Tuesday, 09 January 2018How can we speak of ethics in a world where the false regularly takes the place of the real in a context of indifference?
In retrospect, it’s saddening to acknowledge the extent to which the public space has been filled with fake news and the ease with which it happened. Without thinking, we accord the presumption of truth to this news without the slightest verification. If it’s published, it’s real—or at least, it’s real in the sense that it must be based on some truth. And yet, this assumption has no real foundation. It is from the realm of popular beliefs; in other words, it is a false idea that is passed off as the truth. Nothing is more false, more pernicious, more dangerous and more widespread than ideas that are widely accepted.
Our world in 2018 is founded on information, which allows for knowledge and power; it is information that allows us to make choices and decisions.
That’s why it’s urgent to sound the alarm on fake news and to recall that it’s essential to distinguish between truth and fabrication, because although the opposite of the truth is always false, the opposite of a falsehood is not necessarily the truth.
In order to get a handle on this issue—and we can’t escape it—we need to think instead of simply reacting. We need to reflect rather than automatically sharing on networks. We might wish we could delegate these two activities to our smartphones or our tablets, but, since we can’t, let’s examine this moment in history together.
The last decades have accustomed us to election promises that are relatively false, are often announced for formality’s sake, and do not lead to change in any case. We have often heard marketing claims that, for example, Detergent A whitens more effectively than Detergent B. These are affirmations that, without necessarily being false, are not considered by the population to be true, either. These promises or propositions hold little importance, and do not necessarily benefit from what can be called the presumption of truth, but are instead perceived as being white lies that we accept, seemingly without consequences. However, nothing is without consequence. These white lies have accumulated and have habituated us so that the truth has become a hazy concept. Who hasn’t retouched a personal photo or posted a flattering online profile? How many landscape photos on Instagram haven’t undergone extreme alterations rendering the locations represented unrecognizable? Instagram photos and profile pictures are not complete fakes; they are simply not representative of or faithful to reality. They belong to a new concept that we can call the relatively true. This is a surface appreciation of the truth that must not be confounded with the truth. The essential characteristic of the relatively true is that it is published online.
This is the point where we pass from the real to It’s Published Online, So It Must be True; it is from this moment onward that the relatively true becomes the truth in the eyes of many.
In its less nefarious form, the relatively true is used to deceive to avoid showing that, in reality, certain people’s lives are more boring than their online profiles suggest, or that someone still has an unsightly pimple on her cheek that she or he prefers to conceal using Photoshop. In its more corrupt form, the relatively true is used to sow confusion among the population about matters of public interest; this is what we call fake news.
With the increase in the frequency of these little lies (i.e. retouched photos), and bigger ones (fake news), we have become used to them and now have little to no interest in the truth. In other words, we have accustomed ourselves to falseness.
We believe falseness to be reassuring, less complicated. At the very least, the relatively true allows us to dispense with thought: in a society sick with urgency, it’s simpler.
Consequently, in the public space, the fake has replaced lies. Why lie when we can manage with the relatively true?
However, the repercussions are substantial. The institutionalized lies that are fake news prevent us from making informed decisions with a clear mind, never knowing if the facts evoked in such news are true, relatively true, or completely false. Although the absolute truth is often unattainable, we must nevertheless rely on facts in order to form an opinion or make a decision.
Throughout our lives, we base our decisions and subsequent actions on the information received from social or traditional media, governments, and our acquaintances, friends and family. The threat that this falseness has on our decisions often renders us ambivalent in the face of a decision: in addition to needing to make an informed decision, must we constantly question ourselves to discern if the information in our possession has been manipulated by a third party so as to influence our decision? This tension is inherently untenable.
Every approximate truth, every lie, every piece of fake news attacks and shakes the foundation of trust we must base ourselves on in order to live in society.
This situation cannot be tolerated because, without trust, no society is possible. It is unthinkable to live in a world where all statements and all facts need to be verified one by one, every single time.
Governments, in addition to each of us individually, need to work to dismantle these lies and fake news in the public space and ensure that the promoters of such antisocial behaviours are held responsible.
The consequence of a lie is scorn and shame.
Unfortunately, in a world where the fake is king, scorn and shame have little meaning.
A resolution for 2018?
While thinking a bit more of others and being a bit less self-involved, let’s have less falseness and more honesty in our interactions.
This seems to me to be a good idea.
Happy New Year 2018!