Political discourse in the age of fake news and alternative facts

White House spokesman Sean Spicer (L) and adviser Kellyanne Conway wait for the arrival of US President Donald Trump under the wing of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on January 26, 2017 as he departs to attend a Republican retreat in Philadelphia.- AFP PHOTO

"Alternative facts" was a phrase used by U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway during a NBC Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's highly questionable statement about the attendance at Donald Trump's inauguration as President of the United States.

The use of the term invited strong rebukes because “alternative facts” are not facts but falsehoods.

Traditional political forces have to think long and hard over the level and standard of political discourse in the age of “alternative facts.”

Over the weekend, I was invited as a participant for the annual consultative meeting of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) that is currently headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva, former Prime Minister of Thailand and leader of the Democrat Party.

We deliberated at length on the challenges posed by political populism that is sweeping nations from the United States of America to France and the Philippines.

How do conventional political forces react to populists who have little regard for the truth and facts but draw their support by amplifying the insecurities of the people and thriving in the fault lines of politics as opposed to rising above them.

How do we fight with one hand tied behind our back as we seek to call out those who purvey fake news with the sole intention of enamouring their audience?

How do conventional political forces stem their decline of support as any attempt to repudiate the populists is countered with the admonition that the traditionalists seek to maintain the status quo and are elitists and out of touch?

However, before we seek to answer such questions, there is a deep underlying problem that compels one to ask: does truth even matter? Do facts change people’s minds or most people believe what they want to believe? These questions also have particular relevance to Malaysia, more so as we enter election season.

An article in the Economist magazine, published on 10th September 2016 sheds some light on the phenomenon of “post-truth” politics and I quote:

“Mr Trump is the leading exponent of “post-truth” politics—a reliance on assertions that “feel true” but have no basis in fact. His brazenness is not punished, but taken as evidence of his willingness to stand up to elite power.

And he is not alone. Members of Poland’s government assert that a previous president, who died in a plane crash, was assassinated by Russia. Turkish politicians claim the perpetrators of the recent bungled coup were acting on orders issued by the CIA.

The successful campaign for Britain to leave the European Union warned of the hordes of immigrants that would result from Turkey’s imminent accession to the union.”

In an article recently published in the New Yorker Magazine entitled “Why facts don’t change our mind,” there is a robust discussion on how facts do not change our minds rather we rely on intuition or our own beliefs in judging whether a particular assertion is correct or not.

The article also explains a study by Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown University, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, who are cognitive scientists and I quote:

“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless.

When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration … “This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe.”

The unwillingness to subject our opinions to thorough examination and alternative views results in the development of opinions that are factually flawed and further perpetuates divisions in society because it is anchored in our deep seated prejudices and what we want to believe as opposed to actually what is factually accurate.

The recent debate on immunization of children in Malaysia is an example of a dogged hesitancy to accept medically sound evidence that immunization is good for the health and mental development of children as those opposing immunization choose to believe facts that are not proven because their minds are conditioned and they believe what they want to believe regardless any evidence to the contrary.

Last Saturday, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak warned of peddlers of “fake news” who seek to undermine and destroy the country. Najib said that falsehoods masquerading as “news” is an insidious attack that targets the hearts and minds of Malaysians.

If left unchecked, “fake news” would have a debilitating effect on Malaysians as the ability to differentiate what is right and wrong is an essential component of democracy as the electorate must only take decisions when they have all the facts and that too the correct ones.

Political discourse has always been a tricky subject and Malaysia is no exception. Pakatan Harapan politicians have made all sorts of ludicrous claims from exclaiming that the nation is going to be bankrupt, to casting doubt on the financial health of the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and use questionable facts and figures to poke holes into the economic management of the country; just to name a few of the many incidents one can encounter.

It would be wise and imperative for Malaysians and others to question what they are told, verify what they read and double check what they hear before making a conclusion given that we live in an age where any individual with a Facebook or twitter account can post something on their timeline and claim it is news with no one else able to independently determine the veracity of what has been said. Only then legitimate political discourse can survive the age of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

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