Thou shalt not bear false witness – unless thou canst get away with it
Is there a single one of the Ten Commandments more symbolic of the age we live in than the Ninth – that “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”?
Truth, lies, disinformation and confusion are more potent currencies than dollars and pounds. Whether by accident or design, most of us have a variable relationship with the truth. We have our version, and others have theirs. In my case, here are four little stories from my misspent youth:
At university, my mate Nick and I, outraged at the decision of Margaret Thatcher (then Education Minister under Edward Heath) to discontinue free milk for schoolkids, screen-printed a load of posters bearing Thatcher’s head above the legend “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher”. We then went out in the dead of night and fly-posted them all over walls and windows in the neighbourhood.
On another occasion, in the early hours of the morning, I was wandering somewhat worse for wear through a Nottingham suburb with another friend, Andy. I flagged down a police car and persuaded the constable to give us a lift back to where we were staying.
On the third occasion, a bunch of us went to a party in Norfolk hosted by Nick. His home was a mile from the sea. We decided on a spot of late-night swimming. To get there, we had to cross some fields. On the way back, wearing a white suit, I fell into a ditch full of cow effluent and emerged brown from head to toe. After showering down the worst of the slimy stuff, I spent the rest of the party wearing a light-brown suit.
Finally, during my short career in the music business, I nearly lost my shirt staging a concert featuring a band that were not as popular as I thought. In fact, they were a box-office disaster. After the gig, I took twenty or so friends and assorted hangers-on to the nearest curry house, took the last few pound notes out of my wallet, gave them to the waiter, and said “feed my friends”, despite knowing that I would be living on cabbage for the rest of the month.
Of these four rather mundane episodes, two I know to be true, because I remember them. The other two might be true, but I have absolutely no recollection of them – I heard them years later from others who claimed to be there at the time. Which of them is true or otherwise is for you to guess.
Now zip forward forty years. I love golf, but I have acquired a reputation for being a slow player. The age of compulsive speed has not passed golf by, so being labelled as slow has a certain stigma attached. If it were true, I would try and do something about it to accommodate my partners who always have something else to do afterwards. Except, in my perception, it’s nonsense. Yes, I have the occasional slow round, especially at this time of year when one spends an inordinate amount of time looking for balls under leaves. But nine times out of ten, I’m no faster or slower than anyone else. But I’ve acquired a reputation that seems to have stuck. Nothing I can do about it. To protest would be to protest too much.
So how do these stories, true or not, define me in the minds of others? In my youth, politically to the left, a bit of a clown, with a measure of chutzpah and a penchant for the grand gesture. Today, in the eyes of some, I’m a human tortoise, someone who holds up other golfers and thereby creates impatience and frustration across the golf course.
In those characterisations I can see some but not all of myself. The mythical tales might not have been true, but they probably describe the person I was as accurately as the ones I know to be true. As for what I am today, I’m Slow Steve, up there with Crooked Hillary, Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted Cruz. Except that unlike the targets of Donald Trump’s incessant tweets, I don’t care a jot, and nor does anybody else, with the possible exception of the occasional golfer with attention deficit disorder.
The main difference is that for politicians truth and lies are weapons, whereas in the lives of the rest of us they are part of the air we breathe, sometimes without even noticing.
Which brings me to the point that there’s no such thing as “post-truth”. Or at least, nothing new about the idea that lies create their own reality, and thereby become truth. It’s happening all around us. And always has.
What, after all, is history, if not the selective ordering of verifiable facts and unverifiable myths? Whether the historian is led to the narrative by facts and myths, or starts with the narrative and assembles the evidence to support it, is perhaps less important than that the feed-stock is readily available.
What’s different now is that in the social media we have the perfect conduit for that feed-stock. There are no true or untrue buttons on a Facebook post or a tweet. Only emotions such as like, love, wow, sad and angry. Perfect fodder for demagogues who trade in adoration.
Donald Trump didn’t invent post-truth. He exploited it so successfully that the phrase became the centrepiece of attempts to explain his appeal. It’s worth remembering that way before the internet, back in 1960, the Democrats campaigning for Kennedy produced the famous Nixon poster above. Unlike Trump, Kennedy’s team didn’t flat out accuse his opponent of dishonesty, but the insinuation is clear enough.
But thanks to Trump’s (and possibly Vladimir Putin’s) efforts, we’re now at the stage when we either choose to believe what we’re told because of who tells it (Trump, the New York Times, the imam, the pastor, our parents or the family doctor) or we believe nothing without going to great lengths to convince ourselves of the bona fides of the teller and the information they convey. To do the former is easy. To do the latter can be an impossible burden on our time.
So we happily delve into the social media – a swamp full of malcontents, manipulators, exploiters, conspiracy theorists and trolls peddling information of dubious provenance. Not the swamp that Trump wants to drain, but one that is entirely co-existent with the lobbyists and political insiders whose influence America’s next president has said he wants to curtail – even as he busily goes about signing up creatures from both swamps to become part of his government.
Things are getting a little out of hand, though. The outcomes of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the US election were almost certainly influenced because people believed stuff that wasn’t true. And it seems that those pushing the lies did so without a trace of embarrassment.
So will factual, as opposed to emotional, truth ever make a comeback? Or are the futures of the so-called liberal democracies henceforth at the mercy of politicians (not to mention businesses, celebrities, media and public institutions) who play fast and loose with reality?
In the United States, Donald Trump’s success at using the social media as his primary communications platform, rather than the more sceptical conventional media with their fact-checking, editorial teams and journalistic standards, suggests that any renewed respect for factual accuracy will not take place during his presidency.
