Lord of the Lies: a survivor’s guide to living in a world of Fake News and Alternative Facts

by Thomas Neal

The following article is a transcript of a Middle School assembly given by Mr. Neal in the DRT on Monday 12 June 2017.

British politics was dominated last year by the EU Referendum; in America, it was the Presidential election. Both campaigns caused spikes in the usage of the phrase post-truth. But what is post-truth? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

when facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
So, we’re not talking here about lying (OED: ‘an intentionally false statement’), nor are we talking about searching for the truth through studying, debating, and conducting experiments. No; instead we are talking about living in a world in which facts no longer matter—a world in which the truth simply doesn’t matter.

But I believe facts do matter. I believe there is such a thing as truth, which means I believe some things are true and some things are false; some things are right, and some things are wrong. And I believe that if we lose our sense of truth, then we lose what it means to be human; we lose our sense of reality, our sense of perspective.
  *         *         * 
Published in 1949, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a fantasy, social science fiction novel. In it, the U.K. is renamed ‘Airstrip One,’ a province of ‘Oceania,’ in a futuristic world in which the all-powerful government (‘The Party’) engages in perpetual warfare, surveillance of its citizens (‘Big Brother’), and manipulation of the public. In Oceania, truth doesn’t matter anymore: truth is regarded as politically incorrect. The only thing that matters is whatever the ruling party says matters, and whatever the party says is ‘true’.

In place of the truth, the Party requires all citizens to believe the obviously false dogma that 2 + 2 = 5. Now, I hope you all know that 2 + 2 in fact equals 4. But in Oceania, that doesn’t matter. The Party says 2 + 2 = 5, and that is what its citizens must believe.

Clearly, this is nonsense, although it is by no means a new idea. Way back in 1562, the German theologian Johann Wigand said:

No-one can lawfully doubt that two and two make four, because that type of knowledge is part of our nature.
The great eighteenth-century scholar Samuel Johnson—some of you might have heard of Johnson’s famous dictionary—said in 1779:

You may have reason why two and two should make five; but they will still make four.
But, scarily, we are seeing this kind of attitude creep into our everyday lives: in our politics, in our religion, in our morals. George Orwell was right. We are now living in a world in which facts count for nothing. What matters today is opinion, feeling, emotion.

  *         *         * 

But just how, exactly, is post-truth manifested in today’s world?

The President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, is the leading exponent of something called post-truth politics—that is, politics which relies on statements that feel true, but have no basis in fact.

You might remember that the morning after Mr. Trump’s swearing-in as President, his Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, claimed the event had attracted ‘the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration […] both in person and around the globe’. But the photographic evidence tells another story. The New York Times estimated that President Trump drew a crowd of about one-third the size of President Obama’s in 2009.

Even worse, when the President’s counsellor, Kellyanne Conway, gave a TV interview just a few days later, she stated that Mr. Spicer had not lied, but presented ‘alternative facts’. The interviewer responded: ‘Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.’ What I find really interesting, though, is that within four days of the interview—which was covered by newspapers and TV stations around the world—sales of George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four had increased by 9,500%, and jumped to the number-one bestseller on Amazon.com.

But Donald Trump is not alone. Back in 2010, the then President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, was one of 96 victims of a terrible plane crash: with no evidence, the Polish government claimed he had been assassinated by Russia. And on 15th July last year, there was an attempted coup in Turkey; soon afterwards Turkish politicians claimed the perpetrators had acted on orders issued by the CIA, although again there was no evidence to support their theory.

One of the recurring themes of Mr. Trump’s presidency has been his criticism of media organisations such as the BBC and CNN as ‘Fake News’. But what is Fake News? Fake News is journalism that consists of deliberately false information or hoaxes, usually spread via the Internet, with the intention to deceive the public.

To be clear: Fake News is not the same as bad reporting. The media do, of course, occasionally get it wrong. After the US election result was announced, Dana Schwartz, a journalist working for The Observer, tweeted a photograph of the new president, claiming it had been photo-shopped to make his hands look bigger; she said she was ‘100%’ sure this was the case. The tweet received 37,193 likes, and was shared 25,910 times. Within a few hours, several other media companies had produced conclusive evidence that this was, in fact, false information: the photo had not been edited. Ms Schwartz then issued another tweet, admitting she had not checked her sources. But the damage had already been done. And Ms Schwartz couldn’t resist taking another dig at Mr. Trump: ‘I do hope Trump saw this and it ruined his day,’ she wrote. This last comment, I think, exposes Fake News for what it really is. Ms Schwartz was not making an honest critique of Mr. Trump’s policies; she was making an emotional attack on his character—and even if the facts didn’t work out, at least it made a good story. The truth just doesn’t matter in Fake News.

