Much as I try, I am unable to switch off from the social and mainstream media storm surrounding ‘POTUS’ (if you use Twitter you’ll know who this is) and his Twitter frenzies (but for a glorious 11 minutes). I have to confess though, that I am not on Twitter and therefore am not directly and, thankfully, not instantaneously privy to the tsunami of tweets from the late-night president. Yet, for most of us on other forms of social media or an interest in current affairs – there is no escape from the absurdity of information that these may contain.
Just so we don’t lay all the blame on Trump, or indeed the Republican party’s lap, we can include in this fiasco of misinformation or as now popularly termed “fake news” or “alternative facts” (credit goes to Trump and his administration here though for the popularity of the terms) there are plenty of other recent events to consider such as the ‘Paradise Papers’, the Panama Papers , the Russian connections across the board (which could take decades to uncover and even longer to list), or indeed the breath taking “fake news” surrounding the Brexit debacle. It really is a minefield of lies camouflaged as the truth.
So what are ‘fake’ or ‘alternative’ ‘truths’ (and don’t forget “post-truths”)?
Top White House advisor Kellyanne Conway reintroduced the term ‘alternative truth’ in an interview during the US presidential campaign last year. After much public criticism, Conway defined her term as: “Additional facts and alternative information”.
For the Urban dictionary, alternative facts are: “A fancy way to say bullshit”. One then, of course has the challenge in defining what is ‘bullshit’ in contemporary times. So, to help a little, if we ask dictionary.com, we are told that:
“To break it down, a fact is something that actually exists—what we would call “reality” or “truth.” An alternative is one of a choice between two or more options, like when actor Maurice Chevalier said ‘Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative,’ the alternative here of course being death. So to talk about alternative facts is to talk about the opposite of reality (which is delusion), or the opposite of truth (which is untruth).”
The term ‘alternative facts’ spread through social and mass media in seconds, boosting the sales of George Orwells 1949 publication “1984”. In the book, Orwell uses ‘Newspeak’, to describe the language created by the fictional ruling party’s propaganda, which was developed and promoted to suppress freedom of thought and to increase state dominance. For example, negative words such as “bad” were replaced with “ungood”. It is expected that this new language would align the minds of the population to that of the state. In the book, Newspeak leads to “doublethink”, where an individual can claim to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time – and accepts them both. For example, “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength”.
The desktop on my laptop displays a famous quote attributed to veteran feminist, activist, writer Gloria Steinem. On it she references the age old biblical phrase (in John 8:32): “…and the truth will set you free”, but importantly she adds “… but first it will piss you off”. Yet during the last 2 years after Brexit and the US elections, defining what ‘truth’ means has become an intolerable daily challenge. So, for me, the ‘alternative truth’ is what is ‘pissing’ me off.
Recent example of political ‘alternative facts’
An obvious and sinister example of political ‘fact’ fabrication across a grand scale was spectacularly demonstrated during the Brexit campaign. Let’s look at former Ukip leader and pro-leave crusader Nigel Farage’s misrepresentation of the impact and scale of immigration in the UK:
“It is not good for our quality of life, it is not good for social cohesion in our society, and our population, inexorably headed towards 70 million or 75 million, will not make this a better, richer or happier place to be” (Nigel Farage)
However, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that this is true:
“There’s no single piece of research that fully answers questions about quality of life and social cohesion.” (Telegraph)
In the UK, there are a total of 63.7 million people. Some 5.3 million (8 percent) are ‘non-British’, with 2.9 million (5 percent) of these from Europe and 331,000 Irish. Overall net migration to the UK stands at 333,000, with migration from the EU accounting for around 49% of this. Contrast this with Germany that has a population rate of 83.67, some 10 million are foreign born people and a net immigration figure of 1.535 million people. In the last 12 months the numbers of people arriving at EU shores has reduced dramatically. In the UK this is primarily in response to post-Brexit uncertainties. This new phenomenon of emigration is already being viewed as a ‘brain drain’ with negative consequences for the UKs economic and global competitive outlook.
