Not such a brave new world
WE’VE got to get to grips with a world in which truth has become a tradable commodity. Tim Berners-lee, who invented the internet, has committed himself to fighting its use for false news; still determined to maintain freedom, he recognises its corrosive effect. Donald Trump has successfully used untruths as a blatant instrument of policy and, last year in Britain, we witnessed the effect of the fraudulent slogan about NHS funding on the ‘Brexit bus’.
None of us should ignore the mechanism used by these propagandists. It’s simple. First, detect a widely held prejudice, assert and reinforce that prejudice as a self-evident truth and, finally, present a news story, however fictional, in such a way that it illustrates that ‘truth’. This is becoming, increasingly, the new reality, the ‘alternative facts’.
The media has learned that flattering the prejudices of its readers sells newspapers, even in a declining market. It’s generally a great success, but, occasionally, practitioners get their comeuppance. Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s publicist, got the ridicule she deserved in her confused attack on Barack Obama’s use of microwaves.
Similarly, the tabloid columnist Katie Hopkins is more than £300,000 the poorer since food blogger Jack Monroe took her to court for a misdirected Tweet and won. Miss Hopkins also earned from the judge the unflattering soubriquet ‘renta-gob’, which may live with her for ever.
News is now all about instant comment, the reinforcement of prejudice and the avoidance of intellectual challenge. It’s pervading every corner of our lives. Remember the suggestion that the EU wanted to steal our kettles? The reality was that we all agreed to raise the minimum efficiency standards of new kettles. No one was going to steal your old kettle, but this loony view flattered anti-eu prejudices.
This attitude towards facts has also affected the way we’ve dealt with energy costs. It’s universally believed that we’re paying more for energy and that much of the blame can be laid on Green taxes. However, research by the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) shows that to be nonsense— the CCC’S recent report shows that, for most consumers, energy bills have fallen in real terms. That’s because the boilers, dishwashers, washing machines, kettles and vacuum cleaners we all use are much more efficient; we’re consuming less energy—£150 each to be precise.
It’s all contributed to a 38% cut in emissions, despite a 65% growth in the economy, but it’s a success story that doesn’t fit our prejudices, so it won’t be the stuff of media congratulation. Indeed, the popular press will go on demanding an end to climatechange charges.
We see the promotion of ‘alternative facts’ at every turn. The organisers of the march against Brexit are having to deal with a mock-up of their website that peddles false polls and says it’s been cancelled (it’s on March 25). Mr Trump claimed his was the biggest inauguration crowd—it wasn’t. Emmanuel Macron, a leading contender in the French presidential election, is fighting cleverly faked ‘facts’ that he’s supported by Saudi Arabia. Twitter has had to block accounts that have been hacked to carry pro-turkish messages.
We’re all vulnerable in this new world. It’s the world of George Orwell, in which facts are what you want them to be and reality becomes a manipulated construct. Our reliance on an impartial BBC has become even more vital—its World Service is central to our support of a free society.
‘It’s the world of George Orwell, in which facts are what you want them to be