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.

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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.

Crucified teenagers and being a witness

Crucified teenagers and being a witness

I read an article about four Shopfitters who had been antagonising a Teenager who was doing an apprenticeship with them. Apparently it was a form of hazing and when put before a judge called what they did banter. Banter for these Shopfitters took on a distinctly religious overtone however when they realised the teenager was a Christian. The hazing included..

  • Being attacked with a lit aerosol
  • Tying him to a “crucifix” and having crosses daubed over his face and body
  • Tied to a chair with duck tape and had a dummy forced into his mouth before being paraded out into the street and then given a wedgie
  • Drawing symbols, both religious and phallic, over [the teenager’s] face.

These weren’t children, the oldest of the group is 37 at the time of writing this. Whilst I’m not a stranger to the various initiation rituals that go on in these circles the fact that this behaviour is acceptable is really troubling. This wasn’t purely religiously motivated, it isn’t a binary case of this or that and I’m sure each of the Shopfitters in some form each went through their own form of hazing but this is distinct because of their shared disdain for the Teenagers Christian beliefs. We’re talking and writing about it because these men acted on their views but the views themselves are widespread. In 2012 Richard Dawkins stated at a ‘reason’ rally in the US..

So when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you until you tell me do you really believe — for example, if they say they are Catholic — do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?” Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!

Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits.

Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.

Richard Dawkins

Now I have no doubt the Dawkins himself would rebuke the actions of the Shopfitters and in this instance he wasn’t talking of mockery for the sake of mockery (though I think this distinction is a fine one for him) nor do I think the Shopfitters would be counted amongst his adherents. I agree with Dawkins that no religion (or rather any ideology or belief system including Dawkin’s anti-theism) is off limits for discussion. Yet despite this I’m not talking about the actions of the individuals, that’s a symptom of (among other things) their low view of Christian belief. Now I’m not saying Dawkins et al is responsible for that low view but is merely echoing what seems to be an increasingly pronounced sentiment at work in our society. A sentiment that is expressing itself in various forms in a variety of ways at different levels of society. The Shopfitters didn’t distinguish the Teenager from his beliefs which I think in this instance is to his credit despite the terrible cost.

newsthumpThis case in many ways is a extreme example of how religion is received currently both certain areas of education and the workplace. University academia was in many ways the most tame and manageable form of disdain I encountered for trusting in and pursuing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Yet in the workplace we’re an ideological minority, who on coming out runs the risk of being immediately quizzed on our sex life and its history, our views on any range of topics and public individuals. This is followed by a measure of distance being introduced by colleagues depending on the degree to which they object to our answers. Sometimes the objection isn’t upfront and instead finds itself in the form of passive aggressive jibes or links to articles denigrating your belief. When confronted the response is often along the lines of ‘it’s just banter’ or ‘shouldn’t you be turning the other cheek?’ to outright ignoring the question altogether. In the private sector its just easier to not talk about it. Its not persecution, but their is disdain at times and if the experience becomes normative you begin to internalise the disdain.

Despite all the above the thing I’m left wondering (which is the crux of what I’m trying to get to) is what sort of support existed for the Teenager in question on the part of his Church? Dealing with this sort of behaviour has become a matter for the individual as its generally left unspoken about in most Churches. The hazing process is initiation, the questions asked when you come out are to appraise how much your like ‘everyone else’. If they pass you over you’re not in any way functionally different to those around you, your faith is either unknown or not distinct enough to warrant the attention. The easiest way to avoid the hazing and the banter is to simply keep quiet and to not act on your beliefs. Is that what Churches want? I wonder sometimes if part of the reason their are lower numbers of Men in the church is partly down to attrition and eventual internalisation of the views espoused that occurs as a result of this friction. Its not an intellectual decision but a emotional one. You see the faith as something to be mocked, denigrated and laughed about or even scorned and the person in Pulpit goes on as if they are completely oblivious to what’s going on out there. Nobody respects the faith, there is no fear of God in the land and the Church doesn’t seem too bothered about those on the ‘frontlines’. Christians spend more of their week in work than in Christian community and yet this is something that we just don’t seem to talk about.

The Church needs to equip people to deal with this sort of behaviour from both their peers and seniors in work and at home, not everyone experiences this ‘banter’ but I see the practice becoming more acceptable as time goes on. This isn’t a matter for individuals to handle on their own, because the path of least resistance is to just opt out. We shouldn’t have to tolerate this sort of treatment and should be shining a light on these incidents and calling them out when they occur. If we just accept it people will push it further and denigrate not just the believer, but the Church and ultimately God. We can’t stop it entirely but we need to be there to minister to one another and work together to make the case to society that we are worthy of the same respect attributed to everyone else. Jesus told us we’d always be mocked because they mocked him but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pretend that it isn’t taking place and that everything is therefore ok.