Fact v Fiction in Public Discourse

In an era of fake news, alternative facts, deep state conspiracy theories, absolutists and populists, “political truths” are wielded like linguistic weapons. Any form of dissent (or contrary evidence) is branded as “unpatriotic”, “undemocratic”, “unconstitutional”, “disloyal”, “treasonous”, “elitist”, or “subversive”.

“The Treachery of Images” (Painting by Rene Magritte, image sourced from Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Experts are treated with scepticism, scientists with suspicion, relativists with disdain, pluralists with apoplexy. Anyone seen to be challenging the status quo is dismissed as an “enemy of the people”. The public is being co-opted/coerced into buying wholesale certain political claims and party agendas (often hidden), without any opportunity to subject them to independent scrutiny or fact-checking.

Facts and logic are often the first victims in this abuse of language in the exercise of public discourse. Political slogans don’t even bother to avoid or deny accusations of propaganda: “Yeah? So what?” is often the response.

With that in mind, let’s play semantics and semiotics! To begin with, some opening statements:

1. This is a red car. (Observation, and a Fact if we agree on what is “red”) *

2. Red is the most popular colour of car. (Statement of Fact, if proved statistically) **

3. Red cars hold their value more than green cars. (Opinion, but also a Fact if it can be proved statistically, and we agree on what “value” means in this context)

4. Red cars are better than green cars, but blue cars are better than red cars. (Judgement tending towards a display of bias and prejudice)

Depending on the positioning and messaging, #1-#4 could be used in various marketing and advertising campaigns to sell red cars (or in the case of #4, sell blue cars).

Now, here are two reasonably uncontroversial propositions:

  • “Traffic laws are important to the functioning of society.”
  • “Good government relies on the democratic will of the electorate, and adequate funding of public services via taxation.”

We can see from the way language and truth are mangled in the service of current political debate and social commentary, that “statements of fact” can be easily positioned as “expressions of opinion” (and from there manipulated into pejorative and derogatory accusations or subtexts):

1. Red cars are involved in more road accidents than any other colour of vehicle
(Anyone who drives a red car is more likely to drive recklessly.)

2. People who drive red cars don’t observe the speed limit.
(Anyone who drives a red car is either a libertarian or an anarchist.)

3. People who drive red cars fail to pay their taxes.
(Anyone who drives a red car is anti-government.)

4. People who drive red cars are subversives.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a terrorist.)

5. People who drive red cars are law-abiding citizens.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a conservative. OR: Anyone who doesn’t drive a red car is a criminal.)

6. People who drive red cars give to charity but people who drive blue cars give more.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a better person than someone who drives a green car but not as good as someone who drives a blue car.)

The combination of sweeping generalisations and over-simplification in public discourse can obviously distort meaning and generate distrust. For example:

1. What if all taxis are red? That might mean they spend more time on the road, and therefore are more prone to be involved in traffic accidents.

2. What if more sports cars are red than any other colour? That might mean their drivers are more likely to speed. Or that their owners have more money. Or they are status conscious.

3. What if people who drive red cars come from a specific socio-economic, sectarian or ethnic demographic? Even then, they won’t all agree on the same issues, and they will likely display a similar range of divergent, opposing and contradictory views as the drivers of any other colour of car.

Unfortunately, the current environment for political debate and public commentary is being reduced to a binary state, where nuanced and subtle argument is being sidelined in favour of polarised and partisan politics, where facts are not allowed to get in the way of some convenient diatribe. If only politicians were accountable to voters under the Trade Practices Act – although we may soon see election campaigns subject to misleading and deceptive conduct legislation.

* Colour can also depend on context, as these experiments demonstrate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFC7EyR1lhU

** It’s not actually true: https://www.whichcar.com.au/car-news/most-popular-car-colours

Next week: Business as Unusual  

Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?

The recent stoush between POTUS and Twitter on fact-checking and his alleged use of violent invective has rekindled the debate on whether, and how, social media should be regulated. It’s a potential quagmire (especially the issue of free speech), but it also comes at a time when here in Australia, social media is fighting twin legal battles – on defamation and fees for news content.

