Word of the year ‘fake news’

Word of the year ‘fake news’

Post Truth has been announced as the word of the year by the team behind the Oxford English Dictionary. Discussion around it mainly pertains to the idea that sentiments and emotions rather than ‘truth’ are now dictating the outcome of our political endeavours. This is often in reference to Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the US and the role of Fake News, articles that are factually inaccurate in their entirety, being shared online to garner support for a particular cause.

I listened to recent discussion on the impact of Fake News pertaining to the US election on Facebook. In principle I can’t see why anyone would object to trying to screen out fiction from fact, but the assumption I never heard questioned was who defines what Fake News is? Isn’t the problem in the first place that people screen themselves against information supporting their own cause? You can’t address that unless you try and address people. It also affects both Republicans and Democrats, that’s the problem with the ‘Bubble’ Americans have been talking about since the election. If American elites are pushing companies like Facebook to get editorial are we going to be honest and admit that the company will likely, or is potentially already, experiencing an editorial bias? How Fake is too Fake? The totally untrue or do we also include half truths, rumours, speculation, whistleblowing and inconvenient truths? By which authority are such measured to be enforced? Does the Government determine fact from fiction? Or are we ok with private companies taking upon themselves to determine for us?

At University I was told that the Internet would enable us to ‘democratise’ our communications around the world. Instead of top down ‘mass media’ we’d instead get ‘micro media’ which at the time was assumed to be social media. Increasingly however these burgeoning social networks  are looking like the mass media of our parents age. The Lecturers and Journalists who espoused to us relativism, post-modernity and denied the existence of Truth have now rediscovered it when the vote went the wrong way. Truth is only relative and fleeting when it’s inconvenient it turns out.

In particular the fact that the rise of fake news, ‘alternative news’ and conspiracy theories speaks not to the wicked interventions of myth-spreaders from without, but to the corrosion of reason within, right here in the West. It speaks to the declining moral and cultural authority of our own political and media class. It is the Western world’s own abandonment of objectivity, and loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its populace, that has nurtured something of a free-for-all on the facts and news front.

Brendan O’Neil – Fake news and post-truth: the handmaidens of Western relativism

The worst bit about this is that it removes any possibility of the notion that people can come to any different conclusions other than that of the self-appointed opinion makers in our society. It is the attitude of a parent trying to socialise their child, and whereas it might be acceptable for a parent to act as such – it isn’t for a stranger to treat you and me as their child.

The attitude behind trying to close in on Fake News smells faintly of old Blasphemy laws. We’ve been told they’ve been dispensed with, that even God should not be above scrutiny and mockery because we living in a brave freethinking age. Yet what we’ve really done is exchange God for a set of ideas, a lifestyle, a person or particular balance of power. We still oppose their scrutiny and mockery because in reality these are our contemporary Golden Calves. The protections offered in our society before the current age; societies, guilds, organisations, churches and families have all been stripped away and we now all stand alone against the influences of not just the state but wealthy and powerful corporations intent on determining how we should live our lives and what we should think.

The biggest hypocrisy of the crusade against Fake News is that in reality it is only the ‘wrong’ kind of Fake News that the crusaders are against. Our government pays for fake news to be weaponised against groups it finds problematic or even moderate the stories it tells its own populace which begs the question, are we against all fake news or simply ‘bad’ fake news which doesn’t serve the agenda of the advantaged?

These circumstances are a direct result of the relativisation of truth causing the center of our societal narratives to collapse in on themselves. Instead of a public truth we increasingly have private truths to the extent that we are losing our idea of a common good. In its place we’re seeing a rise in authoritarian thinking as those in power try and course correct a society increasingly alienated from itself.

The Investigatory Powers Bill

The Investigatory Powers Bill

There was a recent article circulated that sums up a troubling development in the UK. The Investigatory Powers Bill was recently passed into law legalising government behaviour in the UK that enables the government total invasive access into the online lives of everyone within its borders.

