The Manchester Arena bombing of 2017 is as real as it is atrocious. When the inquiry report was released, also revealed was a ‘disaster troll’ campaign, denying that it ever happened. Trolls were harassing survivors, some with life-changing injuries. More than ‘lies, damn lies, and social media’ we ask again the eternal question, “What is truth, and can it be denied?” We also spare a thought for the innocents who are caught up in believing such conspiracies and fake news.
Pontius Pilate, Governor of the Roman province of Judaea, asked: “What is Truth?”. He thereby paved the way to the most notorious miscarriage of justice in human history. Afraid of a mob baying for the crucifixion of Jesus, the statement arose as a cynical ploy aimed at preventing an insurrection. The result was the murder of someone not found guilty under Roman Law. Wittingly or unwittingly, Pilate relativised our concepts of truth.
This is not the place to indulge philosophy or theology, yet we should discourse the importance of truth because it is pivotal to justice and civil society, as is to the proper exercise of free speech. In the UK, we may publish what we will, provided it is truthful. Well, almost, for exceptions include state secrets guarded under the Official Secrets Act. We are telling the truth when we call Boris Johnson ‘a liar’ because there is sound evidence. However we are not telling the truth when we tell lies about someone with whom we disagree or dislike, which brings the threat of prosecution for libel, slander, or deformation. But neither can we be complacent that our laws can protect us against untruths or fake news.
Two thousand years after Pilate, a quotation attributed to Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, declares: “Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes the truth”. Nazi Germany’s state interests distorted everything in the service of brutal and perverted nationalism. Discredited ‘Social Darwinism’ was invoked, as were genetic theories underpinning racism. History and archaeology were re-cast in the Nazi image: if the end justified the means, then human ethical instincts could be violated.
But did it all end in 1945?
Almost eighty years later, we find ourselves in an impoverished post-Brexit, post-Covid and (one day), post-Putin Europe. We nervously remind ourselves of the strengths of modern ‘liberal democracy’, yet across the ‘Pond’, Donald Trump sounds off once more. Commentators remind us of threats centred around ethnic and cultural nationalism dating from the nineteenth century. We cry: “here we go again!” or ask how we should act, for surely somewhere lines must be drawn? But drawn by whom, and how might ‘alternative’ discourses be challenged?
Dangers lurk in sheer prejudice, and not from ethically scrutinised and well-argued positions. We legitimately demand to know where and why are lies generated, and where is the fertile ground for them to grow? It is dangerous to assume that people in first century Jerusalem or twentieth century Germany were different from us, Just look at modern Russia or the political turmoil that could hit the USA. ‘Alternative views’ in democracies should be rooted in values protecting human rights and welfare, environmental imperatives, social equality and more.
Supported by ethical inquiry and empirical information, this is how progress should be. Where powerful interests overstep some dangerous line, be they private or state-based, they must be called to account. Some motorists travelling to work will curse the blockages on motorways caused by climate protestors, yet these protesters remind us that without past ‘Non-Violent Direct Action’, women in the UK may not have won the right to vote! Here both sides claim a defensible position. However when one side denies the truth from experts, then we have a problem!
Denying the science
The Flat Earth Society is a by-word for crankiness and the butt of jokes. It is harmless where it does not influence scientific or engineering practice, nor break any laws. Yet those who deny the science behind climate change are not so harmless. Respected scientists researching climate described and predicted climate change, which was politicised into the Climate Crisis, then the Climate Emergency. As opposition from dissenting scientists dwindled, the cudgel was taken up by the ‘Fossil Fuel Lobby’. When Big Money is involved, motivations are clear, and consciences may be bought. There has been an unholy alliance of dissenting scientists, economists, and PR people. Yet in July 2022 the air temperature hit 40.3°C, at Coningsby, Lincolnshire. Even if a volcanic eruption in Tonga exaggerated this temperature hike, the trend remains consistent with predictions. By now arguments denying that the climate is changing, that humans are enhancing these changes or even that industrial development is essential, have all vanished out of an atmospheric window.