First, the issue of fact-checking on social media. Public commentary was divided – some argued that fact-checking is a form of censorship, and others posed the question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (who fact-checks the fact-checkers?) Others suggested that fact-checking in this context was a form of public service to ensure that political debate is well-informed, obvious errors are corrected, and that blatant lies (untruths, falsehoods, fibs, deceptions, mis-statements, alternative facts….) are called out for what they are. Notably, in this case, the “fact” was not edited, but flagged as a warning to the audience. (In case anyone hadn’t noticed (or remembered), earlier this year Facebook announced that it would engage Reuters to provide certain fact-check services.) Given the current level of discourse in the political arena, traditional and social media, and the court of public opinion, I’m often reminded of an article I read many years ago in the China Daily, which said something to the effect that “it is important to separate the truth from the facts”.

Second, the NSW Court of Appeal recently ruled that media companies can be held responsible for defamatory comments posted under stories they publish on social media. While this specific ruling did not render Facebook liable for the defamatory posts (although like other content platforms, social media is subject to general defamation laws), it was clear that the media organisations are deemed to be “publishing” content on their social media pages. And even though they have no way of controlling or moderating the Facebook comments before they are made public, for these purposes, their Facebook pages are no different to their own websites.

Third, the Australian Government is going to force companies like Facebook and Google to pay for news content via revenue share from ad sales. The Federal Treasurer was quoted as saying, “It is only fair that the search ­engines and social media giants pay for the original news content that they use to drive traffic to their sites.” If Australia succeeds, this may set an uncomfortable precedent in other jurisdictions.

For me, much of the above debate goes to the heart of how to treat social media platforms – are they like traditional newspapers and broadcast media? are they like non-fiction publishers? are they communications services (like telcos)? are they documents of record? The topic is not new – remember when Mark Zuckerberg declared that he wanted Facebook to be the “world’s newspaper”? Be careful what you wish for…

Next week: Fact v Fiction in Public Discourse

Can we come out now?

At the time of writing, the Victorian government has just announced the State’s very own measures as part of the “3 Steps to Recovery”, designed to ease the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, in a controlled and manageable way. This follows last week’s meeting of the National Cabinet, where broad agreement was reached on a plan to help “prepare Australians to go back to work in a COVID-19 safe environment and getting the economy back to a more sustainable level“.

Even at the MCG, the advice is stay safe, stay home, and think of others

The biggest “winners” in Victoria will be our immediate friends and families (groups of up to 5 people can gather at each others’ homes), outdoor activities (groups of up to 10 people), wedding organisers and funeral directors (more people can attend ceremonies)…. oh, and the AFL (training can resume!).

But Premier Andrews has stressed that this is neither an excuse to host dinner parties every night, nor a reason to ignore established protocols and best practice on personal hygiene and social distancing. So no overnight raves or camping trips. And no dining-in at restaurants or cafes, and definitely no pubs, bars or clubs.

For some people, the continued Stage 3 restrictions seem too much to bear, with a few fringe elements (along with the anti-vaxxers and the anti-5Gers) being more vocal and more physical in their views. But they probably fail to see that no-one actually enjoys living under this regime, and nobody would do it if they had a choice or other safe options.

Thankfully, the majority of the population are willing to comply with the restrictions, however uncomfortable or inconvenient, because they realise the consequences of a second wave of infections (especially as we come into winter) would be worse than some temporary limitations on their freedom of movement. There is also a renewed albeit grudging respect for and trust in our political leadership (if not always felt towards individual ministers), and here in Australia we can also consider the political decisions and public advice in light of scientific data and medical evidence.

A large proportion of Covid-19 infections in Australia came via overseas travellers (cruise ships and ski trips), while some of thee first community infections came from gatherings such as weddings and religious services. And then there have been “hubs” within sectors such as aged care, meat processing and airport baggage handling.

There are still questions over plans to re-open schools, and sectors such as aviation, tourism and hospitality have a long way to go before “normal” service resumes. Parts of the retail sector have managed to survive thanks to on-line shopping and e-commerce solutions (supply chain logistics and delivery) but we should expect some businesses will never bounce back. Every employer will probably need to have a “Covid-19 Safe” operating plan before bringing staff back to work in significant numbers, whether as part of their best practices on risk management, or as a prerequisite to satisfy workplace health and safety obligations.

The apparent rush to get professional sport back on the field feels like a misplaced priority – especially given the controversy around NRL and AFL players who apparently lacked the self-discipline to comply with the social-distancing measures; and those players who are refusing the flu vaccine as a condition of rejoining their clubs. On this point, I rather admire the comments by Chelsea manager, Frank Lampard, who expressed his unease at the thought of professional footballers getting priority for Covid-19 testing, ahead of essential and front-line workers, simply to fast-track the resumption of the EPL.