And besides, whatever sop Facebook, Twitter and the others offer to quell the fury over false news, demagogues in the past did quite nicely in tapping into the emotions of their audiences with the tools they had at their disposal. Hitler through theatrical rallies, newsreel, newspapers and grass-roots organisation. Joe McCarthy, the anti-communist witchfinder-general of the post-war years, through the medium of Senate hearings on TV.
I believe that unless some catastrophic situation or event takes place that is directly attributable to a lie successfully propagated, we are going to have to live with the currency of untruths for the foreseeable future. Trump has forged a path along which other will follow – and indeed are following, in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.
What sort of event might cause us to re-think our attitude to truth in politics?
In the United Kingdom, one event stares us in the face: Brexit. Yes, I’m biased, because I oppose our leaving the EU with every bone in my body. But whatever I believe, if Brexit is a disaster for the United Kingdom, and leads to a decade of penury and social discord, we might at some stage look back to the factors that swung the referendum vote, and recognise the role played by the obvious untruths – perhaps on both sides. We might then declare that we will never again allow our politicians to get away with bare-faced lies.
In the US, several of Trump’s proposed policies could end in disaster. An economic melt-down caused by protective trade barriers. The emasculation of NATO, leading to a European conflict with Russia. A nuclear conflict with North Korea. An environmental catastrophe resulting from looser regulation. Or even a scandal resulting in Trump being impeached and removed from office.
How would we ensure a future political system in which lies are exposed for what they are in a manner that has consequences for the perpetrators?
In America, no measure would succeed if it was deemed to infringe on rights to free speech embedded in the constitution. However, a code of conduct agreed upon by all parties contesting presidential and congressional elections, policed by an independent monitoring body, could be one answer. The code could be voluntary, or required by law.
An independent watchdog could refer transgressors to a special court with the authority to sanction those proven to have lied. It would take over the traditional fact-checking role of the independent media. Politicians who breached the code could be forced to clarify their statements and, if necessary, face disqualification from the contest. No doubt the Trumps of this world would find ways to insinuate rather than tell outright lies. But the presence of a non-partisan monitor to call out obvious falsehoods would surely go some way towards curbing the worst excesses of the candidates.
In the UK, there would be no constitutional barrier preventing Parliament from enacting similar legislation. Again, a code of conduct and an independent fact-checking body could curb the kind of nonsense we heard during the Brexit campaign.
The devil would be in the detail. How, for example would you catch a lie such as the claim that thanks to Brexit £350 million would be freed up to invest in the National Health Service? You would have to be able to distinguish between intent, and the facts that underlie the intent. Not easy.
But a code of conduct could certainly prohibit extreme denigration of opponents. Calling Hillary Clinton “crooked” was an accusation of dishonesty not validated by any civil or criminal judgement. Under such a code, the accuser could be called out and held liable for the consequences – either under the law or through a voluntary agreement between all parties contesting elections. Feasible? Why not? After all in the UK we have the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which is the independent regulator for the newspaper and magazine industry. Why not apply a similar standard to the utterances of politicians?
What the politicians say is one thing. But in the jungle of the social media, other less accountable players are equally influential in influencing the outcomes of electoral contests. Ensuring that the social media adopt policies that prevent false and misleading news from influencing opinion could be problematic, especially if the entity was beyond the jurisdiction of the country holding the elections. But even small measures such as the insertion of true, misleading and false buttons would help – a little. Without some form of regulation – something that the high priests of the internet abhor – the owners of the major social media sites are only likely to take serious action if they perceive a threat to their commercial interests.
The crucial underlying issue is that the demagogues are speaking to audiences who often lack an inbuilt bullshit detector. Or, if they have one, they choose to disable it.
For generations, school curricula have focused on knowledge and skills. The ability to think critically is not taught on a formal basis to everyone. In the UK, only a small minority of students in the state system who are not on track towards tertiary education receive any formal training in reasoning and critical analysis. Critical thinking should start at primary level, and continue through the curriculum as one of the cornerstones of education, alongside language, maths, science and technology.
The ability to think critically would not stop people voting with their emotions and believing lies, but it would give voters the tools to identify untruths if they chose to do so. This is not to say that whole sections of the population lack the ability to think for themselves. Those skills also come with life experience and emotional intelligence. Even so, exposure to formal techniques during school years would surely benefit our students without turning them into Mr Spocks.
But even if critical thinking because a core component of school curricula today, it would take up to seventy years to produce an entire electorate versed in those techniques, so it would hardly be a quick fix.
Ultimately, the answer must lie in values. What is the motivation of the liar? Revenge, malice, self-interest, national interest, altruism, the greater good? Decode the intentions and values of the liar, and you have a better chance of dealing with the lie.
The debate over truth is perhaps less important than the underlying intention. After all, truth and lies are often meaningless without context. Lies are sometimes spoken with the most benign of intentions, and truth can be an essential tool in the armoury of the deceiver.
As for the internet, what began as a new dawn of communications, openness and opportunity has turned into a swamp that will not be easily drained. Even if the demagogues can be stopped from uttering outright lies, their poison will still be spread by proxies. Only when their techniques start to be used against them as effectively as they deploy them might things change, but not necessarily for the right reason.
One only needs to think of China’s Great Firewall and of Weibo, with its government-mandated no-go areas, to imagine the social media that Donald Trump would like to see. Should he succeed in taking down those who provide platforms for his opponents, it would be too late. There would be only one version of the truth – Donald’s truth.
And if the internet is now the key to electoral success in the United States – and possibly the UK – who would bet against those who wish to remain in power seeking to control it?
We’re not there yet, but not so far away either.