Challenge of the post-truth era
Truth has become a casualty of political polarization across the world. Disinformation and deliberately misleading news are now routinely spread especially in a polarized environment to promote political and other objectives. Fake news has thrived in the digital age giving rise to what is now described as a post-truth era. This term generally refers to a milieu in which actual facts have less importance in shaping people’s opinions than their personal beliefs and prejudices. In other words, facts are readily discarded in accordance with partisan views and the criteria for establishing the truth are disputed. Instead, there is a prevalence of views that align with people’s personal preferences or existing beliefs regardless of their veracity.
Of course, fabrications and deliberately disseminated falsehoods have always been around. Fact fudging has antecedents in propaganda, comprising false narratives, that has long used to manipulate opinion for political aims. Disinformation has also been deployed by countries against enemies throughout history. What distinguishes fake news from propaganda is that individuals and non-state actors are now using it with abandon in the digital age. This makes it pervasive and omnipresent and therefore unprecedented.
So it is in Pakistan, where fake news has become an increasing part of the country’s fraught politics. It isn’t just political leaders and parties who seek to demonize adversaries by hurling frequently unsubstantiated charges or untruths but their followers as well, who set social media ablaze by posts to sully the reputation of political opponents. Such is the intensity of political polarization and animosity between warring political rivals that saying anything to vilify the other is regarded fair game. And so is political messages that fail the truth test. The no holds barred denigration of opponents has turned unproven allegations into a political weapon. Such an angry and toxic environment is fueling an unparalleled level of intolerance among supporters of rival parties.
The question raised by what is being witnessed in Pakistan and elsewhere is why fake news has become so pronounced in politics. Much of the answer can be found in the proliferation of information and digital channels and expansion of social media. Communication technology now dominates our lives. Online platforms are widely regarded as the principal vehicles for the spread of misinformation and scurrilous political content. Fake news easily circulates due to the magnifying power of digital and social media, becoming viral in this mostly unregulated environment. Anonymity in social media platforms gives the purveyors of false stories, trolls and party activists the comfort that they will not be held accountable for the lies they disseminate. Anyone can post fake news on social media, such as twitter, without fear of retribution. Social media has also enabled people seeking partisan sources of information to live in ‘digital bubbles’ and close their minds to views at variance from theirs. This has produced hyper partisanship and further deepened the political divide.
Anonymity in social media platforms gives the purveyors of false stories, trolls and party activists the comfort that they will not be held accountable for the lies they disseminate.
There seems to be a close link between the profusion of fake news and political polarization. In a polarized society, people choose to believe what their partisan side conveys or what reflects their own views. They only tune in to news channels or follow online sites which echo and confirm their own bias. Information or digital ‘bubbles’ in turn reinforce polarized views and deepen political divisions. False news has also been associated with the rise of populist leaders who unapologetically construct fact-free narratives for political gain. Demagogues and their followers across the world have been manipulating opinion by promoting conspiracy theories and fabricating threats to the country to advance their interests.
Fake news has many damaging consequences. When truth is blurred it can have far reaching repercussions for society – misinforming and deluding people, increasing intolerance, undermining social unity by eroding a sense of common interest, degrading politics, eroding civic obligations, and even sowing public disorder. It makes political compromise near impossible which in turn makes governance more difficult.
In a thoughtful op-ed in the Financial Times, Jemima Kelly examined an important aspect of this phenomenon by asking why some people are more vulnerable than others to false news and conspiracy theories. She asked whether the explanation lies in political or religious beliefs, lack of education or some other socio-economic factor. But Kelly argues that more than these factors it is whether someone has or lacks ‘intellectual humility’. She cites studies by Marco Meyer and Mark Alfano, social epistemologists, who found those who possess this attribute are more able to distinguish between false content and fake reports. According to their research the strongest ‘predictor’ of people’s capacity to reject fake news was intellectual humility. This Kelly describes as a willingness to acknowledge one’s cognitive biases, “to admit when we’re wrong, and to be more interested in understanding the truth of an issue than in being right.”
Beyond this behavioral factor a debate rages about what can or should be done to mitigate the deleterious effects of fake news. Regulating technology is often cited as an important barrier to false and harmful content. That would include greater online regulation, increased monitoring and oversight by social media companies to remove toxic content and ending user anonymity. But at the end of the day, the uses to which technology is put by people is the problem. Uncivil conduct and deceitful politics will not disappear even if technology can somehow be controlled.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha