The imam of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, no less, has taken it upon himself to warn against a relatively piffling non-spiritual human concern that he termed “false news”. Syrian President Bashar Assad recently took refuge in a similar label to explain an inconvenient human rights organisation’s report that his administration executed up to 13,000 people at a military prison near Damascus. “You can forge anything these days,” Assad said. “We are living in a fake news era.”
He is not entirely wrong. An Algerian newspaper reprinted, in all seriousness, a satirical piece from a French publication that suggested the far-right National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen intended to build a wall between France and Algeria.
One might ask whether fake news really is blurring the facts fit to print and tweet. Can nothing be done about it other than, as the Meccan imam suggested, practising forgetfulness of “incidents that would have been better forgotten?”
It is a fair bet that the imam, Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, who is in his mid-50s, has had to deal with the usual amount of rumours, base canard and all manner of unpleasant things in the course of his life.
Sudais could even be said to have done his bit in that department. As Robert Lacey noted in his 2009 book Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia, Sudais once made a somewhat dubious correlation between the 2006 Saudi winter drought and women’s behaviour. He said it was at least partly caused by their sins, which included “unveiling, mingling with men and being indifferent to the hijab.”
Before anyone shouts out “fake news”, it is worth noting that this was Sudais’s opinion, not fact. It was a contentious point of view and those who disagree must be prepared to argue with the help of facts. For maximum effect, those facts should be easily conveyed and understood.
Which brings us to the slightly doleful case made by a British newspaper about the way to deal with fake news. Making a key, if obvious point, the paper suggested the mainstream media can fight back but only if they give people narratives they can understand.
But of course. What else is journalism — as well as the vastly more precise statistical sciences, carefully analysed political theory and deeply thought philosophy — meant to do? They have to be accessible if they are to provide a base upon which the general public can rest its collective chin, which is to say its opinion.
The media, data collection and theorising about natural, political, ethical or social phenomena were always meant to be part of the broader attempt to examine and explain the world. They were never meant to create high towers at which the lowly public would gaze up in awe and incomprehension.
One of the more notable recent practitioners of accessible information dissemination was Hans Rosling, a professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute. Rosling, who died February 7th, was known for his ability to break down complex data and ideas into simple concepts that even a 12-year-old could understand.
But one of the greatest examples of the transmission of truths simply and clearly was Socrates. He was not the archetypal remote Greek philosopher; he never wrote anything or at least not anything that anyone has ever found. What we know of his work chiefly comes from his student Plato. Socrates has been dead more than 2,400 years and is chiefly known because, as the Roman author Cicero, put it, he “brought philosophy down from the skies”.
We could do with a bit of that right now, if only we knew how Socrates did it. So how did he do it? Those who have studied his life say he was a man of the streets, always arguing with the unwashed and listening to the uninformed in pursuit of his mission, which was to ascertain the best way to live on Earth. To that end, Socrates felt the collective pulse, took the popular temperature and considered the best way to be happy.
What does that have to do with fake news, one might ask. A lot. First, it reinforces the importance of the human connection in the pursuit and dissemination of information and knowledge. Second, it reiterates the need to go out to spread the word.
In this context, the Canadian government’s response to the January 29th Quebec mosque attack is worth recalling. When misreporting about the perpetrator — fake news that it was a Moroccan Muslim — spread far and wide, the Canadian government stepped in and patiently stated the facts. It used its authority and its sizeable megaphone to get the word out.
It is a model other governments and public figures concerned about fake news might do well to consider. Especially in the Middle East and North Africa region, with its overwhelmingly youthful population — those aged 15–24 are projected to increase from 46 million in 2010 to 58 million in 2025. The young will consume social media and, naturally, fake news, too.
We can imagine what Socrates would have done had he been confronted with fake news and its mass consumption. He would have hit the streets and started talking, after spending time listening.