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View PointOpinion: Waging war on truth

Opinion: Waging war on truth

Published: 7th Jul 2021 12:04 am

“How do I find the truth in this chaotic world?”

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“By creating your own truth.”

For all those patriotic citizens upset over the negative portrayal of India’s image in the foreign media on the pandemic situation, here is a reality check: One man’s truth can be another man’s fallacy; one man’s pride can be another man’s hubris; one man’s aberration can be another man’s generalisation; one man’s fringe can be another man’s mainstream.

In this post-truth era, perception is real, truth is not. Here, one chooses the narrative first and the facts will follow. And the data will meekly fit into the groove because, like water, it takes the shape of the container in which the narrative is served. Once you have picked your own narrative, you have chosen your own truth, a truth untainted by objective reality.

Many may find the tone of the pandemic-related dispatches in foreign media outlets like ‘New York Times’, ‘BBC, ‘The Guardian’, ‘Washington Post’ and ‘The Economist’ quite condescending and their field reports one-sided, exaggerated and brimming with negativity, containing select quotes that fit into a predetermined narrative.

Insider versus Outsider

This disdainful reaction from many Indians is understandable but does not stand the scrutiny of objectivity. When you are the product of a system or its beneficiary, you would tend to gloss over its inadequacies, ignore warts, set the bar low and celebrate even its modest achievements. But an outsider’s judgement is bound to be harsh and unforgiving. It is this mismatch in perception, more than the objective truth, that creates friction.

The crux of the reports, analyses and editorials in the international media was that the Modi government’s callousness, its refusal to heed the warnings of experts, lack of advance planning, and its flawed vaccination policy were responsible for the devastating second wave of the pandemic. The global media pointed out that the ruling party’s triumphant mode resulted in misreading the situation.

An editorial in ‘The Guardian’ blamed Modi’s “overconfidence” for the disastrous Covid response. An opinion piece in the ‘Washington Post’ argued that his government invited the disastrous second wave with a series of stunningly reckless decisions which prioritised saving the Prime Minister’s image over protecting India while ‘Le Monde’ spoke about his “lack of anticipation, arrogance, and demagoguery”.

Though Modi’s supporters lamented that the foreign media was excessively harsh and even brutal in personally targeting the Prime Minister and insensitive while covering the deaths, it must be pointed out that the international media has always covered India extensively.

India is too important to fail, too important to ignore. Initially, Modi was the toast of the western media which viewed him as the man who was going to transform India, but over the last seven years, it has become disillusioned. The coverage could also make a difference to how India is perceived abroad.

It is the perception battles that decide who is the winner and who is the vanquished. For this reason, the governments, irrespective of their ideology, tend to invest their political capital in controlling the narrative and managing the media headlines, thereby ignoring ground realities.

My Truth, Your Truth

From “Ekam sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti” (Truth is one, the wise interpret it differently) — the Upanishad’s core principle of spiritual inquiry — to the present post-truth socio-political order, marked by multiple bubbles of alternative truths, we have come a long way; a journey that saw competing truths jostling for dominance.

We are living in a time where alternative facts have replaced objective facts while feelings and sentiments outweigh the evidence. A disturbing trend, amplified by social media, is the increasing dismissal of science, evidence and facts and systematic propagation of an alternative reality.

Increasingly, people are pushed into what psychologists call “information silos”, be it the bubble of climate change deniers, evolution deniers, anti-vaxxers or racial supremacists.

Add to this the wired-in cognitive biases that make us feel that our conclusions are based on good reasoning even when they are not, the decline of traditional media and the rise of social media, and the emergence of fake news as a political tool, and we have the ideal conditions for a post-truth world.

It is not merely falsifying facts or spreading fake news, but the purpose is to neutralise rational and critical thought by appealing to emotions on half-truths or repeating statements that have been proven false but are convenient and sound credible. This colour-coding of facts originates from the state that wants to control the narrative, as it alone would like to determine the truth.

Waging war

Post-Truth World

From an endless stream of political misinformation to inescapable lies on social media, the signs that we are living in a post-truth world are hard to ignore.

No wonder that the term “post-truth” was the Oxford English Dictionaries word of the year in 2016. A post-truth society has been defined as one in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. The loaded term is often used to describe a broad stream of events and attitudes frequently perceived as a threat, particularly to science and politics. The distrust of science found in a post-truth society is often seen as degenerative and destructive of democracy.

In a broader sense, post-truth must be seen as the political subordination of reality; a tactic that is used by authoritarians and their wannabes to dictate the information flow so that they can then control the thought process of the public. It is intended not just to corrupt our belief in some specific thing that is true, but really to undermine the idea that we can know truth outside of political context.

In the last few years, we have witnessed the emergence of political leaders and political campaigns that secured resounding victories by relying on half-truths, lies, innuendoes and empty verbiage. These victories have given rise to the idea that we live in a post-truth era where truth does not have ultimate authority. More alarmingly, the boundaries between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction have become blurred.

(The author is a senior journalist based in Hyderabad)

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