The passing of this bill is troubling but what is worse is the level of general support in the population for such a thing. If someone asked to view your private online history, your emails and location at all times most would balk and refuse out of principle. Yet when this is written on a piece of paper by politicians this behaviour is now somehow deemed acceptable in the name of security. Every terrorist attack, or threat of terrorist attack has been used to sway public support for the erosion of digital liberty and anonymity.

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I wonder what the eventual destination of this trajectory is that we are on. Today there are few bodies or authorities that exist outside the state to protect the individual. Institutions that were hard fought for have been stripped back over time as the role of the state has grown largely unquestioned. Privacy isn’t a natural state and a relatively recent thing but so is the extent to which the state determines how one lives now. The image that increasingly comes to mind concerning the internet is that of the Panopticon. Foucault wrote on the subject…

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so.

Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish, Panopticism.” In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

In the Panopticon the idea that an individual might be being watched is enough to bring their behaviour under the desired influence of the captor. Likewise the very potential that you are being watched by the government will influence your behaviour towards the government increasing rates of self-censorship and being unwilling to step outside of mainstream opinion. This also means that when you are placed within the Panopticon you are less likely to verbalise opposition to such monitoring than had you not been monitored at all. Something that is generally known as ‘The Spiral of Silence’. This is why the power of anonymity on the internet was so important to those with minority views and beliefs. It gave them the means to speak in a fashion that wasn’t censored, not by themselves or anyone else. In some ways it’s the same reason I started to write here. I wanted to process and externalise my thoughts in a way I wouldn’t if I had to do such a thing in public. The steps of the UK government with the passing of this bill promise that this is all beginning to change.

As according to the law of nature each must be born free … many of our common people have fallen into servitude and diverse conditions which very much displease us; we, considering that our kingdom is called … the kingdom of the Franks [free men], and wishing that the fact should be truly accordant with the name … have ordered and order that … such servitudes be brought back to freedom …

Louis X of France

I do not think it a coincidence that as Britain moves away from being a society where people are sincere Christians that we increasingly live in an age in which others attempt to determine the thoughts and beliefs of others. If the popular consensus is that we are determined by our biology, that we are fleshy machines, it’s not a great step to believe that we might as well begin to determine one another. That might seem disingenuous to the sincere beliefs of determinists, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to make an argument on the basis of abstract rights. What good are principles where the mind itself is ultimately an accident of evolution? If we think we are machines we begin to treat each other like machines.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us

Father John Culkin

Why do the nations say,

   ‘Where is their God?’

Our God is in heaven;

   he does whatever pleases him.

But their idols are silver and gold,

   made by human hands.

They have mouths, but cannot speak,

   eyes, but cannot see.

They have ears, but cannot hear,

   noses, but cannot smell.

They have hands, but cannot feel,

   feet, but cannot walk,

   nor can they utter a sound with their throats.

Those who make them will be like them,

   and so will all who trust in them.

Psalm 115:2-8

All of this might seem hyperbolic or alarmist but I think there is a genuine reason to be unwelcoming of these changes in practice by the authorities. More so that there are grounds for a critical Christian position on these matters. The often quoted mantra is “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” but we know people are fallible and our salvation ultimately won’t come from any man-made institution, no matter the security we are promised. To give any institution so much power is to invite abuse. The pursuit of utopia consistently has lead to its very opposite.

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In an age where we are increasingly living digital lives I think there’s an argument from these recent changes to moderate our interactions with the online world. An element of sobriety and vigilance online is not only a spiritual good but a practical one too. If we believe in the liberty of individuals there are also avenues here to interact with others concerned with these issues too. Not because we wish to hide who we are, but because we believe people are more than numbers to be watched and moderated by the state. Is it too much to say such an invasion into the lives of individuals is a sin? I don’t think so, by doing this we are failing to love our neighbour.

The Islamic State is changing my mind on Pacifism

The Islamic State is changing my mind on Pacifism

For many years after becoming a Christian I believed in pacifism. The early church were pacifists (to my knowledge) and so was Jesus and his immediate followers (with one or two exceptions frequently debated). Part of my journey towards Christianity was in reading the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero who stood up to the injustices of El Salvador at time and was martyred for it. A famous quote of his goes..

