision, believe and invest before we actually build. But like Frodo’s ring, the power to persuade also corrupts. Hopes become certainties; disagreements become hostile conspiracies; dissent becomes betrayal. Without its supporting ecosystem, truth and the aspiration to it wither. The bigger the lie, the more corrosive it is, triggering insecurity, anger and fear, and softening up its audience for even more outrageous fantasies and lies.
History is littered with relevant cautionary tales. National Socialism and the abhorrent untruths that fed it didn’t appear out of a vacuum in Germany in the early 20th century. It was the Kaiser’s ruthlessly black propaganda – pumping out over monopolised communications systems before, during and after the First World War – that softened up millions of ordinary Germans for the horrific Aryan fantasies that Hitler was going to peddle for the next ten years. And as we know, it was in part complacency about those fantasies – seen as dismissible by liberal European elites – that later enabled the Third Reich.
Trump plays a version of this truth-making-and-taking game with the skill of a natural. As with Hitler and Stalin (to name but two of history’s most brazen liars), his supercilious, my-one’s-bigger-than-yours disregard for truthfulness seduces his audience into believing that together, their untruths can unmake and remake reality. He tells them that the ‘truth’ he speaks is more valuable because it’s his audience’s and his shared truth. He also tells them repeatedly to trust no one except him, because everyone else is lying. When I watch Trump delivering those fast-food solutions to America’s problems to receptive audiences, it frightens me to see how hungrily and rapturously those audiences eat it up. Lies and fantasies are, it seems, like information pot noodles – additive packed, addictive and potentially poisonous. Truth is a plain, nutritious meal that needs a lot more chewing.
Trump may be the new archetype for the post-truth world. If so, we need to get quickly back to basics, and equip all our citizens with the knowledge that the pursuit of truth is as crucial to us as air we breathe. We need to be aware that getting to the truth of something requires research, interpretation, scepticism, and appreciation of the ‘truth’ limits to any argument or case. We also need to equip people with the confidence to make judgements based on those processes.
We need to fight fake news, spin and lies, not with outrage and fear and hate but with understanding, knowledge and confidence in our own judgements. We need all our citizens to remind themselves about the problem with truth and facts: that the only truth worth its name is by its nature consensual; and that the adversarial slapdown between my fact and your fact is killing truth, just as surely as it’s eroding our willingness to listen to or consider what we don’t want to hear. Right now, as a matter of urgency, we need to get smart about truth.