In 1637 René Descartes trotted out his, now famous, axiom: “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am). What he was on about was the fact that our perception of reality is based on interpretations of our senses and our senses can be fooled. So what can we know? What is it possible to know for certain? At the age of forty-one Mr. Descartes determined that the only thing he could know for sure was that he existed. Well done, great start even if his deliberations went down hill after that.
Still, given Mr. Descartes’ promising foundation, it is surprising that in general people now believe all sorts of bollocks.
Recently I was meandering along Hove Prom when I saw a lorry tipping its load onto the beach and I took some photos. It occurred to me that, if I were maliciously inclined, I could publish these pictures on The Internet and claim the driver was an immigrant. I could plaster a bloody great message across the top in red proclaiming that immigrant workers were dumping sewage on Brighton beach. I could attempt to deceive my audience and the idiotic thing is that some people would believe me!
It is said that in the early days of the printed book, as the idea of the novel was forming, people were taken aback that the content of the book was not true. I guess, since all previous books had claimed to be true the idea of fiction seemed deceitful. By the time I was growing up in the 70s the phrase “It must be true, I saw it on television” was something to be sneered at. Television had lost its authority.
The Internet has never had any claim on authority yet it encourages us to believe the most crass and groundless nonsense. Recently some “right wing” trouble maker created a video purporting to show Muslim immigrants refusing aid parcels because they were delivered by the Red Cross. Of course all the video really showed was one bunch of people and another bunch of people and some shouting and gesticulating. The “Left” are just as bad. Somone recently photoshopped a image of five women in white T-Shirts spelling out “Make America Great Again” and made it read “Make America White Again“. And don’t get me started on the the drivel I have seen posted as evidence for “Chemtrails” or that the Americans didn’t land on the moon.
Some people get it. They take Descartes’ point to some extent. They realise that much of the Internet is lying to them. They realise that our established has its own agenda and presents only a certain version of the truth and sometimes outright lies. They like to think differently. They challenge accepted explanations and the establishment line. We need these people and I am proud to consider myself one. But, sadly, the rebel, like the artist, is an attractive paradigm. It attracts imitators who reject the establishment line but then embrace the most obvious bollocks merely because it is contrary to the establishment line. I recall commenting on The Guardian web site that an article was biased and unbalanced and received a response that this was OK because the right wing press print articles biased toward the right. This is an absurd argument. Truth does not lie in a gap between opposing lies.
I had a conversation recently where a guy said that he didn’t listen to or watch established media like the BBC and preferred to find things out himself. When I mentioned Wikipedia this was treated with equal disdain. When I asked for his sources the only one mentioned was RT (formerly Russian Television).
It is good to treat all media with scepticism but to reject media based in an established liberal democracy in favour of the media from a nation ranking seventh (after Syria and Iraq etc) in a list of murdered journalists is perverse. It does not take René bloody Descartes to look over the RT web site and realise this is a blatant anti-American/anti-British propaganda tool. Look at the tabs along the top for God’s sake!. News, Business, Sport all very usual…and then USA and UK…….and no other countries! Why are UK and USA so special to RT that they need special categories? Even Russia is not listed on Russian Television only Russian Politics. I’ve sat in scores of European hotel rooms watching this guff and RT has an obvious shit stirring agenda. One moment it’s telling us that ordinary decent British citizens are now overrun by trouble making immigrants and the next it is claiming that ordinary decent immigrants are oppressed by trouble making racist British people.
The danger is that, as we come to mistrust our establishment, we are more ready to listen to the enemies of our establishment. But, in the search for truth, the enemy of our enemy is not out friend. With all their failings and their bias much of the established Western media have higher standards than most of the media based in countries where the rule of law and democracy are weak. Reading RT is OK, but valuing their reporting over the BBC is the sign of a conspiracy theorist.
One impediment to truth is the instant nature of 21st century media. The professional media “publish and be damned” and we now do the same. When we see something which fits our prejudice on Facebook we repost immediately. I remember when Facebook was full of personal posts. These days it’s full of bollocks deliberately designed by campaigning groups or attention seekers. In 2016 we don’t need The Sun or The Mirror to feed us bullshit; we feed it to each other on Facebook. Another cliché from publishing is simplify and exaggerate and we do this too. Messages become mere expressions of tribal identify. I believe in the NHS therefore I must hate the Health Secretary. I believe in an independent UK therefore I must hate Jacque Chirac. The two sides of the artificial left/ right debate pour their vitriol all over The Internet and we repost.
One tip I picked up from working for a Japanese company is Genchi Genbutsu (from the Toyota Way meaning “go and see” or “got to the source”). I try to find the original story and then check the ownership of the publication/web site. I try to discern the agenda. I see a lot of drivel posted from a professional looking web site known as Veterans Today but have been unable to trace the ownership; some say that it is linked to RT. I treat it with a high level of scepticism.
This is not to say that alternative media is not worthwhile or truthful. Given the slavish adherence of the mainstream British media to an almost identical front page it’s great to see something different. Disinfo, Mother Jones and The Verge are a few I’ve stumbled upon.
An antidote to knee jerk comentary is to read weekly publications as the journalists have had time to calm down and consider what the fuck they’re talking about. The New Statesman, The Spectator and The Economist may be partisan but they are up front about their beliefs. The foreign press too are worth a look even if you can’t speak the language as we can at least understand the headlines. Some of the bigger names such as Der Spiegel and Le Monde Diplomatique now do English langauge editions.
Various web sites exist to check facts and debunk urban myths such as snopes.com, factcheck.org and fullfact.org but careful! While these sites claim to be non-partisan, everyone has an agenda. Who owns these sites? What is their agenda?
In the 20th century things were fairly simple. The news came from a handful of sourses. In the 21st century the sources have proliferated but their reliability, sincerity and authority are unclear and it’s worth recalling Sturgeon’s Law which states “ninety percent of everything is crap“.
And this brings us back to Mr. Descartes’ oft ignored first principle: “I think”. Everything he could know was a result of thought not of sense. Reading opinions from a multitude of sources is great but you have to think and reject 90%. With so many sources relying on obvious propaganda machines like RT isn’t the sign of a rebel. It is the sign of a sheep following a different shepherd.
And the lorry on Hove Promenade? During storms, pebbles from the beach up washed up onto the promenade and this lorry is employed by the council to collect pebbles and throw them back where they belong. The ethnicity and the residential status of the driver are unknown.