We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.

― Oscar A. Romero

The quote even now serves to highlight the life-changing power of the Gospel to me. Yet despite this in recent years I cannot help but realise that the world I live in and the circumstances I am so grateful for would not have come about with a direct use of violence at some point.

121874John Howard Yoder in his book ‘What would you do?’ addressed in what I felt was a sufficient way how one would answer a response to home invasion and the threat to loved ones. I reasoned from the book that a pacifist would place themselves between the invader and a loved one, I imagined Romero would say the same. Ultimately I would not want to deprive someone of the chance to respond to the Gospel by depriving them of their life. Yet it is one thing to accept your own or even the demise of your loved ones but what of something more? The destruction of a culture? A people group?

I might of completely misread it but in the aforementioned book Yoder leaves space for the distinction between individual violence and state violence. That it is one thing ultimately to protect friends and family and another for a state to engage in any semblance of warfare, just or otherwise. History however isn’t quite so clear cut, take modern Iraq and Syria for example.

Borders and violence

Christian pacifism I believe is a position closely aligned ultimately with political anarchism, I say political because to say you govern anything you must be able to define your sphere of influence. A state is a fundamentally violent entity in that its existence is defined by being able to exert influence over a population and equally in being able to define who makes up that population. In this sense I would offer that to believe in any form of governance is a concession to the necessity of violence in some form or another.

An anarchist is someone who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave.

– Ammon Henacy

In all honesty there is a part of me that still holds to Christian pacifism despite these implications. However with the advent of groups like the Islamic State in the world I have been questioning myself. The Islamic State is a state in that it is able to both exert influence over a population and protect its borders. If I lived within its borders they would either hold me and mine to ransom, kill us or force us to convert to Islam. Without its use of violence to create and enshrine borders the Islamic state might still be ‘Islam’ but it would not be a ‘State’.

ISIS-Burns-Down-Church
ISIS makes a point of eliminating anyone and anything that doesn’t fall into its view of Islam

This totalitarianism we see in groups like the Islamic State is one that has appeared in various guises all over the world. This kind of violence however isn’t terrible for its violence against the person (which is horrific), but for its violence against the people by denying them an identity that links them to their past, the land and their culture. The Islamic State has a reputation for destroying tombs, historical monuments and both Christian churches and the Mosques of rival Islamic sects. This isn’t accidental, the Islamic state if it had its way would eliminate all trace of a world beyond the one it is attempting to create. Even now the children within its borders learn a history different to the history taught to the children outside of it. The Islamic State, like any totalitarian doesn’t care about your pacifism, it will quite happily remove you and all trace of your existence from both the earth and its history. Not just you but all people like you in their sphere of influence.

An appropriate response

LeoGreatIf their were easy answers to unrelenting violence we wouldn’t need to discuss such things. I pray that we all were given the gift of tongues (or leaders with such tongues) like that of Saint Leo the Great who managed to turn Attila away from Rome and without violence saved so many. But at the same time we would be naive to think that the Attila’s of this world might uniformly be talked into lasting peace. The small peace of Leo’s Rome was in the context of Europe’s great ruin after all.

Many wars are existential in that they challenge the identity of the places and people among which they occur. I think a Christian can be a pacifist but one must truly expect miracles to be one because it is surely the more dangerous road to take. Part of me also wonders however if it is the selfish road to take. The Middle East was once thoroughly Christian and is no longer precisely because of the violence inflicted on it. Despite this as long as the state exists violence will be a part of the world we live in. In my own case as someone in the Church of England I am part of a National Church which as long as it is ‘National’ cannot without contradiction be a peace church unless it is in conflict with infrastructure the state itself. I am also speaking from the perspective of someone who has been raised in a state that has never known conflict seen in other parts of Europe in recent history or in Syria today.

I’m of two minds about this and will probably follow it up in the future as I think about it more.

Civil courage, in fact, can grow only out of the free responsibility of free men. Only now are the Germans beginning to discover the meaning of free responsibility. It depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer