A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

Winston Churchill


If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.

Mis-Attributed to Mark Twain

Politicians, policymakers, international business and the public are now very badly served in terms of real information, facts and “correct” interpretations – with all the implications that that entails for domestic politics, international relations and the global economy.

To an extent, that has always been true, but things have deteriorated sharply in recent years with the rise of social media.

Like its twin brother post-truth, fake news existed millenia avant le mot and is as old as history. The Biblical story of Exodus is foundational to Judaism and contemporary Israel, but outside of the Bible itself there is not a scrap of evidence to support it.

Historians date the Battle of Kadesh to 1274 BC. The Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II boasts of his single-handed contribution to the defeat of the Hittite forces:

No officer was with me, no charioteer, no soldier of the army, no shield-bearer… I was before them like Set in his moment. I found the mass of chariots in whose midst I was, scattering them before my horses…

Some 900 years later, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote:

Most people, in fact, will not take trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.

Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War.

This intellectual laziness is still with us today, but is compounded by the innate stubbornness of people cleaving to their core beliefs and identity:

All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

Paul Simon, The Boxer.

Never underestimate the difficulty of changing false beliefs by facts.

Henry Rosovsky, economic historian on East Asia, formerly Acting President of Harvard, Chair of the Task Force on Higher Education and Society convened by the World Bank and UNESCO and consultant to the US Government and the Asian Development Bank.

In the twentieth century, psychology gave these attitudes formal terms such as cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.

More recently, scholars such as Nobel Prize Laureate Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt have applied psychology to explain human motivation and the “clustering” of political beliefs along a left-right spectrum.

Put simply, these scholars conclude that rational arguments are in fact merely ex post facto justifications for intuitively and deeply-held beliefs.

As a result, they argue, core convictions are immune to rational argument and empirical reality – which, in the current febrile climate, raises the worrying prospect that the various camps are irreconcilable.

As Aristotle wrote in Rhetoric (Ῥητορική) 2,500 years ago, argumentation is based on three pillars:

  • ethos – ἦθος – credibility, moral competence, but also expertise and knowledge
  • pathos – πάθος – appeals to the psychology and emotions of the audience
  • logos – λόγος – reasoning

To make a case, says Aristotle, the first step is to establish ethos, but ethos is now largely discredited as credibility, moral competence, expertise and knowledge have collapsed.

Pathos not only dominates Hollywood, the global entertainment industry and the arts, but has now also taken over a news sector decimated by “trading analog dollars for digital pennies” – it too is discredited by the almost universal confusion between pathos and logos.

News and analysis have been supplanted by constant appeals to emotion, passion and the “personal story” in self-validating echo chambers combined with a constant search for “breaking news” and sensationalist headlines.

Diversity, identity politics, political correctness and multiculturalism all drive the need for “the story.”

People who sign up to this approach believe it shows their innate educational, moral and intellectual superiority, as well as their sophistication and empathy.

But supporters of pathos rarely, if ever, look at the underlying causes of problems, let alone put forward solutions – except for more of the same.

Even worse, they utterly fail to understand that to advocates of logos – rational argument – their very emphasis on pathos to the exclusion of logos means that they have lost ethos – credibility – at the outset.

Photos of drowned children in the Mediterranean Sea, for instance, evoke deep pathos, but adherents of logos, sees refugees in general as the thin edge of an enormous and growing demographic wedge for which they not only bear no responsibility, but which also threatens their own culture and values.

In this sense, left and right evince different political and economic policies based on profoundly different psychologies and mentalities. That in turn  results in very different analyses and solutions.

The upshot is the resurgence of culture wars across the West against the background of the most violent changes in society and the economy seen in decades, and perhaps since the Industrial Revolution – even though far more and far deeper changes are already on the horizon.

The problem has been greatly compounded by social media, which has destroyed people’s sense of time and place and facilitated the spread of “fake news” – or what can also be called junk education and babble.

As a result, fake news has rightly come in for heavy criticism in its latest incarnation on the Internet and social media networks.

But experts and more astute journalists knew that the so-called mainstream media was in deep trouble on both the home and the foreign front long before fake news.

In the United Kingdom, for example, journalism’s collapse began under the onslaught of increasing commercial pressures from the 1980s and 1990s. There and elsewhere, the collapse was aided and abetted by the Internet.

The Times of London alone used to have 16 gallery correspondents reporting on Parliament, but such numbers are no longer affordable, resulting in a catastrophic decline of international, national and local coverage.

Neither mainstream nor press agency journalists have the time for proper fact-checking, research and interviews.

Since the early 1990s, vast amounts of material appearing in the media are merely revamped boilerplate articles written by press agencies, whose journalists are under huge pressure to produce multiple articles a day based on government and corporate press releases.

Hacks at digital news outfits churn out multiple articles, and again lack the time to do the job properly, producing junk information and babble which often fail to reach even the level of Wikipedia.

The award-winning British journalist Nick Davies analysed all this and more in his 2009 book Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media.

Davies begins with an exposé of that spurious, long-forgotten, über-hyped and spectacular panic-inducing non-event in the run-up to the 21st century, the Y2K Millennium bug.