287 - Political Truth


As the first December election since 1923 ¹ proceeds towards its conclusion so, as usual, the vast majority of the press is chasing trivia and soundbites, treating the electorate as idiots. Among this morass is the occasional well-thought piece, often labelled as Comment. I have been hunting for these but, cheapskate that I am, find very little mostly because I'm not prepared to buy much at all. Given the perception of bias and the difficulty of identifying such bias, one is left wondering if there is any truth available at all.

One of the current issue in this post-truth world is that on very few occasions do all sides agree that anything is fact. Perhaps this means that one should, instead of buying established newspapers (in any medium), one should instead be funding sites such as FullFact [1] or Snopes.

An issue raised—correctly, in my opinion— in [5] points to the press failure to challenge. One can only assume that it is somehow in the interests of the press to not do that which one thought they were there to do. Quoting: A big reason for Johnson’s easy ride is partisanship from the parts of the media determined to get him elected. I have talked to senior BBC executives, and they tell me they personally think it’s wrong to expose lies told by a British prime minister because it undermines trust in British politics. Is that a reason for giving Johnson free rein to make any false claim he wants? Even the expected critical comment in response to the article found little to truly criticise. I come to the conclusion that the BBC is running scared as parliament has steadily attacked funding for the BBC and persistently interfered when I think it is their long-term interests to make the public service broadcaster as independent as is possible. I think it very worrying that we have a biased press but the problem goes further.

From [6], which expresses this well: Much of the outrage that floods social media, occasionally leaking into opinion columns and broadcast interviews, is not simply a reaction to events themselves, but to the way in which they are reported and framed. The “mainstream media” is the principal focal point for this anger. Journalists and broadcasters who purport to be neutral are a constant object of scrutiny and derision, whenever they appear to let their personal views slip. The work of journalists involves an increasing amount of unscripted, real-time discussion, which provides an occasionally troubling window into their thinking.

But this is not simply an anti-journalist sentiment. A similar fury can just as easily descend on a civil servant or independent expert whenever their veneer of neutrality seems to crack, apparently revealing prejudices underneath. Sometimes a report or claim is dismissed as biased or inaccurate for the simple reason that it is unwelcome: to a Brexiter, every bad economic forecast is just another case of the so-called project fear. A sense that the game is rigged now fuels public debate.

This mentality now spans the entire political spectrum and pervades societies around the world. A recent survey found that the majority of people globally believe their society is broken and their economy is rigged. Both the left and the right feel misrepresented and misunderstood by political institutions and the media, but the anger is shared by many in the liberal centre, who believe that populists have gamed the system to harvest more attention than they deserve. Outrage with “mainstream” institutions has become a mass sentiment.

This spirit of indignation was once the natural property of the left, which has long resented the establishment bias of the press. But in the present culture war, the right points to universities, the BBC and civil service as institutions that twist our basic understanding of reality to their own ends. Everyone can point to evidence that justifies their outrage. This arms race in cultural analysis is unwinnable.

Of course this generates a spectrum of scepticism—and cynicism—and even those imagining that they themselves are telling things 'the way they really are' are also placed by others on a spectrum of belief (trust based on very little but faith). It means that alternative explanations are given credence and we fall into a trap (perpetrated by the BBC and criticised by me quite often) where we are offered competing opinions in equal measure with no attempt to provide a basis for assessing these as equivalent — and then we call this 'balance'. So we lose the essential ability to judge what is even a fact, let alone whether any associated opinion, has validity. Such a situation allows us each to fall into many traps, all exaggerated by the echo-chamber of what we're calling social media. These traps include what appears to be consensus driving us surprisingly quickly to extreme opinions, often before we pause to check what we can. I'd like to list more traps but I admit to struggling to see what is and what is not provably true at all. This, I think is the significant problem. ²

I have written before that the press has allowed itself to be 'honest in reporting' by truly reporting what has been said. Where it fails (in my opinion) is in checking that what was said was accurate—which is quite different from accurate reporting. This is lazy and may well be a direct result of the lack of money in reporting. Which may mean that, if we want better information, we must somehow accept that this is not for free. A difficult idea, quite in conflict with sayings such as 'the truth will out'. 

What exactly is meant by the term post-truth?

from the 2016 Word of the Year Oxford English Dictionaries entry:
post-truth is the public burial of “objective facts” by an avalanche of media “appeals to emotion and personal belief”.                       

What we are seeing is a fight over influence. While scepticism is valuable, in the sense that it allows for bias to be called out, especially bad material (wrong, extremely biased, manipulative) at the same time we are left not able to turn to reliable sources, in the sense that we can in any sense trust them. That is difficult, if you cannot even trust them to be reliably biased. We are unable to decide what is important, instead simply following like sheep. As an example, Prince Andrew gave a tv interview and the following morning press reaction was telling us that there was already a consensus opinion; I fail to understand how a consensus could have been reached, unless what was meant was the very small group of unrepresentative people in a press room. Instead, we have opinions somehow chosen for maximum impact (and in turn minimum consideration), all clearly steered by interested parties each pushing their own agenda. Part of the problem then is that everyone can have a say and what we have lost is the ability to sort through these opinions for stuff worthy of inclusion in our own media diet.

