Lying, half-truths, ‘misspeaking’, or obfuscation are now political skills much as was rhetoric in ancient Greece. Honesty and frankness – and there are many honest politicians – come as a welcome surprise. Many blame governments’ general disposition to avoid the truth and cover up how they got us into our current mess. They have certainly contributed to mushrooming belief in conspiracies.
The implausible has becomes plausible. A public accustomed to being hoodwinked and manipulated has become prone to mistrusting the trustworthy as trust in those with power evaporates and the line between truth and falsehood is deliberately blurred. Groups form networks around misinformation shared on the internet. It is not all to governments’ disadvantage. People confused are easier to control.
The internet has accelerated a privatisation of truth creating different worlds, mind-sets and ideologies each with their different certainties. The internet giants now sustain political sub-cultures with targeted flows of information and misinformation alongside targeted advertising. And targeting depends on what the data-brokers know about us, what we think and what we want. In the digital world the idea that the CIA staged 9/11 as well as the type of sweater you like are both passed on in ‘packages’ of data travelling at lightning speed along networks of cables. Someone in the internet’s human infrastructure gets vastly richer in the process. And it is not going to be me or you.
What happens after we lift the lid on our laptop and log on, or pull down the endless tweets on our mobile phone, is hidden from all but the canniest members of the IT aristocracy. Talking heads on TV lying to us risk being exposed in their lies but there is no transparency whatsoever on the internet. There we are plied with cookies and the cookies make our data available, data which is sold on by whom or to whom we know not. This is just one reason I recommend in passing James Ball’s The System: who owns the internet, and how it owns us, published by Bloomsbury last year. It tries to explain to my generation, those who sat at school desks with inkwells not laptops, how it all began, what goes on, why and how something can be done about it, and how the paradox of the ‘privatisation’ of our politics accompanies our loss of privacy.
The overall impact of the internet is ambiguous like that of all epoch-changing technologies. On the one hand it is a tool of direct democracy. People find each other, are alerted to their strength in numbers, decide to act, sometimes to take to the streets against authoritarian rulers. We are beginning to see the impact in Russia. The original dream of Tim Berners-Lee and other founders of the internet - still glimpsed in Jimmy Wales Wikipedia - that they were creating a benign mode of communication and information flow that would defeat the limitations of time and distance, still lingers on. Families and friends can keep in touch, or rather communicate with each other though not ‘in touch’, and whole libraries of information are a few taps away.
On the other hand people in reinforcing cyber-enclaves share and absorb misinformation and pernicious fantasies. The silo syndrome is older than you think. Amongst the earliest users of the nascent internet in the 1980s were US white supremacists and militias. A quarter of a century ago, the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh’s bedroom was reported to be like a computer laboratory. More recently Da’esh online recruitment was famously professional. The 2017 Unite the Right riots in Charlottesville showed how effective online recruitment can be in bringing together disparate groups.
Why this receptiveness to lies? Yale history professor, Timothy Snyder’s believes that the decline of local newspapers ended the kind of reporting that readers could verify for themselves. If you spelt the names right of the winners of the flower show people were going to believe you got the big stories right too. And heaven help you if you didn’t. National newspapers were too distanced for many - and thus a shared local community perception of social reality was lost, replaced by shock-jocks’ ranting, extreme right websites, and whatever Big Lie was circulating nationally or even internationally. Enter far right the heterogeneous mob that attacked the Capitol.
Authoritarian regimes are well aware that the truth is their enemy. We owe the rapid spread of the Coronavirus to an entrenched culture of falsehood and deception within the Chinese Communist Party. At all costs Party officials tried to avoid delivering bad news for fear of the messenger being punished. Putin seems genuinely frightened by Alexei Navalny because he is brave enough to defy the kleptocracy’s terror tactics to the point of repeatedly risking his own life. His courage and ability to survive assassination attempts have inspired Russian youth. The truth may not always set you free but it has got 100,000 people out onto the streets of Russia’s cities.
Against this grim background are there lessons for our own small island? First, democracy cannot thrive if the electorate is routinely misinformed by government and by a partly supportive Press disguising deceit, incompetence or worse. We are becoming aware that democracy cannot be taken for granted. And increasingly citizens are taking action to defend it.
Finally, there is an accepted right to truth. The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides a basis for the right of victims of grave human rights violations and their families, as well as society as a whole, to find out the truth. It has not been without results, notably the Truth Commissions. The UN has an annual Right to Truth Day on 24 March chosen to coincide with the date of St. Oscar Romero’s assassination in El Salvador. It is an interesting example of Catholic thinking about human dignity converging with UN thinking about human rights, two approaches often thought of, and presented as, dissonant.
Actually the Catholic tradition also puts truth into a wider human rights context. Pope John XXIII, less than two months before he died of cancer in 1963, writing in his encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) addressed not just his Church but all people: “before a society can be considered well-ordered, creative, and consonant with human dignity, it must be based on truth. St. Paul expressed this as follows: ‘Putting away lying speak ye the truth every man with his neighbour for we are members one of the other’. (Ephesians IV.25). Not a bad text for the Republicans in the USA and the Johnson coterie here in the UK to consider.
See TheArticle 01/02/2021