Did you hear the latest? Apparently,…. But wait a minute. Is this news, or fake news? Fake news: the new term we’ve all learned in the past few months. Along with “alternative facts”, fake news is a concept that should have all of us deeply concerned. Society only works when enough citizens are informed and in a position to make decisions based on facts and reliable information. There has always been a wariness about what we used to call propaganda, deliberate twisting of facts and rumour to provide a rationale for action that might otherwise be objectionable. The Nazis loved fake news: they believed in the Big Lie, the idea that, if you said really outrageous things, you were more likely to be believed.
There have always been examples of fake news. One of the most famous, and effective, examples was the Donation of Constantine, which claimed to be a Roman imperial decree by which Emperor Constantine the Great supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope. It was centuries before it was finally accepted as a forgery, by which time it had helped split the Roman and Eastern churches and dragged the Papacy into wars and persecutions based on its supposed authority over political life in Europe.
No, fake news is not new, but its most recent incarnations are very troubling and potentially dangerous. It is ironic that the internet, which was supposed to free us all from the tyranny of the media moguls, has become the forum through which fake news is spread throughout the world. The free speech provided through blogs, on-line discussion boards, below-the-line comment sections, etc., has allowed governments, organisations and individuals to spread false information and to discredit accurate news sources. The impact of Russian hacking on the US election recently is still unclear, but that fake news sites and paid internet trolls are busy spreading lies on a daily basis means that we each have to be more careful about where we get our information.
This phenomenon has now become so widespread that outright lies can be told by US Presidents and their staffers without any apparent shame or conscience, and they call them “alternative facts”. This is pure Orwellian-speak from 1984: War is Peace, Black is White. Who is there left to trust? This may seem a distant concern for people in North Grenville or Merrickville-Wolford, but it does have an impact here too. The Trump regime is making threats about trade, borders, defense, immigration and refugees that will spill over into our national and local economies. He has stirred up a hornets nest with his ban on travellers from certain Muslim-majority countries that will provoke a backlash that could affect Canadians. His whole approach to governance is based on ignorance, bigotry, racism and misogyny. The world is a much less stable place than it has been at any time since the end of the last World War, and everything that was built to provide that stability and peace is being dismantled in record time by the Emperor with No Clothes.
This makes it ever more important that we have access to solid and reliable information, at the very time when that is becoming harder to find. During the Harper era in Canada, government scientists were muzzled, prevented from the free exchange of information and ideas by a Prime Minister who was afraid of facts. Now the most powerful man in the world (they say) is following the same course with American scientists and academics. The American airwaves are full of comedians, talk show hosts and news reporters decrying and making fun of what is happening in their country. But it is not impossible to imagine a time when they, too, will be silenced, as the Trump administration brings pressure to bear on networks, cable companies, and social media outlets. Money talks, and Trump screams at every slight, every suggestion that he is not the biggest, best ever, most popular, strongest person ever to be.
Much of his power and support is based on people believing the lies, the false stories, the fake news and alternative facts he and his minions are spreading. And we, as a society, have been gradually losing our ability to think about things, as we have come to rely more and more on 30-second sound bites and short posts on Facebook and Twitter. (Isn’t it significant that Trump uses Twitter so much to get out his rants?).
This may be the greatest test the American experiment in democracy has faced in a long time. Will Congress and the courts be able to rein him in and prevent further damage to their country’s reputation and standing in the world? Or will things get even worse, as the President panders to the worst elements of the American people? Nixon had his “Silent Majority”, but Trump’s followers are not so silent, and not so scrupulous about how to get their way.
People may laugh at the idea, but it could easily happen that Canadians will find themselves delayed at the US border and asked about their ethnicity, their religion, their political beliefs. Muslims and Mexicans are already targeted by this regime, so who is next? The British Prime Minister is under attack for her hurried visit to meet Trump. Now her invitation to him to make a state visit to the UK is being criticised, with the two opposition leaders calling for her to cancel the visit until Trump lifts his ban on refugees and travellers from Muslim countries. How, they ask, can the Queen be seen to welcome such a person?
What happens when he wants to visit Ottawa? This is our business too. We live in a world of globalisation, instant communications, interconnected economies and a shared environment. Other people are deciding what you see on Facebook, Google and Wikipedia. It requires caution and care. Millions of people have taken to the streets around the world to protest against such a [pick a noun] becoming the so-called Leader of the Free World. Yes, maybe I am being too much of a Cassandra, but, as an historian, there are too many warning signs from history to ignore. This kind of leader has arisen before, and it has never worked out well for the rest of us. Maybe he will only have four years in office: but look what he’s done in a week!
It is one of my favourite sayings that, for the triumph of evil, it is necessary only that good men do nothing. It is our democratic responsibility to do, to speak, to read and to think about all of this. But just be careful where you do your reading!
We at the Times have always believed that readers should be clear about where we stand on issues. That way, you can judge what is published, knowing the context. Objective journalism, if it ever existed, which I doubt, is no longer the norm. Know who you are reading, as well as what. Yes, it’s harder work, and may require a longer attention span. This Editorial, for example: longer than usual. Too long? Too one-sided? Too extreme? Think about those questions. It’s something we’ll all need to do from now on.