Still, I am not suggesting Mr. Trump is blameless; he is as guilty of spreading Fake News as any media organisation. Mr. Trump now uses the term ‘Fake News’ as an insult to hurl at any reporting he doesn’t like. Back in February, Mr. Trump actually said: ‘Any negative polls are Fake News!’ Dana Schwartz used Fake News to sway public opinion; Donald Trump used the accusation of Fake News to hide public opinion. Both were attacks on democracy, attacks on the truth.

But amid all this talk about Fake News and how to deal with it, one fact seems to have got lost: Fake News is not new; it has been around for centuries. Fake News took off at the same time that news began to circulate widely, after Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439. As printing expanded, so flowed Fake News, from spectacular Pagan stories of sea monsters and witches, to Protestant claims that sinners were responsible for natural disasters.
     Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, created Fake News stories about murderous Native Americans working with King George III of England, in an effort to influence public opinion for the American Revolution.
      In 1844, Protestant newspapers in Philadelphia falsely claimed that Irishmen were stealing Bibles from public schools, a Fake News story which led to violent riots and attacks on Catholic churches. 
     Over a two-year period, 1932–33, The New York Times published numerous articles by its Pulitzer Prize-winning Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty, denying the fact that the Soviet Union had starved to death between ten and twenty million of its own citizens in the Holodomor famine, which is now regarded as one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century.
     Throughout World War II, both the Nazis and the Allies employed Fake News in the form of political propaganda to encourage the folks at home and discourage the enemy. In England, we had the British Political Warfare Executive; in Germany, Joseph Goebbels headed the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.

Today, however, Fake News is a worldwide phenomenon, spread through websites which specialise in creating attention-grabbing headlines, such as: ‘Obama signs executive order banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schools nationwide,’ which received 2,177,000 Facebook shares, comments, and reactions; and ‘Pope Francis shocks the world, [and] endorses Donald Trump for President,’ which received 961,000 Facebook shares and likes. In fact, recent research from academics at Northwestern University, Illinois concluded that over 30% of all Fake News traffic can be linked back to Facebook—as opposed to only 8% of ‘real’ news.

So, how do we spot Fake News? The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions has come up with a list of tips: consider the source; read beyond the headlines; check the author; check the supporting sources; check the date; ask yourself, ‘is it a joke?’; ask yourself if your own prejudices and biases could be affecting your judgement; and, of course, ask the experts.
But what about the Fake News which never dies? What about the Fake News which is already ingrained in us? Here are three common misconceptions:
     Many people believe the nineteenth-century plumber Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet. Wrong. Flushing toilets were first used in the Indus Valley civilisation, around 4,600 years ago (in the 26th century BC).
    Many people believe that lightning never strikes the same place twice. Wrong. There is no scientific reason why lightning couldn’t strike the same place twice. Objects and places which are most prominent or conductive are most likely to be struck: so, the Empire State Building in New York, for example, is struck by lightning around 100 times a year.
    “Elementary, my dear Watson,” is surely one of the most famous catchphrases of all time, spoken numerous times by the great Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s popular novels. Wrong. In fact, the phrase doesn’t appear in a single Sherlock Holmes novel. The phrase originates in P. G. Wodehouse’s 1909-10 serial novel Psmith, Journalist.

So, as Mark Twain once said: ‘A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is [still] putting on its shoes.’ Or did he? Some attribute that quotation to Winston Churchill, others to Thomas Jefferson. In fact, the quotation has been traced to an article published in 1710 by Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels.

So, how do we combat living in a post-truth age? There are loads of fact-checking websites out there, including: www.snopes.com and www.factcheck.org There is also an organisation called the International Fact-Checking Network, launched in 2015, which supports international efforts in fact-checking and provides a vetting process for media and news organisations. These things are all great. But, more than anything, I urge you to think—I urge you to question, challenge, and explore. As the English philosopher William Penn said: ‘In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory’.
Now, these examples probably seem fairly trivial; who cares who invented the flush toilet, or who did or didn’t say a line in a novel? But what about ideas and views which affect people’s lives at the most profound level?

Truth is a subject close very to my heart because, as some of you may know, I am a Catholic. What you probably don’t know is that I was born into a committed, church-going Anglican family, and converted to Catholicism after completing my university studies. It was my own search for the truth which led me to the Catholic Church. As a Catholic, and as a teacher, I am obsessed with the truth. And I want to encourage you, too, to seek the truth in everything you do: no matter how tough it can be, no matter how difficult the journey, or how unpopular it makes you.

Another line from George Orwell: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to never grow tired of seeking for what is good, honest, and true. Combat the Fake News and the Alternative Facts of this world we live in. And finally, be prepared that the truth can hurt sometimes: if you seek the truth, you are not always going to have an easy life, but you are guaranteed a happy one.