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Post-truth: When truth serves “likes”

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The apparent death of truth can lead to the death of human rights.

Even though the proliferation of social networks throughout the world was first seen as a possible democratization of media, such alleged democratization has made finding truthful, reliable information harder. In fact, more false news (let us call it what it is: lies) is being spread today than ever before in the history of mankind. During major electoral campaigns, the rate of shared false news grows exponentially. We’ve seen it happen in the United States, during the UK’s Brexit referendum, and now the French and German elections — the fog of post-truth claims. You know it’s serious when Time magazine titles its cover story “Is truth dead?” If truth dies, democracy dies as well: truth, democracy, freedom of speech and human rights are woven together inextricably.

The struggle, it seems, is being fought between established, classic media and social networks in which anyone can access a myriad of different sources of information, regardless of their trustworthiness. But why is this the case?

To begin with, not every bit of info can grow to the point of becoming wide-spread “fake news.” Fake news must have some traces of credibility, the kind a broad audience cannot distinguish to be right or wrong. Whenever false stories about people and institutions are out there orbiting in cyberspace, they have the potential to generate hundreds, thousands or even millions of clicks, likes and shares, jumping from one social network to another throughout the world. Probably, the “viral” metaphor has never been so accurately used: it is, indeed, some sort of media disease. Turning the tide –- that is, debunking such “fake news” — is hard work, and sometimes doesn’t even pay off. Once out there, fake news becomes part of the public debate.

Allow me to present just one example (out of many) that involves Pope John Paul II. In February 1996, he visited Nicaragua, Guatemala and Venezuela. While the Pope was in Guatemala, EFE published that Rigoberta Menchú, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, said Wojtyla would receive her on Friday at 7:00 a.m. before leaving for Venezuela.

All journalists assumed the audience had already been granted. It seemed only natural that, the pope being in Guatemala, he would meet with the Nobel laureate; it would not be the first time, as Menchú and Wojtyla had already met before twice (in 1992 and 1993) at the Vatican. Not a single journalist would get up that early to make it to the pope’s audience with the indigenous activist, especially since Menchú labeled it as simply a “polite visit.” Everyone just took for granted that the audience had been held. The press agencies published that the meeting had taken place at the headquarters of the Guatemalan Nunciature, and the journalists accompanying the pope hopped on the official plane that would take them to Caracas.

Shortly after, during the flight, the truth came out by sheer chance. The well-known Spanish journalist Paloma Gómez Borrero (who recently passed away, in Madrid), who followed all 102 trips of Pope John Paul II, asked the pope’s photographer:

“How was Rigoberta dressed in the audience with the pope?”

“Rigoberta who?” the photographer asked back.

“Well, Rigoberta Menchú, of course!”

The papal photographer simply replied, “There has been no audience with Rigoberta Menchú.” It almost sounded scandalous.

Who said there would be an interview? Only Mrs. Menchú ​​herself. No one bothered confirming the information she was providing. The IPS agency even claimed “the pope had canceled an audience with the indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner.” Needless to say, this was a classic “fake news” case: it is impossible to cancel an audience that was simply not scheduled on the pope’s calendar, only on Menchú’s.

Interestingly, by then, information began circulating that Menchú had falsified part of her biography and resume. Later on, her biographer, the French anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos (as well as the American anthropologist, David Stoll) would confirm such irregularities. In 2007, Menchú gave politics yet another try, becoming a presidential candidate for Guatemala: she obtained only 3.05 percent of the votes.

Li(k)es on Facebook and Twitter

Social media is the paradise of false news. Part of the problem resides in the fact that there are people get their information solely from social media. When false news posts spread, they often get more “shares” and “likes” than those posts that would debunk, deny and correct them. This remains an unresolved legal and deontological problem.

For instance, BuzzFeed News reported that in the three months prior to the US presidential election campaign, the 20 most successful “fake news” posts totaled 8,711,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook, while the 20 most successful news posts in the national press, with verified and truthful information, totaled 7,377,000. The future started to look like the age of post-truth: an era in which we care not about facts but feelings: “How would people like (or not) this piece of information?”

Of these 20 false stories, the most successful ones on Facebook were one claiming Clinton sold arms to ISIS, and another one stating Pope Francis supported Donald Trump. Another one claimed that if Democrats won the presidency, around 250,000 Syrians would be admitted as refugees in the US (when Barack Obama only talked about receiving 10,000). The success of false news leans heavily on our current mistrust of established media, often perceived as in compliance with economic and political elites. But also, people can just share what they please on Facebook and Twitter, without assuming much responsibility for it: social networks are not responsible for the contents shared in and through them. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg explained distinguishing between a “truthful” or a “false” post (in order to take it off Facebook) would require a very advanced technology that today is just unavailable.

Of course, many bloggers and Facebook and Twitter users, using pseudonyms, non-verified accounts or simply regular profiles, often tell fascinating stories with the sole objective of winning fans, traffic, audience and visibility, with little or no concern as to whether what they’re sharing is either true or false. They follow the Italian saying “se non è vero è ben trovato” (“if it is not true, it might as well be”) and blend truth and falsehood, sharing half-truths with a pinch –- or a spoonful  — of falsehood. In the end, the result is post-truth: a blurry limit no longer separating facts and invention.

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