One example of how honest scientists can be undermined was ‘Climategate’ when emails on climate science at the University of East Anglia were hacked for essentially political reasons that aimed to discredit the research. An ensuing review of this important work, involving the Royal Society and other august bodies, found the research findings sound. Unintentionally, skulduggery came to the assistance of science essential in the service of humanity. Encouragingly, there are also occasions where warriors from the Fossil Fuel Lobby have changed their minds. Result!
Denying the evidence on Brexit
The Leave Campaign around Brexit depended on peddling unfounded doubts, many just based on bitter prejudices. These were rooted in business interests not aligned with the national interest, in racist viewpoints, or in unfounded concerns around the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. The competency of reputable bodies such as the Bank of England, the Treasury, and the major financial houses was questioned. A common (loud and unreasonable) theme was that the experts did not know what they were talking about. Recently the Office for Budget Responsibility has stated that the long-term impact of Brexit alone will reduce the UK’s potential GDP by 4%, a figure worse than that for the impact of Covid, with the UK’s performance worse than for Germany, Italy, Spain or France. We are now feeling the outcomes.
Enter the bizarre and dangerous
Alongside the Flat Earthers and concerns that Lizard People may control humanity, are conspiracy theorists. To replace ‘received wisdom’ is difficult without decades of accumulated knowledge, experience, and peer-reviewed research. Often (and I must be careful here) an articulacy and knowledge deficit come into play. It seems often that another view is justified merely “because I feel strongly about this” or maybe they “they would say that!”. Conspiracy theories are to be taken seriously because:
“Conspiracy theories often target or discriminate against an entire group perceived as the enemy behind a real or imagined threat. They polarise society and fuel violent extremism. While most people who spread conspiracy theories genuinely believe in them, others deploy them cynically to achieve these effects.”
We have been here before and realise that conspiracies are designed to attack orthodoxies and institutions created for the public good. The independence of the legal system, the impartiality of the civil service and the freedom of the media may all be threatened, even from elected politicians. Conspirators promote racism and use euphemisms in so doing. There are allegations of secret plots, murky motives and are a danger to humanity, its health, and our planet.
The dangerous notion that Covid is a hoax is typical of such fake news thinking. Anti-vaxxers would doubt the pioneering work of such as Jenner and Pasteur. Much of the problem lies in the drip-dripping of misleading information. The vulnerable and marginalised are prone to create, believe and communicate conspiracy theories emanating from fake news. Among the more powerful conspirators, a significant motive seems to be profit from the credulous alongside a belief the so-called experts are wrong. Others are just barmy but dangerous; recall the ‘anti-vaxxers’. If conspiracy theorists of the day are allowed to run wild, the moral power of civil society and the legal mechanisms will fail.
Yet when we examine supporters of conspiracies, our mood may change towards sympathy. Research suggest a link between social isolation and conspiracy theories. Individuals without purpose, knowledge or role in society can experience marginalisation. They may wish to hit out. Here, ‘Culture Wars’ (a terrible term) polarises people. We also remember there is an economic system that for long has promoted inequality. The Internet, and social media, are natural habitats for the marginalised, as refugees from social inclusion as they disappear into the rabbit holes of paranoia.
Exploiting victims of tragedy
Yet sympathy only has so much traction. Somewhere in the mix there is money to be made at the expense of the vulnerable, or of the victim of outrages. Claiming freedom of speech, one Richard D Hall spends his time tracking down (and cruelly challenging) victims of the Manchester Arena bombing, claiming it a hoax. His motive appears to be sale of books, DVDs explaining his ideas, speaking at events, and posting videos online. Legal action by his victims may follow, as it did when, in the USA, Alex Jones was ordered to pay almost one billion dollars to families of the 2012 US Sandy Hook school shooting, after he falsely claimed the attack was a hoax.
This complex web of conspirator and conspiracy, of perpetrator and victim of untruth, is more complex than just blaming the Internet and social media. Conspiracy theories and fake news threaten the ‘Common Good’. There certainly are bad people out there, including a criminal element that should be subject to legal process. There is a need to protect civil society at large. With freedom of speech comes responsibility to conform to certain accepted norms of communications behaviour. Our economic and social system has created a market for fake news and dangerous nonsense aimed at the marginalised who are vulnerable to conspiratorial stories, and who need to be brought in from the cold.
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