In our age of distrust, who do you have faith in?


social mediaIn this age of distrust, amateurism and automation are supposed to be the only things that are authentic any more.

Proof of this trend is the rise of amateur politicians – Donald Trump being the most prominent but not the only example – and the ongoing machinations over Facebook’s use of human judgment rather than algorithms to deliver news stories.

There is a striking synthesis between the choruses hailing amateur politicians and algorithms. The non-career politician has a tendency to promote broad, truth-distorting narratives. The algorithm has the capacity only to count clicks, not to judge content. They feed, and feed off, each other. This is a dispiriting state of affairs.

Consider the specifics of the kerfuffle around Facebook, the world’s largest social media network. Some American politicians, especially the Republican head of the US Senate’s commerce committee, are taking an unusual interest in the selection of “trending topics” at Facebook. This is a short, easy-to-overlook section in the extreme right column, which lists a few news headlines that change over the course of the day.

At the time of writing, “trending topics” included a story on regulators denying BP the right to drill exploratory wells off South Australia and US Senate approval of a $1.1 billion measure to combat the Zika virus. Fairly anodyne, one might have thought, but not for some conservative-minded politicians in the US. They discern a bias that is skewed towards liberal political principles. This, because Facebook introduced human oversight two years ago to ensure that its “trending topics” are sourced to globally trusted outlets such as the BBC, rather than bizarre clickable nuggets from bit-players prone to reporting fantasy as fact.

What does the row tell us? That truth is in danger of losing its basis in fact and becoming just one of the many political versions of reality? The stakes must be high enough or else the web-furniture of a social media network page would have been too inconsequential to attract the attention of legislators in America.

But Facebook has 1.6 billion monthly users. Roughly one billion people worldwide log on to it every day. It is an unquestionably powerful forum. In the age of distrust, presentation scores over precision. Forget the impossibility of what is being demanded – no news-gatherer or aggregator can ever be truly objective or value-free – consider the significance of the request. Henceforth, every narrative must be considered true irrespective of the values it enshrines or the lack of supporting evidence.

This is a nonsense, as much with social media’s rough draft of history as with historical narratives over time. More than half a century ago, the ultimate realist E H Carr declared that all historical narrative was subjective. It depended, he said, on when it was written, who wrote it and their selection of facts or evidence.

What’s interesting about the Facebook controversy is that it is being whipped up by the political party whose candidate is Donald Trump, a dissembling businessman with a stated fondness for debt and a tendency to demagoguery and the divisive distortion of reality.

This is post-empirical politics and it is troubling that its purveyors and supporters see no reason for the wildest claims to lag in social media parity with other, fact-based versions.

Of course, Mr Trump is not the only skilled post-empirical operator. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and former London mayor Boris Johnson are noteworthy practitioners too.

Mr Modi recently said that infant mortality within a disadvantaged group in the southern state of Kerala was worse than Somalia. It was a statistically inaccurate comment that attacked the so-called Kerala model of development, which focuses on holistic growth. Mr Modi previously governed Gujarat and believes in the pro-business development model that bears the state’s name. He made his loaded Somalia comparison at assembly election time in Kerala.

Even so, it is disturbing that an Indian prime minister would make such a partisan and fact-free analysis of a development model that has worked in another part of the country, simply because it is ruled by a political rival.

In Britain, meanwhile, Mr Johnson has been energetically campaigning for the UK to vote to leave the European Union in the June 23 referendum.

That is a legitimate point of view no matter where anyone stands on the question. Much less legitimate are Mr Johnson’s startling claims that the EU can be compared to Hitler and Napoleon because they too involved the intention to unify Europe under a single “authority”.

It was an outrageous attempt to divide Europeans by reminding them of the excesses of French and German leaders.

When picked apart, Mr Johnson’s remarks could be said to contain an infinitesimal grain of truth – yes, Hitler wanted domination of Europe and yes, the EU wants to have a secure hold on the continent – but the comparison of such different entities and processes can only be described as ludicrous and delusional.

Should his comments be on a par with the truth just because they were made? Should Mr Modi’s dismissiveness of the Kerala model be dignified as fact just because infant mortality is high among Kerala’s Scheduled Tribes? Should Facebook give parity to fact-free versions of recent and contemporary history? As the late American senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously put it, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, just not their own facts.