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The Disinformation Age

They say this is the Information Age, but it may as well be called the Disinformation Age given the state of current affairs. This week, an angry mob stormed the US Capitol, whipped up for months, if not years, by an ever increasing torrent of falsehoods from their President. The shock of how many people would follow such a person already struck me in 2016 when they, to my great surprise, actually elected him into office. Now, in 2020, he lost the election. This is not a contested issue juridically by any means, but is only so in the view of his supporters, they claim fraud and injustice and actually believe this with every fiber in their body.

Trumpists are storming the Capitol in the delusion their candidate won the presidential election. Others (well, there is considerable overlap actually), are blatantly disregarding the fact that there is a dangerous virus sweeping the world, some going as far to even deny the very existence of the virus, in complete disregard of the current stress on hospitals all around the world. Despite widespread scientific consensus, many still deny humanity exacerbates climate change, or refuse vaccination and turn to homeopathy instead. Hordes of religious folk probably even still reject evolution and some fringe group even exerts that the earth is flat, whilst another claims Hillary Clinton runs a child abuse ring in the basement of a New York pizzeria. Meanwhile, Putin's Kremlin keeps pursuing an active policy of disinformation and attempts to sow confusion and discord in the western world where they see an opportunity for their division to their own political advantage. They're currently denying their attempted murder of Navalny (not to mention the shooting down of the MH17 plane and the annexation of Crimea by little green men), in spite of an actual accidental confession by the murderer and the long line of precedence of people who did not live to see another day after opposing the Kremlin. China keeps a tight lock on whatever information their citizens can access, and the Brits have finally left the EU after a voting yes in a referendum where the Leave-campaign demonstrated a clear appetite for dishonesty. I could go on and on, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I know I'm grouping a lot together here, but I just want to sketch the scene to make a point: Disinformation reigns, how did things get this bad? Or is this something of all times?

I long for the days when I naively held the belief that reason always prevails in the end. If only you give people the facts, they will come to the logical conclusion in the end. Make sound observations, clearly state your axioms and premises, apply proper deduction, or I'll even allow for induction if you please, and the truth will follow. A scientific rigour of hypothesis and empirical verification or falsification thereof.

Unfortunately, we don't have Vulcan minds like Mr. Spock, We are not made for pure logic, we are emotional beings. As much as I value reason and like to pride myself as a rational being, I too have to admit that it is in fact mostly emotion that rules my actions and thoughts and I'm not nearly as rational as I pretend to be. Especially strong negative emotions such as fear and anger seem to play an important role in establishing and reinforcing our beliefs, they provide a potent charge to our thoughts and beliefs and incline us to act upon them.

The beliefs that people hold are a function of their own perceptions and cognitions, whether that be through direct personal experience through the senses, instilled through parents or schools, or through media or literature. Beliefs we hold true need not be factually true of course. Whatever our beliefs are, they are just an interpretation of reality filtered through our perception. We approximate reality but never fully capture it. The beliefs we hold can be at odds with one another, and shift according to time and circumstances. We all live in our own reality in this sense, and these views of reality may clash violently.

This human treat of differing perceptions and views, and the need to find a consensus and common course of action in this diversity, probably constitutes the heart of politics. Gather people for your cause by convincing them that your view of reality is right, and crush the opposition by pitting them against those who think differently. Spread your message, teach in your schools, send out the heralds, evangelize the infidels, burn the heretics. Information gives a form of power, it brings knowledge that can be acted upon to gain an advantage, it can be shared or it can be withheld.

Political power often lives by grace of control of the channels of information, this holds especially true for authoritarian regimes. Entire nations and religions establish their own view of reality that often has more to do with their own motives and need to retain order and power than an actual bearing on reality. Take a look the Chinese Communist Party for example, there is no real independent media and they erected the great firewall to block their netizens from being confronted with any views of reality that can threaten their regime. The tiananmen massacre of '89? Never happened. If political powers have full control over the media, truth is the first casualty. Authoritarian leaders need their own narrative to prevail if they are to keep power, so the machine of the state turns against any critical independent media. I mention China and also Russia as notable examples out of many. But also in the EU there is already cause for concern, especially in Orbán's Hungary (and before that we had Berlusconi's Italy). Separation of state and media is as vital as that of state and church, if we want to live in a free society.

Even in the west where we do have independent media that can not be simply crushed by the state, we also find media under siege. The siege can still come from the top echelons of the state, like in the US and Hungary, even though they lack the brute force authoritarian regimes have. Trump is probably one of the most vocal and visible attackers of the independent media nowadays. He simply brands everything he dislikes as "fake news" and repeats the message over and over. To a sizable disenchanted part of the population, this message sticks, and the siege on the media now comes from the disenchanted populace themselves. We see the consequences in the storm of Capitol Hill where the mob turn on press equipment and trash it, and write "Murder the Media" on the door inside after forcing entry.

