People around the world no longer rely on facts and data as much as they used to. This is a problem at any time, but it’s especially troubling during a pandemic.
Do you know that when you are vaccinated for Covid-19, Bill Gates and George Soros have arranged that a microchip will be embedded in you at the same time? It must be true because there’s a Facebook post which says so. There is even an illustration showing someone with white gloves inserting a long swab up a person’s nose into the nasal passage, with an arrow pointing towards the end of the swab saying “Implant microchip here”.
Then again, you almost certainly know that the Democrats won the presidential election because Venezuela, Cuba and other “anti-Trump interests” used a secret algorithm, developed by a company linked to George Soros, to hack into voting machines and steal millions of votes from President Trump. This must also be true, since it was claimed by President Donald Trump’s lawyer, former New York mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the man entrusted by Trump with filing dozens of lawsuits through American courts in an attempt to overturn the election results.
All this, of course, is absolute nonsense. Bonkers. Just as the preposterous conspiracy theory that a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against President Trump, the saviour of the nation who is fighting the cabal. This is the well-known far-right conspiracy theory propagated by QAnon, who also assert that their hero, Trump, in exposing the ring is preventing a coup d’état by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and (you’ve guessed it) George Soros.
Loopy and barmy as they may seem, the disturbing fact is that hundreds of thousands of US citizens actually believe all these ridiculous conspiracy theories, which haven’t a shred of evidence to support them. It’s also scary that of the dozen or so QAnon believers who were candidates in the recent elections, two with a history of supporting QAnon were successfully elected to Congress: Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene (Georgia) and Lauren Boebert (Colorado). So now the nutty QAnon will have elected voices in Washington.
What’s particularly worrying is that in America and many countries around the world there is a continued and hardening willingness of millions of people to believe what is clearly false, and to disbelieve what is obviously true. For them, facts have given way to “alternative facts”, a phrase used by Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to Donald Trump, in defending the false statements about the attendance numbers at Trump’s inauguration as President in January 2017. As the information system has become more toxic, facts have stopped working as disinfectants. What had been the cleansing power of facts to neutralise bad information has turned against them, like a rogue pathogen in a science fiction movie.
Put simply, people around the world no longer rely on facts and data as much as they used to. This is a problem at any time, but it’s especially troubling during a pandemic, when people need the best, most reliable information to stay safe. Unfortunately, trust in experts has been on the decline for some years, aided and abetted by an American President who for four years consistently undermined his own experts, insisting that he knew more than them.
Take Dr Anthony Fauci, for example, a 79-year-old physician who has led the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past 36 years. With a lifetime experience, Fauci, who was unknown outside medical circles before the pandemic, has been providing the media and public with the necessary facts about the coronavirus. However, because President Trump continually undercuts him and disagrees with much of what he says, with absolutely no evidence to support his view, Fauci has become a polarising figure. If you’re a Trump fan, you won’t be a Fauci fan, and vice versa. For most non-partisan citizens, how the expertise of someone like Fauci is not innately trusted is a mystery.
But of course it’s the ability for anyone to access any information online which makes them feel empowered. It can also lead to a kind of over-confidence. Getting a medical degree is different from going on a medical site online and reading about an illness, but sometimes people conflate the two. It’s also well known that people like to confirm their own beliefs, and don’t necessarily wish to hear information that disagrees with their views. This leads them to reject information from experts that doesn’t fit their narrative. Unwelcome news is automatically branded fake news. Inconvenient evidence from independent sources is labelled junk science and countered with rigged studies claiming to be sound.
People have always been partial to their own experience and beliefs over discomfiting facts and from time immemorial, political parties have used carefully crafted narratives to support their positions on certain policies. What’s different today is the rise of social media, which drastically increases the volume and circulation of information flow. This has led to a dramatic transformation of the media market facing traditional newspapers and broadcasting companies, including the shift to a 24-hour news cycle and the increasing partisanship of some news sources, creating a massive inflation in the amount of opinion that can be easily and rapidly proliferated.
There has also been an increased blurring between fact and opinion in the media and online. Facts are objective pieces of information that can be proven or verified, whereas opinions are simply views, beliefs or attitudes. Much of this blurring takes place in cable news or social media, places where facts and opinions are frequently mixed together, making it extremely difficult for the average reader to determine what’s real or what’s someone’s opinion or analysis. There has also been a huge increase in the volume of opinion compared to fact, so if it’s fact you’re looking for, you have to work hard to dig through all the commentary to find what you want.
Quality publications, such as this newspaper, are careful to separate the two, but this is not necessarily so with others outlets, which appear to positively conflate fact and opinion in order to appeal for their own profit to particular segments of the population. Together with social media this increases the polarisation of society. It contributes to increasing disagreement regarding facts, the analytical interpretations of facts and data, and the blurring of the line between opinion and fact by creating opposing sides, each with their own narrative, worldview and facts. Known as Truth Decay, this is a phenomenon so prevalent in many countries today.
Truth Decay doesn’t just erode citizens’ ability to have meaningful political debates about important topics, it also contributes to political paralysis, the undermining of civic engagement, the perpetuation of the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation, eventually leading to widespread uncertainty and anxiety throughout the nation. Truth Decay is therefore extremely dangerous.
More than dangerous; Truth Decay can also kill. Take as an example the disinformation attacks on vaccines, an issue which has become increasingly politicised. These attacks are based entirely on false information, yet some parents’ resulting refusal to vaccinate their children has real consequences, including new deadly outbreaks of diseases that had previously nearly been eradicated, such as measles.
The novel coronavirus is equally deadly, but despite recent announcements of a successful vaccine, online scare stories by “anti-vaxxers” and misinformed concerns over the vaccine have become a major threat to its success. An 80% take-up of a Covid-19 vaccine will be necessary to protect a community, but in a recent survey some 36% of people in the UK say that they are either uncertain (27%) or very unlikely (9%) to be vaccinated against the virus. An October poll in the US revealed that only about 50% of Americans said they plan to get the vaccine when it becomes available, which will be insufficient to stop transmission of the virus. More alarmingly, it has been reported that Facebook groups which were formerly dedicated to merely asking questions about vaccines have switched to a more anti-vaccine view.
From being a problem at the margins of society, over the past four years Truth Decay has fast become a national failure. In many countries it’s bleeding through every major issue, not just health care and vaccines, but also immigration, unemployment, poverty or homelessness. All these areas require facts and data to resolve and if there is no agreement on the underlying facts of an issue, a sustained response to overcome the challenges can never be mounted. In the case of the vaccine for coronavirus, Truth Decay will result in many more deaths.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.