Content is largely driven by “clickbait” — headlines that are designed to generate the highest number of people pressing the link to that article. Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

Cathy Majtenyi: What is true in a ‘post-truth’ world?

  • February 11, 2021

The storming of Capitol Hill in the U.S. is among recent outcomes of a growing and insidious trend: the dispersal of false and, in many cases malicious, lies passed off as being “the truth.”

A dangerous type of this misinformation is conspiracy theories, which the European Commission defines as “the belief that certain events or situations are secretly manipulated behind the scenes by powerful forces with negative intent.”

Witness QAnon, a shadowy group that has convinced many Americans that a powerful cartel of Democratic Party officials is running a child sex ring, keeping trafficked children locked up in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.

Or American radio host Alex Jones, who claims that the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was faked by government-backed advocates of gun control. That fabrication had led to death threats and other cruel persecutions against the murdered children’s families.

Lest we think this is strictly an American problem, commentators have warned that misinformation campaigns are also spreading in Canada. One recent media report quotes a study saying that Canada is among the top four countries disseminating QAnon content through Twitter.

The lie-telling comes at an ugly cost. For example, an Angus Reid poll released last June showed that, of the 500 Canadians of Chinese descent surveyed, a full 50 per cent reported that they’ve been called names or insulted, and 43 per cent said they’ve been threatened or intimidated “as a direct result of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

This discrimination arises out of conspiracy theories that the coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese lab and either accidentally escaped from the lab or was deliberately unleashed as a means to achieve world domination.

Those who create conspiracy theories, and those who believe in them, do so for a variety of reasons. Psychologist Jade Wu explains why conspiracy theories take root: “the need to reduce uncertainty and make sense of the world,” “the need to feel safe and in control” and “the need to cultivate a good self-image.”

Misinformation has taken deep root in a culture driven by fear, mistrust and the desperate search for meaning in a world in which universal, objective “truth” is losing relevance and power.

Conventional checks and balances to regulate the spreading of misinformation — a requirement to provide concrete proof for allegations, journalists and editors adhering to professional standards of balance, fairness and accuracy in their reporting — have all but disappeared.

Mainstream media newsrooms continue to be gutted at an alarming rate. Content is largely driven by “clickbait” — headlines that are designed to generate the highest number of people pressing the link to that article — and the unregulated Internet, where anybody can say anything without having to provide proof. Unregulated communication venues are now the major sources of most people’s information.

As Washington Post columnist Max Boot astutely notes: “The online world is a post-truth space where there are no undisputed facts, only competing narratives, and even the most deranged claims (e.g., QAnon) can aggregate an audience.”

In this “post-truth” world, a collective, shared understanding of what is real and what is fake is rapidly eroding. The voices of solid, reliable sources of information are being drowned out in the noise. Institutions and individuals that were once respected as being authorities in the propagation of truth are now being ignored or even vilified. 

My truth is my truth, and your truth is your truth.

Does that sound familiar?

Could it be that what we see today — truth as being situational, personalized, subjective, unsubstantiated — is the logical extension of a moral relativism that started gaining ground in society, and even the Church itself, decades ago? A moral relativism that Pope Francis calls “the spiritual poverty of our time”?

When we started rejecting the supremacy of the Bible, the Church and the reality of an objective right and wrong independent of our opinions, our actions no longer had a “compass” and we could instead follow our own way and justify such practices as abortion and euthanasia. 

“Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values,” says Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

“Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others.”

Conspiracy theories, and misinformation in general, thrive in such a “post-truth” world.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)

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