Joachim Fritz-Vannahme
29. August 2019

Of truth and lies in our digital age

What is truth – in times of fake news? And what is reality – in times of “alternative facts”? A post-factual reality – does it exist?

“Post-truth” was, not by chance, named Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionaries in 2016, the year of the British EU referendum and the American presidential election.

Signs of the times. However, what to do when truth and reality threaten to become arbitrary, and this in a moment when the Internet seems to make everything visible, right now, immediately?

First, two encouraging remarks in this highly nervous, slightly hysterical situation. On the one hand, philosophers from Aristotle to Wittgenstein and beyond have repeatedly asked themselves such questions and given answers.

Just one example and proof: “It is not because we think that you are white, that you are white, but because you are white, we who say this have the truth.” Aristotle, Metaphysics, 4th century B.C. So nothing new in the Internet age.

Portrait of Aristoteles. Copy of the Imperial era (1st or 2nd century) of a lost bronze sculpture made by Lysippos. By After Lysippos – Eric Gaba (User:Sting), July 2005., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=295872

On the other hand, truth and lie, for both are at stake, have always been linked from a historical perspective.

 

“Lying in politics” is an old story

“The deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends have been with us since the beginning of recorded history.”

By Unknown – Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, Yale University Press ISBN: 978-0-300-10588-9., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74270645

This was written by the philosopher Hannah Arendt (in “Lying in Politics”, 1967) at the height of the Vietnam War. This war had been aggravated by fake news, i.e. the alleged, but actually fictitious, bombardment of American warships by North Vietnamese speedboats. The so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 was an “alternative fact”, but the US Congress believed the lie of its own government. Therefore, the USA went into a fateful war.

What Hannah Arendt could not have foreseen, because the Internet had not been invented back then, is that today any scatterbrain or clown can trigger such a crisis. You do not need any government for that anymore.

 

Israel vs.Pakistan – by the Internet

I will confine myself to one example. A fictional online article in 2017 announced that Israel would destroy Pakistan with nuclear bombs if Pakistani soldiers invaded Syria – something Pakistan had never planned. Bad enough, but worse. For the Pakistani defence minister thought the invention, this fake news, was true and promptly tweeted off that Israel should not forget that Pakistan also possessed the atomic bomb!

So that’s how easily we approach nuclear war in the 21st century. Triggered by fake news, accelerated by Twitter. Political reason would have coolly researched first whether this was actually true?

Is what I see on my smartphone true? Is the photo or the film sent to my smartphone real?

Thanks to digital technology, information, including counterfeit information, spreads in an instant.

Yet knowledge takes time, and even more so finding the truth takes time. Today, however, our everyday lives are determined by who is faster, and not by who is exact, not by who is thorough.

 

“A state-backed operation against Hongkong”

Unless the web itself begins to think thoroughly. This is what happened recently in the headquarters of Facebook and Twitter . “We are disclosing a major state-backed information operation on the situation in Hong Kong,” Twitter said. The demonstrators in Hong Kong’s streets were compared to Islamist terrorists via social networks blocked on mainland China. Twitter and Facebook spoke bluntly of a “coordinated state-backed operation.”

The trail led to Beijing, even if the two platforms did not explicitly say so.

So fake news and filter bubbles, manipulations and alleged conspiracies, invented or “alternative” facts are part of the real reality today. That does not make the reality check any easier for the ordinary mortal.

 

Difficult to distinguish truth of information

According to a survey conducted by the Kantar Institute on behalf of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, 61 percent of those surveyed in Germany and 59 percent of Austrians surveyed can only “with difficulty” or “with great difficulty” distinguish the truth of information.

Photo by Joachim Fritz-Vannahme

End of August, 35 politicians, entrepreneurs, artists and scientists also discussed this result at the 18th Salzburg Trilogue, organized by the Bertelsmann Stiftung (where I work) and led by Wolfgang Schüssel, former Austrian Chancellor. For we now live indeed with “fragmented realities” (the title of the conference). This makes the answer or the answers to the question of truth and reality quite difficult.

The Salzburg round’s search for a “common understanding of truth in our globalised world” could not, of course, come to a final answer in a single day (pure coincidence that the G7 summit in Biarritz at the same time renounced a joint declaration from the outset). But their search was certainly stimulating.

With “Pushing for an adequate response to online disinformation“, the think tank presented a study on the subject to the EU Commission at the same time. The authors point out right at the beginning that “the visibility of disinformation” has increased with the hybrid war of Russia against Ukraine.

 

A pledge pro truth as an antidote

In Salzburg, Gleb Tsipursky and Agnes Vishnevkin presented their volunteer project “Pro Truth Pledge“.

“Frustrated by misinformation and incivility in public discourse?”, the two initiators ask and recommend on their website as an antidote a “Pro-Truth Pledge” to tell, encourage and spread the truth.

That sounds modest and yet it is exactly the right answer. For it is not “the web” or some algorithm that invents the lie or false information. They do not twist the truth and distort reality. People do that, and only people can give the right, true, realistic or honest answer. Even if it is difficult.

So Hannah Arendt’s reference to a long human history full of lies has almost something comforting about it: We will also somehow survive fake news and filter bubbles, Putin’s social bots and Trump’s tweets and Beijing propaganda. If we really want it.

 

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