It is the greatest irony of modern times; we have never been more connected and yet never more disconnected. We live in a world where we are always on, supplicants to the new religion where the sacristans are the smartphone and the tablet.
We float atop a tsunami of information, simultaneously informed and misinformed, as emotions are weaponised at the expense of common sense – and perhaps common humanity – in the pursuit of downright dishonesty.
The question is how do we balance this ying and the yang, these inseparable 21st century contradictions? Perhaps more pertinently, how do we inoculate ourselves from deception in this post-truth world, a place where the leader of the free world can blithely and brazenly lie, even contradicting himself, with no fear of consequence despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
How do we liberate, not further enslave, ourselves in a world of 7.7-billion people where half of us are already online and a third are using social media, spending dramatically more and more time on the web, across different platforms from computer to tablet and smartphone? Social media has disrupted us in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago, from how we find partners (romantic or just sexual), to how we access news, how we shop and even how we engage with each other.
It is purposefully designed to hook us by developers to create a product we simply cannot do without. And most of us have bought into it, creating the foundations of a dystopian world George Orwell could only dare write about. As Virtual Reality pioneer and Silicon Valley savant Jaron Lanier describes it, we have voluntarily subjected ourselves to constant observation and constant surveillance in which we are constantly receiving information that is being dynamically adjusted to find ways of manipulating us, in which meaning is decontextualised and shredded into algorithmic ready soundbites recontextualised to feed into our prejudices. It’s all about money – and power.
In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary named Post-truth politics as its word of the year defining the phenomenon as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The philosophical parents of this post-truth era might be Frederick Nietzsche, Max Weber and Hannah Arendt, but the midwives and its greatest proponents are Donald Trump and Boris Johnson with the delivery wards being the US presidential elections and Brexit.
Cambridge Analytica has now entered the annals of legend, but here at home we are still dealing with the fallout from Bell Pottinger and its White Monopoly Capital (WMC) epithet, now joined by ‘Stratcom’ and weaponised accordingly to demonise opponents and inflame followers. The WMC campaign, described by the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) as the “first large-scale fake news propaganda war in South Africa”, saw the establishment of more than 100 fake Twitter accounts retweeting approximately 220 000 tweets following the global trend of organisations and political parties using communications consultants to create bot or troll armies to push disinformation, drown out legitimate media voices and sway public opinion.
But it’s not just the pseudo-leftists of the Radical Economic Transformation lobby who use social media successfully, South Africa’s right wing do too, trying to create narratives around “white genocide” internationally and domestically ensuring they still receive a disproportionate share of media voice.
Whether it’s an existential battle for the self-determination of minorities or to avoid culpability in the aftermath of a decade of state capture, corruption and corporate collusion, the axiom attributed to Aeschylus in 5BCE: “In war, the first casualty is the truth”, rings truer each day.
It’s matched only by the famous Mark Twain aphorism: “People who don’t read the newspaper are uninformed, while people who do read a newspaper are misinformed.” Except for the fact that Twin never said it. As the Centre for Twain Studies points out, “Thus emerges a meta-irony which Twain would undoubtedly have appreciated: newspaper writers writing in newspapers about the unreliability of newspaper writing and citing an unreliable source to testify to that unreliability.”
Legacy media is its own worst enemy, most racing to the bottom, disorientated and fearful of the new challenges posed by social media and the democratisation of the space, by copying the worst excesses to hopefully staunch the precipitous drop in audiences and advertising. The drop in revenue is matched in many cases by the concomitant drop in standards leading to situations where opinion masquerades as fact; wrong and downright fake news is published as real and curated twitter lynch mobs are legitimated.
It is extremely dangerous with massive negative implications for social cohesion, especially in a society such as South Africa; fanning extremism, feeding populism, de-legitimising minority rights and even aiding the suppression of the rule of law in pursuit of a fake agenda. Left unchecked, as we saw in Rwanda and before that in Nazi Germany, we can end up with genocide.
So how do we inoculate ourselves from this new virus that infects our thinking? We start by adopting the principles of what business schools call divergent and convergent thinking, tools to find solutions to what might appear to be intractable problems. We have to defer judgment while we actively listen to other views, even if - especially if - it challenges our own views, prejudices and biases.
We have to explore the world with curiosity, not just look to sate our cravings. We have to develop a tolerance for ambiguity, because the traditional way of thinking - coming up with the right answers – no longer holds true, now we need to be asking the right questions – and not be afraid of the answers.
As Yuval Noah Harari reminds us throughout history truth has often been trumped by the quest for a narrative that sustains power elites. If we are to truly equip ourselves for what lies ahead though, we need to develop a brutal honesty, starting with ourselves and we need to become mentally flexible. We need to know our own selves with an intensity and urgency unimagined before. Our most important weapon of all in learning to cope with the incredible wave of disruption promised by the 4th industrial revolution that is still to wash over us will be the ability to think away from the herd – if we can prevent the demagogues and the sleep walkers from destroying the planet in the meantime.
Maybe the first step is to take a leaf out of Harari’s book and go cold turkey on our social media addictions.