For most people, lying is an inevitable, even daily, fact of life. ‘I have read and agree to the terms and conditions’. ‘No, I didn’t borrow your top’. ‘Dear Professor, I didn’t come to the class today because I am really ill’.
Politicians, as fellow members of the human race, lie too. Many would say more than others – and that they have done so for a long time.
Back in 1974, Washington DC and Richard Nixon’s presidency were embroiled in the Watergate scandal. The President had consistently denied all involvement in the break-in and attempted wiretapping of the Democratic Party Headquarters two years prior. That August, however, the emergence of the so-called “smoking gun” tape (a recording of a damning conversation between Nixon and an aide) ultimately triggered the President’s resignation just days later. As it turned out, the President had not only known of the break-in but been a key figure in the conspiracy.
Watergate, of course, was not an isolated incident. For much of history, politicians have lied on a grander scale and with higher stakes than the rest of us. But there have occurred a number of crucial shifts in the relationship between truth and politics since the days of Watergate.
Perhaps most importantly, information has become democratised to a degree never before seen. That is, the rise of the internet, as well as our ever-increasing exposure to it, has heralded a new era in which almost anyone can access vast amounts of information at any time. Consequently, many of us now know that we are being lied to – or at least, have the ability to find out. Yet, simultaneously, the internet – and more specifically social media – has exposed the subjectivity of truth. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter act as echo chambers, sources through which users can be reassured of their existing world view. Alongside the declining premium of objective truth in politics, anti-intellectualism is rife. Michael Gove truly had his finger on the pulse when he exclaimed in 2016 that “people have had enough of experts”.
Donald Trump epitomises the war on truth in this digital age. Since 2016, his appeals to emotion – inextricably linked to spurious claims about immigrants, jobs and trade – have divided Americans and much of the world. The Washington Post estimates that Trump has made a total of 6,430 false or misleading claims over the course of his presidency. A target of particular vitriol from the Oval Office recently has been the caravan of, apparently, 7000 ‘unknown middle easterners’ at the America-Mexico border who are simultaneously ‘bad people’ and being financed by Democrats to harm Trump’s presidency. While not unusual, this story demonstrates a particularly alarming element of the war on truth and its ravaging of global politics. Trump exemplifies how dishonesty has become a tactic of politics, rather than simply an unfortunate side effect. Through a series of falsehoods and outright lies, Trump has appealed to dissatisfaction with politics to win support and, ultimately, his position in the White House.
The problem, however, is worldwide. Across the Atlantic in Europe, against a backdrop of surging populism throughout the continent, WHO data has revealed that measles cases in Europe are the highest in 20 years, due in large part to the continuing growth of the anti-vaccination movement. A testament to the ongoing trend of anti-intellectualism, anti-vaxxers – as they have come to be known – reject expert knowledge and instead often rely on conspiracy theories and anecdotal evidence. And while anti-vaxxers are not a new phenomenon, the spike in incidences of measles this year is not unrelated to the degradation of truth in politics and the media. Simultaneously, social media has enabled the empowerment of the crowd. Groups like the anti-vaccination lobby are legitimised through Facebook and Twitter – not quite mob justice, but mob validation.
The Saudi Arabian regime has also come under international scrutiny recently following the alleged state-sponsored murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Originally from Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi had been a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and was in self-imposed exile in the United States. In response to emerging accusations about Khashoggi’s fate, false claims and indeed fake news stories were rife. Turkish media initially claimed that Khashoggi’s Apple Watch had been recording events inside the embassy and that his fiancée had been able to access the recording through his iPhone. This story was later debunked when it transpired that the Turks in fact possessed their own recordings through systems installed in the consulate.
Mohammed Bin Salman’s regime, unsurprisingly, produced a number of falsified versions of events: first, Khashoggi had left the consulate ‘after a few minutes or one hour’. Then, the journalist had been killed in a fight. Eventually, the regime resorted to claims that the incident was down to a ‘rogue operation’ of which the Crown Prince had known nothing. Amidst numerous versions of events, the truth became submerged within competing narratives. As honesty becomes an increasingly rare characteristic in politics, politicians of all kinds become empowered to bend, interpret and outright evade the truth.
The news of Khashoggi’s murder comes the same year that newcomer Bin Salman was heralded by many in the West as a ‘reformer’ within Saudi politics, traditionally deeply conservative. It seems that Bin Salman’s shallow promises of a return to a more moderate Islam – the ‘liberal’ measure of allowing women to drive supposedly acting as a testament to his reformist zeal – convinced not only those in Saudi Arabia but also in the West. Recent events have brought these delusions crumbling down.
‘Fake news’, another defining phrase in the war on truth lexicon, is of course highly influential. Donald Trump has a deeply complex relationship with the media, and various news sources have consistently faced a barrage of abuse. Most notably, CNN has repeatedly been dubbed ‘fake news’ by the President, whose administration recently revoked the press pass of Jim Acosta, the station’s chief White House correspondent.
Elsewhere in the world, press freedom is coming under fire to an ever-greater degree. In Myanmar, two Reuters journalists who reported on the persecution and massacre of Rohingya Muslims were jailed for seven years in September. The Nicaraguan administration has carried out a wholesale onslaught on the press; journalists have been threatened, beaten, robbed and arrested. Meanwhile in Russia, a radio journalist at one of the few remaining broad-view news sources was stabbed in the throat in October. Freedom of the press, a fundamental pillar of liberal democracy (and founding principle of the United States), has truly come under attack.
Yet while the press is often threatened in this post-truth world, they are also part of the problem. A 2011 review by the BBC of the organisation’s own science coverage found that the desire for impartiality too often trumped accuracy; coverage was being given to fringe views that were grossly unrepresentative of scientific consensus. This trend only seems to be continuing, as objective truth loses its allure.
In spite of all this, a number of committed individuals and organisations shine out amidst the darkness. Those who are determined to seek and disseminate the truth – sometimes even at their own expense. Time magazine recently named their person of the year a group they aptly named ‘the Guardians’: four journalists and a newspaper who have been targeted for their work. Amongst them is Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the Capital Gazette, a Maryland-based newspaper who lost five of their employees to a gunman in June.
There seems to be a recognition amongst many of us that truth is vital – to democracy, to freedom, to humanity. The backlash against Trump, and many of his populist counterparts, are a testament to this belief. So while the war on truth is very much ongoing, hope and integrity will continue to fight against it.
Lilian Fawcett is an Editor at Backbench