Even with the various safety plans and gradual easing of restrictions, it’s up to each of us individually to be responsible for our own actions, and maintain a personal duty of care to each other so as not to risk spreading the infection, nor risk exposing others as a result of something we do or omit to do.

Next week: The Bitcoin halving – what happened?

 

 

 

 

 

The “new, new normal” post-Covid-19

After the GFC of 2007-8, we were told to get used to the “new normal” – of low/slow/no growth, record-low interest rates, constant tech disruption and market dislocation as economic systems became increasingly decoupled from one another. And just as we had begun to adjust to this new reality, along comes Covid-19 and totally knocks our expectations sideways, backwards and upside down, and with it some negative long-term consequences. Welcome to the “new, new normal”.

Just what the doctor ordered: “Stay home and read a book!”

In the intervening years since the GFC (and don’t those days seem positively nostalgic from our current vantage point?), we have already seen ever lower interest rates, even faster disruption in business models and services, and a gradual dismantling of the trend towards a global economy. The pre-existing geopolitical landscape has either exacerbated this situation, or has been a prime beneficiary of the dismantling of the established structures of pluralistic, secular, non-sectarian, social-democratic and liberal societies.

First, relations between the Superpowers (USA, Russia and China) have not been this bad since the Cold War. Second, nationalism has not been as rife since the 1930s. Third, political leadership has tended toward the lowest common denominator of populist sloganeering. Not to mention the rise of fundamental religious sects, doomsday cults and tribal separatist movements. Let’s agree that even before the current pandemic, our resistance was already low….

Whatever your favourite conspiracy theory on causes and cures for Covid-19, it’s increasingly apparent that populist leaders of both the left and the right will use the pandemic as vindication of their policies – increased xenophobia and tighter border controls, increased centralisation of power and resources, greater surveillance of their citizens, a heightened intolerance of political dissent, a continued distrust of globalisation, and a growing disregard for subject matter experts and data-driven analysis.

The writing’s on the wall? Message seen in East Melbourne

There are obviously some serious topics up for discussion when we get through this pandemic. Quite apart from making the right economic call (“printing money” in the form of Quantitative Easing seems the main option at the moment…), governments and central banks are going to have to come to grips with:

  • Universal Basic Income – even before Covid-19, the UBI was seen as a way to deal with reduced employment due to automation, robotics and AI – the pandemic has accelerated that debate.
  • Nationalisation – bringing essential services and infrastructure back into public ownership would suggest governments would have the resources they need at their disposal in times of crisis – but at the likely cost of economic waste and productivity inefficiencies that were the hallmark of the 1970s.
  • Inflation – as business productivity and industrial output comes back on-line, the costs of goods and services will likely increase sharply, to overcome the pandemic-induced inertia.
  • Credit Squeeze – banks were already raising lending standards under tighter prudential standards, and post-pandemic defaults will make it even harder for businesses to borrow – so whatever the central cash rates, commercial lenders will have to charge higher lending rates to maintain their minimum risk-adjusted regulatory capital and to cover possible bad debts.
  • Retooling Industry – a lot of legacy systems might not come out of the pandemic in good shape. If we have managed to survive for weeks/months on end without using certain services, or by reducing our consumption of some goods, or by finding workarounds to incumbent solutions, then unless those legacy systems and their capacity can be retooled or redeployed, we may get used to living without their products all together.
  • Communications Technology – government policy and commercial settings on internet access, mobile network capacity and general telco infrastructure will need to be reviewed in light of the work from home and remote-working experience.
  • The Surveillance State – I’m not going to buy into the whole “China-virus” narrative, but you can see how China’s deployment of facial recognition and related technology, along with their social credit system, is a tailor-made solution for enforcing individual and collective quarantine orders.

Another policy concern relates to the rate at which governments decide to relax social-distancing and other measures, ahead of either a reliable cure or a vaccine for Covid-19. Go too early, and risk a surge or second wave of infections and deaths; go too late, and economic recovery will be even further away. Plus, as soon as the lock-downs start to end, what’s the likelihood of people over-compensating after weeks and months of self-isolation, and end up going overboard with post-quarantine celebrations and social gatherings?

Next week: The lighter side of #Rona19