The phrase “Alternative Facts” has been circulating widely since the US Counsellor to the president, Kellyanne Conway used it in a press interview, to describe Donald Trump’s falsehoods.
Unfortunately, the phrase is relevant on both sides of the Atlantic as “Alternative Facts” are increasingly being used to achieve political ends. The Leave campaign’s “£350m per week” pledge to the NHS being a notorious example. The problem is perpetuated by social media, which serves as an echo chamber, allowing these mistruths and outright lies to be shared widely by the public. The impact of the dissemination of “Alternative Facts” can’t be underestimated. Our values and beliefs are formed by what we understand and believe to be true. We can’t trust our knowledge if it is based on false evidence and we can’t make reliable decisions when we are misinformed about the potential outcomes. Furthermore, it is imperative that we have the opportunity to change our minds in response to new information or the discrediting of the original information upon which a decision was made, just as a court case would be re-examined in light of new evidence.
Fear of the unknown
Social media giants, such as Facebook, are finally accepting their role in perpetuating this culture of “Alternative Facts” and are to taking measures to reduce the dissemination of false news stories. Nonetheless, it is a chilling time when reality becomes so much closer to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four that sales of the book reportedly increased by 9,500% in 2017.
The accusation of Nazism and fascist indoctrination has been used by both sides of the EU Referendum debate, and although it may be an extreme comparison to make, there is a similarity in the use of emotional propaganda to win over political support. The Brexiteer’s campaign, frequently referred to as “Project Fear”, was so strong because it tapped into public concern about the NHS, Immigration, housing and jobs, which all have very personal impacts. The Remain campaign failed precisely because they focussed on dry economic arguments that didn’t engage people emotionally. To some extent, emotional propaganda is needed to engage public attention but a big problem arises when it contains falsehoods and “Alternative Facts”. It undermines the credibility of our beliefs and the values, and destroys our ability to make informed decisions, which is the absolute bedrock of a functioning democracy.
Social control to serve economic means
Returning to the subject of Orwell’s monumental classic Nineteen-Eighty-Four, the increasing reports of authoritarian control of information is also of concern. Theresa May’s secrecy over her Brexit plans has been ongoing, but there is also a proposed major overhaul of the Official Secrets Act to increase sentences for not only whistleblower’s but also journalists who publish “sensitive information” about the economy. In America, Donald Trump’s attempt to dismiss and discredit official news sources is also a danger to freedom of speech. On a more local level, there have been trials with teachers wearing video cameras to record incidents and to encourage discipline in classrooms and the mayor of Liverpool who is potentially turning the public into his own army of spies by offering a full council tax refund to anyone who provides evidence of owners who let their dogs foul in the streets. These measures will undoubtedly encourage good behavior and compliance with the rules, but they will also serve to create a culture of hostility, mistrust and suspicion.
Our democratic system should ensure that political powers cannot abuse their control of information and become the dystopian Big Brother. Our democracy is fundamentally about taking power from the leaders and giving the public a voice, but when knowledge is based on their “Alternative Facts”, the power is still very much in their hands.