Thursday, 27 September 2018

Truth or Dare? Why fake news might be the end product of democratic society.

Now available on "Musings", my article in full on "Fake News" from Open Thoughts.

As I scroll through my Twitter feed, I truly despair. In a week when Jeremy Corbyn has apparently won the Nobel Peace Prize it would seem soundbite-friendly fake news has finally triumphed over informed and verifiable information. We are hurtling towards a Brexit it seems none of us really wants, a manipulated result of "fake news" generated and sustained by bots filling echo chambers we cannot escape from. If this isn't some dystopian parody of "Brave New World" I don't know what is. We have a President of the Free World who self selects his truths and our media is fighting for its right to free speech. It's a long way from our imagined past, and I am reminded of a favourite history quote- 
"Fact is sacred, opinion is free."    C.P. Scott
Yet this assumes a fact is an objective thing, verifiable and incontrovertible. This is in fact rarely the case. As E.H.Carr eloquently explains in "What is History?" certain raw data such as dates of famous battles are difficult to dispute, but the vast majority of "factual" data with which historians grapple  is less certain. Some need justification, as Pirandello wrote, 
"A fact is like a sack, it won't stand up until you put something in it."
Facts are also subject to observation, interpretation and not least, manipulation and they are no more reliable than statistics. Facts rarely speak for themselves and are open to selection and arrangement to suit the purposes of historian, writer and commentator. 

The nineteenth century was perhaps the great age of "facts", with historians attempting to chronicle the events of the past in total denial that by selecting events and themes, imposing their own education and philosophy on their work and neglecting vast areas of the past they were in fact being entirely subjective. Men like Macaulay and Trevelyan made sweeping generalisations to facilitate their seemingly impossible task of chronicling History to portray the bigger picture. As an historian myself I abhorred the obvious neglect of the less important individual, of social and economic trends and the use of the past to justify the present but undoubtedly without their brave attempts to achieve so much we would have been deprived of the fascinating stories which contributed so much to the understanding and appreciation of our shared past. Inadvertently perhaps, these men were using past "facts" for a political purpose - the justification of British world supremacy and the growth of our Empire. Nothing new, this was the use of facts for a purpose, for propaganda.

Photo by Jingda Chen on Unsplash

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