Source [9] makes some attempt at explaining post-truth. In so doing it explains a little how 'truth' is modified to post-truth. If one talks a lot about truth then 'truth' becomes  utterances whose veracity is self-confirming, thus proving that truth can attract rogues. And rogues get away with buffoonery, rough speech, nonsense, boasting and patent untruths, simply because they are accepted as rogues. It allows all sorts of play that we accept in entertainment but do not (historically) accept from politicians. This is clearly no longer true. Read [9] for detail on this. One of the skills, if that is what they are, is in blatantly ignoring that which is matter to be diverted from. You can easily provide a list of things you think are important and inequalities you think should be under discussion. The roguish behaviour diverts from this; it is entertainment.  That is not a sound basis on which to award power.

Lying in politics is far from new. It is the new conditions we operate in that makes the situation particularly sinister. They accelerate the circulation (the spin? churn?) of content and the very speed is an issue, since the next cycle arrives before you have had any reasonable chance to analyse content for whatever you deem to be acceptable as truth. This deceit is now widespread—think of the ease with which websites are spoofed and so frauds are perpetrated—and one safe response is to do steadily less in terms of attending events or travelling, as the expected sources of assistance are now perceived as faulty. "I've bought tickets but I don't know if they're real". Not least, the way we use digital media means the pervasiveness is without respite — so you don't find the space to sort your head out over some issue so as to have an opinion which is genuinely your own, rather than one adopted from the latest intrusion. We do this to ourselves and the weakness is demonstrated in the frequency with which you check your phone. Checking is what you call it, but what are you really doing? Checking that you have value in the eyes of others? Using it as a measure of your importance? Communicating because you can, not because you have content justifying that action? This is the behaviour of the herd, and the central herd at that. On the outer edge of any herd the members are observant for predators and will react — this has few parallels in what we can easily see in modern behaviour. That may go some small way to explaining how it is that we are so easily misled, or eaten, in the context of the metaphor.

DJS 20191119

Top pic from https://duckofminerva.com/2017/02/trump-and-truth-or-what-aren't-can-teach-us-about-truth-and-politics.html 

Edit 20200505. See here for measures of political trust (pretty constant in the UK at 18% ±1%, those of us that think we can trust politicins to tell the truth). Minute edits 20200712.

¹  6/12/1923 Electors had a choice of main parties including Stanley Baldwin's Conservatives, Ramsay MacDonald's Labour and H. H. Asquith's Liberal party. The result was a hung parliament and a Lab/Lib coalition ran for 10 months, overtaken by Conservatives. 

3-19/12/1910 Liberals under Asquith, 272 and Conservative under Balfour, 271, with 120 others. The Liberals formed a government with the Irish nationalists and this is the last time that anyone other than Lab or Tory won the most seats. Trivial pursuit suggests that '2014 MEP election' is an answer you might want in reserve.

²  The panic surrounding echo chambers and so-called filter bubbles is largely groundless. If we think of an echo chamber as a sealed environment, which only circulates opinions and facts that are agreeable to its participants, it is a rather implausible phenomenon. Research by the Oxford Internet Institute suggests that just 8% of the UK public are at risk of becoming trapped in such a clique. From [6]. That refers to a failure to escape, quite different from milder but equally pernicious effects.

³ [9] describes, at some length, the term gaslighting, a reference to an eponymous film from George Cukor. Gaslighting is here defined as a weapon of the will to power. It is the organised effort by public figures to mess with citizens’ identities, to deploy lies, bullshit, buffoonery and silence for the purpose of sowing seeds of doubt and confusion among subjects. [It is] a preferred tactic of narcissistic and aggressive personalities bent on doing whatever it takes to gain and maintain a position of advantage over others.[..] When (for instance) gaslighters say something, only later to say that they never said such a thing and that they would never have never dreamed of saying such a thing, their aim is gradually to turn citizens into mere playthings of power. When that happens, the victims of gaslighting no longer trust their own judgements. They buy into the tactics of the manipulator. Not knowing what to believe, they give up, shrug their shoulders and fall by default under the spell of the gaslighter.


[2] https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/fact-checking-truth.php  US version, but a possible source of issues worthy of study in the sense that it is a good place to discover what is being drenched in untruth or partial truth.

[3] https://boris-johnson-lies.com  Peter Oborne (not Osbourne), Guardian  reporter

[4] https://truepublica.org.uk/united-kingdom/peter-obornes-file-of-boris-johnsons-lies-is-published/

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/18/boris-johnson-lying-media

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/sep/19/why-cant-we-agree-on-whats-true-anymore  Well worth reading or re-reading.

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/may/27/designed-to-deceive-how-do-we-ensure-truth-in-political-advertising

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/19/why-vote-youre-just-clinging-to-a-wrecked-system

[9] http://theconversation.com/post-truth-politics-and-why-the-antidote-isnt-simply-fact-checking-and-truth-87364 

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