In terms of the ‘influx’ of refugees and asylum seekers said to cross EU borders, there are an estimated 65 million people throughout the world who have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge somewhere else. In the UK, just 0.18 percent of the total population (118,995) are refugees. The UK received just 38,500 asylum applications in 2016. This was less than Germany (587,346), Sweden (83,103) and France (62,771). In Ireland in 2016 there were 2,245 new applications for refugee status and 4,055 applications still pending a decision, with a refusal rate of 76.9 percent, one of the highest in Europe.
Let’s contrast this with Uganda which is home to 1,497,126 (2017) refugees, mainly from South Sudan and another 520,000 expected in the new year. The majority of these are fleeing conflict in South Sudan. None are refused entry, or are sent back.
The critical contribution of migrants and migration to both host and home countries cannot be overstated. A 2016 UN report finds that:
“…migration can contribute to inclusive and sustainable economic growth and development in both home and host communities. In 2014, migrants from developing countries sent home an estimated US $436 billion in remittances; a 4.4 percent increase over the 2013 level (World Bank 2015), far exceeding official development assistance and, excluding China, foreign direct investment. These funds are often used to improve the livelihoods of families and communities through investments in education, health, sanitation, housing and infrastructure”.
Migrants also fill the critical gaps in developed societies and contribute to their continued development including filling the critical labour shortages, creating jobs as entrepreneurs, contributing to state taxes and social security contributions. As has been proven time after time, migrants continue to forge new paths in science, medicine and technology. Much of the ‘facts’ put forward by the UK Brexit ‘leave’ campaigners were indeed ‘alternative’ versions.
… And it’s not just the politicians…
But it’s not just politics and politicians that spread fake news. Let’s refer to a recent example from Facebook (yet another facilitator of fake news and alternative facts – to mention just 2). Many of you may remember the associate professor of Political Science at Pusan National University in Busan Robert Kelly, who was interviewed by the BBC for his expertise on South Korea. During the interview via Skype, 2 young children spectacularly intercepted the interview followed by a ‘young’ ‘Asian’ ‘woman’ who briefly comes into the room to take the children back out so that the professor can continue with his interview. Seems normal enough.
However, the effect of what appears to be an ordinary occurrence takes a social media twist, which becomes infiltrated by a very large bout of ‘alternative facts’.
What social media addicts appeared to see was a professional man, being interviewed on global TV, which was hijacked by 2 young kids who were subsequently removed by “hired help”. This resulted in public social media outrage. This of course went viral and sent ripples across the social media universe causing a tidal wave of outrage. The professor was castigated for having hired a young, Asian nanny/aupair to look after his kids. Turns out, the nanny was the professor’s wife and the 2 kids were theirs! Who would have thought!?
This experience exposed wider fundamental public debates in our societies about racism, power relations, economics, or even the disturbing phenomenon of widespread unsolicited public criticism, shaming, judging etc., of individuals and groups across media channels.
What to do?
Yet social media can also be a very powerful tool in supporting global human rights across a spectrum of international human development issues. So how can we as individuals recognise and filter the truth from the fake? And what can we do about it?
Below are a few suggestions – which I forewarn – require a little more effort than clicking ‘Like’ (or other emojis) and demands a few more clicks before you ‘Share’!
6 easy ways to spot ‘alternative facts’ and establish the truth:
- Recognise, define (if that’s possible) and refute what is not established as fact.
- Visit only reputable, independent news sites such as the BBC, The Guardian, the Economist, Al Jazeera, AFP, etc. If it’s about specific global issues go to established charity sites such as Concern, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, etc.
- While Wikipedia may well support your basic, initial understanding of specific issues, remember it is written by individuals and has to be verified by others. Briefly visit Wikipedia, but go to other sites to verify what has been written.
- If it sounds weird– it probably is, so check it out.
- ‘Like’ and ‘follow’ pages on Facebook for example that you know to be reputable.
- Double check your information. For example, if you read something in the Daily Mirror about refugee ‘influxes’ check it out with the Office of National Statistics or the CSO in Ireland the UNHCR, the IOM, ICRC, organisations working with refugees, etc.
- Positive ways to use social media to support human development.
- In case you’re interested in Brexit ‘mythbusting’ fake news see INFACT: Stop Brexit or the BBC.
- To learn more about Europe’s “migrant crisis”.
(Photo Credit: The Public Domain Review. Flikr.com)