Fake news erodes the moral ecology on which liberty depends

November 3, 2017

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 3rd November 2017

Yesterday a major British dictionary named as its 2017 word of the year the phrase “fake news.” At least I think it did, unless that too was fake news. And when you recall that last year another dictionary chose as its word of the year “post truth,” you realise that we’re in trouble. It’s all a long way from the lost innocence of the Edwardian era, when Bertrand Russell could say about the philosopher G E Moore that he only once heard him tell a lie, which was when he asked him, “Moore, have you ever told a lie?” and he replied, “Yes.”

How has it happened? Fake news is as old as time, and it can have devastating consequences. Jews suffered for centuries because of a fake news item known as the blood libel, accusing them of using the blood of Christian children. And despite the fact that it was denounced as untrue by several Popes, that didn’t stop it being told and believed.

Fake news is used as propaganda in war, and it was used to stoke fears in Bosnia and Rwanda where it led straight to bloodshed. It flourishes today because increasingly we’re getting our news from the social media where it’s hard to check whether a story is fact, fiction or fantasy. And there’s convincing evidence that it’s increasingly being used by foreign powers to manipulate opinion and distort the democratic process.

And it works, because the human brain is ultra-sensitive to threats of danger, so it’s easy to spread paranoia. And because there’s a psychological phenomenon known as the confirmation bias, which leads us to believe stories that confirm our prejudices. By the time truth emerges, the lie has already done its harm.

The deepest insight into the fragility of truth was given by the philosopher Nietzsche, who warned that even science takes its fire from “the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.”

Of course, you don’t need to be religious to value truth, because without it there’s no trust and without trust there’s no society. But it does mean that we need a strong shared moral code, because if all we have is individuals pursuing self interest, people will deceive whenever it’s in their interests to do so and can get away with it. Fake news erodes the moral ecology on which liberty depends. We really do need truth if we’re to stay free.