Days of Illusion

BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN

Two millennia ago, during a civil war in the Roman Republic, Octavian fought a disinformation war against Mark Anthony. Using verse and catchy slogans printed on to coins, Octavian swayed the Roman people with fake news – claiming that Cleopatra’s lover was a drunkard who disrespected Roman values. He eventually won the war. He became the first Emperor of Rome, ruling for over forty years.

  • In a survey fielded in the days after a group of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol (January 8th to 11th), 72 percent of likely Republican voters said they continued to question the presidential election results. They claimed that allegations of voter fraud contributed to their concerns. Even among independents, 42 percent said they did not trust the election results.
  • In a UK poll on whether Britons backed Trump’s suggestion that Covid 19 came from a laboratory in Wuhan, 87 percent said they did, while 11 percent did not and two percent did not know. The WHO just yesterday announced they will launch a formal investigation into the Wuhan lab theory.
  • Meanwhile, half of adults in the UK think that aliens exist and that we are going to be visited by them sooner rather than later. The study of 2000 adults found half believe in alien existence and think the planet should be preparing itself for an attack within the next 50 years – by 2068.

What do you believe? Have you sat and thought about why you believe what you believe? Who can you believe in these days so dominated by hubbub and the kind of weaponised disinformation of which crafty Octavian would have been proud?

“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept.”

George Carlin

Perhaps you found your truth on BBC Reality Check?

Maybe you did, but less than half of Britons (44%) say they trust the BBC to tell the truth despite its public charter to remain politically neutral. Where does that leave your truth if not bruised and battered?

Perhaps you found your truth in a newspaper?

Maybe you did, but Britons see the press as the least trustworthy, with half (51%) now saying they wouldn’t trust the newspapers to tell the truth at all, and another third (34%) saying they wouldn’t trust the papers much, for a total of 85% of UK adults who don’t fully trust the tabloids.

Perhaps you found your truth on Twitter?

Maybe you did, but for every argument that you stumble across on Twitter you’ll find a counter argument on Twitter. Alas, Twitter is not known for asking its users to pass mental health tests before joining and too often the site comes across as an assemblage of religious fanatics.

“Errors are not in the art but in the artificers.”

Sir Isaac Newton

News media bias is clearly very real. Fake news is ubiquitous. Perhaps it’s harder than ever to separate fact from fiction. So what should we do? Just switch off? Or go demented working out what and who to believe? The current Trump kerfuffle has become so dreadful that now people are openly asking the key question – is social media compatible with democracy?

What’s needed here is some flegme anglais.

If you can keep your head while all others around you are losing theirs—find somebody who you can trust to explain the situation to you. As with buying a business, first look for the fact-tellers – keep the glossers and spinners well away. There are still some fact-tellers out there.

The tellers of reality may work at your local newspaper, at fact-printing news wire services like Reuters, or have a sound following on social media. You can usually identify their work because it is filled with quotes from – and with citations for – the information they impart. Their work will almost always seek multiple perspectives and opposing views. Their information is painstakingly gathered. They will use a real name not a moniker. Their facts may or may not be your preferred truth.

As Aldous Huxley pointed out, “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored”.

Too true, but these days they can be as hard to catch as bonefish.

Dominic Wightman is Editor of Country Squire Magazine.