Even here in the Netherlands, we see that a prime public broadcaster, NOS, decided to remove their logos from their vans after an increase of threats against their journalists from certain groups. We live in a strange time of a global pandemic and exceptional lockdowns that probably triggers people in extra ways, the temporary restrictions of our liberties are unprecedented and I think it is good to display some skepticism in such cases in principle. But certain groups seem to go into overdrive and turn on the media in general, which I find a concerning development. They seem to display a revulsion towards anything that is considered mainstream, have little no regard for professional journalism, and instead obtain their news only from like-minded peers on social networks or fringe sources like a deranged tweeting president or other self-proclaimed experts with little esteem in the communities they ought to represent. In the extreme case, this leads to all kinds of conspiracy theories that are shared across the social networks.

A true journalist aspires to a high degree of objectivity. Journalism is an important profession that should act as a vital control for our societies and the governing bodies within, constantly testing and reporting on what is going on and sharing this information with the public. The high standard of objectivity and rigorous methodology of a journalist distinguish her from the mere entertainer or entrepreneur. But of course, even the best journalist is not a Vulcan either, she does not exist in a vacuum and has her own views that may colour the reporting, and may even actively further a certain position, so may her employer which also has other interests at heart such as commercial ones. This stresses the importance of getting news and information from various different sources, and the importance that these multiple sources are in fact available in the society. One of the main issues of this day and age, with the internet at our fingertips and everybody being able to have their say, is the sheer overload of information that we're never able to sift through. The difficulty becomes to separate the weed from the chaff. In a forest of an abundance of sources, those who shout the loudest are often not the best to listen to, and the opinions of the loud next-door neighbour should not carry the same weight as those of experts in a given field.

The conspiracy theorist is the extreme example that seems on the rise nowadays, having gone down a deep echoing well in which only his own views resonate, more often than not accompanied by strong heartfelt emotions. The walls of the well are often formed by the filter bubbles of social media. They put us in a spot where we find ourselves only amongst peers with similar views. This can be the same political view, the same religious conviction, the same race, the same sexual orientation, and so on.. Social media act as Indignation Machines inciting our rage against conflicting views, and thereby reinforcing our view. Eventually, we fuse with some views and they become a part of our identity, "I am a democrat", "I am an American", "I am a Christian", "I am a black man", "I am gay" and it becomes even harder to distance ourselves from the barrage of associated views; doing so would lead to a loss of self.

I do think that we are all by nature quite susceptible to confirmation bias and prefer to consult those sources that reinforce the views we already hold and to seek the company of people who think alike. It's the path of least resistance and a bonding experience for social creatures like us. I'm not a psychologist, but I imagine it is more pleasant and to be confirmed over and over again that you are in fact right and good and just than to have to expend energy to accommodate conflicting views in your world-view or even be challenged in your core identity.

In light of this, we have to be careful not to brand every skeptic as a conspiracy theorist and in doing so shut them off. We have to maintain open dialogue for as long as possible. I think skepticism in itself is a very commendable attitude and one of the pillars of both good science and good journalism. Like Socrates taught, through asking questions we can learn and grow. Carefully evaluate your sources of information, a report has more validity if the source backed up by other sources who do not share the same socio-political agenda. The information must also be weighed in its full context, as it is easy to misconstrue something and make it out to be something it is not. Appearances can be deceiving. Yet at the same time, don't expect any source to be infallible and have everything straight, errare humanum est, this does not immediately mean their entire perspective is worthless.

Ask questions like Socrates, but ask especially questions to yourself. This is where things often go wrong. I think the primary focus for a skeptic should always be a kind of self-skepticism. Why do you hold the views you do? What underlying emotions have charged the views you hold, and are they really justified? A true skeptic should actively attempt to falsify his own views, and only in his inability to do so, can he validate his view.

We also have the option not to take a stance on a certain topic and to state we simply do not know, or have not made up our mind yet, or changed our minds from the original position we held. Nowadays it seems as if we feel obliged to take and hold a position, often a fairly black and white one: "If you're not with us you're against us!". This makes us lose the important ability of nuance. But the world is complex and composed of shades of gray instead of black and white, things usually aren't that clean-cut and can be seen from other perspectives. The ability to shift perspective, see something from the other's point of view, is also a question of empathy, of which we could use a bit more in my opinion as well.