Alternative facts: a toxic concept for democracy

Alternative facts: A toxic concept

In a world dominated by headlines, news and opinions, the distinction between facts and ideas can seem passe, but nothing could be further from the truth. Facts underpinned by empirical evidence lay at the basis of a sound democracy. On the other hand, a world awash with competing for evidence-free views risks distorting political discourse, heightening cynicism, leading to an erosion of faith in democracy.

Language’s magnetism partly lies in its fluidity; it’s never static. It is capable of endless variation. Effective use of clarity, simplicity, elegance, and evocativeness, transforms the dreary into the delicious.

Sadly, not all changes to language are wonderful. In 2017, one of the worst additions to the lexicon came into existence, alternative facts. Let’s be clear; facts can be verified by reference to statistical, qualitative data or real-life evidence.

What are opinions?

Opinions are views that might be informed partly by real-life experience. Academic opinion or case studies can also tell them.

But often, they aren’t informed by evidence. In many cases, opinion is mere biases, unverified boiling prejudices or blame-shifting. And yet, at a time when democracy might be under threat by resurgent neo-nazi movements, now more than ever, we need an economic system that supports the aspirations of the people. In a world where many live in so-called democracies but yet is awash with opinions disguised as facts, we risk sliding into authoritarianism. This is because the central linchpin of democracy is facts and evidence, not unsourced speculation.

This problem was mentioned by journalist Chris Hedges in his book “America: The Farewell Tour:”

“The most ominous danger we face comes from the marginalization and destruction of institutions, including the courts… and the press, that once ensured that civil discourse was rooted in reality…”

In other words, the whole basis of a sound democracy rests on distinguishing truth from fiction.

While we all have our views, it’s wrong to see opinion and facts as synonyms. Why? Wrong assumptions may seem innocuous, like dandelions on a lawn. However, allow them to proliferate, and we soon find the garden choking with weeds.

This is even more important in politics, which is a contest of competing ideas. Good ideas are truly the lifeblood of democracy. A political landscape buzzing with well-informed debate is likely to foster a healthy democracy. However, democracy choking with low-quality debate is the path to authoritarianism.

Take the debate over the carbon tax. This tax was weaponised by the former PM, as the villain in the contentious energy debate. It was this carbon tax which was said to be responsible for lumbering consumers with sky-high power prices.

Certainly, the execution of the anti-carbon tax was brilliant, ruthless and unrelenting. It was smoke and mirrors writ large. Sadly, the facts were missing in action, and, long after the carbon tax repeal, power prices remain high.

Instead, the spotlight should have been on Canberra’s tone-deaf privatisation and competition policies. And on the fact that the industry writes the regulations.  And on the fact that companies were allowed to gold-plate the network. And on the fact that price controls were deemed unfashionable but would help provide affordable power. The result: bingo! higher power prices.

But for some journalists seduced by political optics, blood-lust and screaming headlines, the facts came a distant last.

That isn’t to say that drama has no place in journalism – in fact, it’s an essential ingredient. Drama, conflict, storytelling and well-constructed narratives separate prize-winners from journalistic hacks, but drama is different to melodrama. And it does no one any favours to mix these two distinct concepts.

Flesh and blood human tragedies vs. policy tragedies

Professional journalists can demonstrate the drama in the news. They explain implications to readers or viewers. They also provide a historical context where appropriate. This allows readers or viewers to make sense of a complex world. One particularly effective way to do this is for journalists to tell people’s stories so that the public’s brains form links. This is because the human brain is hardwired for storytelling.

It’s easy to see how this can be achieved in crime stories. Take, for example, stories we see on the nightly news, like incidents of motorists ploughing into pedestrians. There are the screaming headlines, the list of victims, and the grieving family. We can never really experience their pain, but we can empathise; everyone sees the pathos in these stories.

However, poor policy formulation is a different story. Its effects are insidious: the unemployed who can’t secure work, the poor person struggling to afford power, or the person whose NBN crawls like a slug. Unless people experience these difficulties themselves, they can be unmoved.

Unlike the nightly stories on the news, someone’s misfortune and poor government policy won’t necessarily make a connection with people’s brains and make them empathetic. This is because the human brain is hardwired to blame victims as we crave predictability.

Further, many people blame victims because they subscribe to the just world theory. This is the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. This also stops people from identifying with others’ misfortunes. After all, if they’d made the right choices, everything would have worked out fine, right?

Thus, when a bank victim loses his/her home due to fraud by the bank, unless people hear their stories, some will presume it’s because the borrower committed the fraud or because they lacked financial literacy and due diligence when signing up for his/her loan.

Perhaps these views are unsurprising, given that almost no media coverage explains that since 2001, most home loans have been robot-approved. Think that a real human is assessing whether to grant a loan? Ha, that’s a thing of the past. Think again!

Besides, some people love to turn any misfortune suffered by an adversary into a competition. It’s a testament to the victim’s inadequacy.

Well-known examples are politicians who target welfare recipients. While picking on the vulnerable may be a vote-winner, it also harms democracy because policy is based on community prejudices, not facts. Prejudice of any kind can never form the basis of sound policy-making. Right policy formulation rests on empirically-verifiable facts. Murdoch-style propaganda, not fit to line the bottom of a budgie cage, doesn’t pass the sniff test.

What is the role of politicians in the facts vs. opinion debate?

By contrast, politicians of yesteryears were more focused on real issues. In the 19th century, politicians attended extended town hall meetings, lasting, where they debated issues. Although modern, abbreviated forms of this exist, most people’s knowledge of politics comes via the 24-hour news cycle. Many only see politicians during short grabs on the news. Most people lack the time, interest or possibly expertise to probe further, and their life’s experience provides plenty of evidence that the political system has failed.

This and ingrained family political inclinations, leave voters feeling powerless.  So often, they feel that all they can vote for, the least worst of the duopoly.

What role do voters play in the facts vs. opinion process?

But ultimately politicians, can only spin their narratives if voters accept them. Think some politicians are selling you snake oil? Tell them politely but firmly, why you think they are talking rubbish.

Also, become critical thinkers. Some are already adept at this, but for others looking to improve their skills: how can we tell the difference between facts and fake news?

1. Find out more information about the source.

2. Check for other stories written by that author.

3. Check the links to other news stories. Do they seem legitimate and trustworthy?

4. Check the statements against three different authoritative sources.

5. Is the text well-written? Are there spelling or grammatical errors on the website?

6. Has the story been shared by a credible news organisation? Don’t confine your fact-checking just to the mainstream media; try the independent media for alternative perspectives.

Long-term, we also need to get powerful vested interests out of politics. At the moment, corporate entities and lobbyists have far greater access to politicians and their advisors than politically engaged citizens. So, what hope does the average person have in influencing policy?

Just as we require food, water, oxygen, and other resources to survive, democracy needs facts and empirically-verifiable evidence. At a time when the future of capitalism appears to be cloudy, we need far better processes for democratic decision-making. These processes need to be based on facts, not mere opinions.

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