“What is Truth?” That question is probably the most repeated biblical quote around these days. The phrase “fake news” has entered into our dictionaries and minds and represents a genuine threat to the future of democracy. Does that sound extreme? It is a fact (?) that somewhere between half and three-quarters of Americans get their news from Facebook. The figures for Canada are less drastic. A Public Policy Forum survey earlier this year showed that 75% of Canadians still get their news from traditional media sources, such as TV and newspapers. But more than half also looked for information from social media sites like Facebook, and that trend will likely continue.
Is this a problem? It is, if the discovery that Russia and other countries and intelligence agencies have been busy posting false reports on these sites in order to influence, not just elections, but public attitudes too. It was bad enough when con artists and hoaxers were doing this, their “news” items were usually obvious. But the statistics from the United States, in particular, makes one wonder about what’s happening on this side of the border. An Ipsos Reid survey found that three-quarters of those surveyed believed a fake news story was either somewhat, or very accurate 75% of the time. It also showed that 86% of Trump supporters believed false headline stories to be true.
That is the basic situation in our world today: there is an enormous rise in the number of false stories going the rounds on social media sites. Fake accounts are being set up on Facebook, Twitter and Google simply to distribute untrue stories, and it doesn’t take a lot of money or time to do so.
In the past, media outlets depended on their reputations as accurate purveyors of news. There was a clearly understood difference between, say, the Globe and Mail and the National Enquirer. Of course, even then, there was a huge market for the kind of fictional and dramatic nonsense published by the Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids. The frightening thing is that this kind of misinformation has now spread to platforms that are read and trusted by millions more than would ever be seen reading the Enquirer. But today it is much more difficult to be sure of the truth and accuracy of what we find on-line, where there are no footnotes, no sources, no reliable way to discriminate between the solid facts and the deliberate fiction.
Forbes magazine recently stated that: “‘Active misinformation’ is a threat to democratic systems. This is because democracy depends on people voting in an informed way, weighing the pros and cons of policies, candidates and parties. But if they are misinformed, believing things about the “other” that are completely untrue, the informed voter ceases to exist and democracy is reduced to whoever can tell the most believable lie. Nazis brought that to a high level of professionalism, and we are now seeing it in our own part of the world.
False news distorts and corrupts the body politic. It encourages division, hatred even, and an inability and unwillingness to compromise. Yet compromise is at the heart of all democratic systems: it is how we avoid going to war over issues that may be serious, but can also be trivial.
The world, and that includes Canada, Ontario, even down to our municipal level, is being assaulted via the internet, an invention that is otherwise one of the greatest achievements of modern society. Liars and frauds get away with so much more than they could in the past, simply because of technology. I watched one man recently being faced with lies and false claims he had posted on his web site. It seemed, as it were, black and white. But he blustered and claimed that someone had hacked his site, that the false statements had been deliberately placed there by his enemies. That photographs and video of him had been Photoshopped and altered. All of this may be possible, and is certainly another sad fact of modern on-line life. The point is that it is becoming ridiculously easy for people to deny what is there on the written and visual record, and people believe them.
This puts a responsibility on all of us. We have to pay more attention to what we read and see and hear. We have to make sure, as far as we can, that we are believing the truth, the reality, not what some want us to think and believe. As an historian, I believe in sources, footnotes: show me where you got that piece of information. Verify that statement or document. These days, it seems, we all have to be detectives, sorting out the facts from the red herrings, trying to discern truth from lies. Democracy has never been the easy option: it is often far easier to let someone else tell us what to think, what to do, how to act. But today, more than ever in history, we as democratic people, have the responsibility to choose who rules. Think for yourself. Ask questions. What is true will come through.