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Dhaka Tribune

The death of truth

Update : 14 Mar 2017, 07:11 PM

Truth as we knew it is probably dead. Until very recently, we all knew that facts are facts and news is news.

There are no second definitions of these truisms. But because of the devious politics that has polluted the modern world, we have come to learn about “alternative facts” and “fake news.”

We have come to learn that there could be different interpretations of facts depending on who is interpreting, and there could be news that has been manufactured for some devious objectives. In other words, lies could be passed on as “alternative facts,” and rumours and gossip can be passed as news.

Both terms have become parts of the current political vocabulary in the US, in particular during last year’s mud-slinging and name-calling that characterised the presidential campaign. Words flew from candidates’ mouths that were never heard before in public, false accusations against rivals were made with reckless abandon, and conspiracy theories were freely manufactured and sold to the public as real.

In a country highly polarised by divisions between the extreme right and extreme left, and a confused section in the middle, there was no telling who was telling the truth. Each day passed with new controversy as statements claimed as facts were disputed by the other camp and actual truth remained in closed doors. The media became a suspect, and, in fact, an anathema for the rightist party candidate and his loyalists when they questioned the unverified claims of the candidate.

One expected that, with election fever over, saner counsel would prevail and facts would not be confused with lies, and gossip would not pass as news. But alas, that has not been the case.

Instead, alternative facts entered the political vocabulary when a senior staffer in the White House, Kellyanne Conway, cavalierly disputed in a TV interview the crowd size in Donald Trump’s inauguration. She famously uttered the phrase “alternative facts” when pressed about the falsehoods uttered the previous day by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer regarding the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration.

In a way, Kellyanne Conway was only parroting her highly tempestuous and blustery boss who was constantly complaining that the media was conspiring against him with fake news. He routinely dismissed any unfavourable depiction of him in the press as “fake” or “false.”

Hence, we came to know how his loyalists would be influenced to treat any news that did not satisfy him or them as “fake.” But Donald Trump did not just stop at dismissing all unfavourable reports on him as fake, he also disparaged news about people or events that he held dear to him.

He routinely dismissed reports of Russian attempts at hacking US information systems (Democratic Party in particular) to discredit the US election process. He mocked news reports on the crowd size in his rallies during the campaign earlier, and at his inauguration later.

At the same time he did not think twice about claiming in his campaign about an imaginary cheering by Muslims after September 11 attack in New York. He would go on with many other wild and unverified claims of terrorism in European cities.

His most recent claim, after he became president, of a false terror attack in Sweden caught the Swedish government by surprise, so much that the Swedish prime minister had to come out with a disclaimer.

The sadness of this new world of alternative facts and “fake news” is that this has become the virtual reality of the current state of politics in the US with the danger that it could spread to the rest of the world. One of the most pernicious effects of this new reality is that real truth has become a casualty and the public its victim.

The sadness of this new world of “alternative facts” and “fake news” is that this has become the virtual reality of the current state of politics in the US with the danger that it could spread to the rest of the world

A most recent illustration of this virtual reality is the claim by President Donald Trump that the previous administration of President Obama had wire-tapped his private palace in New York (Trump Tower). This unverified accusation, made by Trump via his favourite media, Twitter, not only stumped the intelligence agencies but also the key leaders of his own party.

No one in his party has come up yet to say that Trump was trumpeting fake news, but he has created another big turmoil to deflect attention from the alleged Russian influence in US elections. Already one of his key cabinet appointees, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned because of his meetings with the Russian ambassador. Another appointee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has recused himself from his department’s investigation of Russian connection.

His future as the attorney general is uncertain as he was found to be not entirely truthful about his Russian meetings during his testimony for confirmation.

Donald Trump is genuinely upset because he is now realising that he has to face some true facts, and not alternative facts, some real news and not fake news.

Politics is complex, and people who take this as a profession know this well. Truth in politics may be hard, but these need not be mutually exclusive. The ultimate goal of politics may be power, but this power cannot be achieved by replacing facts with lies, and news with gossip.

What we are observing in US politics today may not be very surprising for our parts of the world, because our people have been witnessing this dichotomy between fact and fiction and news and gossip for a long time. Our leaders are adept in practicing these.

What is reassuring in the US is that this country has a check and balance in its democratic system. The executive branch cannot get away with whims and pranks without control from the other two branches.

Soon law and the constitution will weigh down and determine that crying wolf will not wither away the cloud of suspicion that has gathered around the current executive authority.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the USA.

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