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Come into My Parler

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Efforts to curtail and limit the effect of disinformation reached a fever-pitch in the run up to the 2020 election for President of the United States. Prominent social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, after long resistance to exerting significant top-down control of user posted content, began actively combating misinformation. Depending on who you ask, this change of course either amounts to seeing reason or abandoning it. In the latter camp are those ditching Facebook and Twitter for relative newcomer, Parler.

Parler bills itself as a free speech platform, exerting top-down control only in response to criminal activity and spam. This nightwatchman approach to moderation makes clear the political orientation of Parler’s founders and those people who have dumped mainstream platforms and moved over to Parler. Libertarian political philosophy concerning the proper role of state power was famously described by American philosopher Robert Nozick as relegating the state to the role of nightwatchman: leaving citizens to do as they please and only intervening to sanction those who break the minimal rules that underpin fair and open dealing.

Those making the switch characterize Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, as becoming increasingly tyrannical. Any attempt to curate and fact-check introduces bias, claims Parler co-founder John Matze. Whereas Parler aims to be a “neutral platform,” according to Parler co-founder Rebekah Mercer. This kind of political and ideological neutrality is a hallmark aspiration of libertarianism and classical liberalism.

However, Parler’s pretension became hypocrisy, as it banned leftist parody accounts and pornography. However, this is neither surprising nor on its own bad. As some have pointed out, every social media site faces the same set of issues with content and largely responds to it the same way. However, Parler’s aspiration of libertarian neutrality when it comes to speech content makes their terms of service, which allow them to remove user content “at any time and for any reason or no reason,” and their policy of kicking users off the platform “even where the [terms of service] have been followed” particularly obnoxious.

But suppose that Parler stuck to its professed principles. What would it mean to be politically or ideologically neutral, and why would fact-checking compromise it? A simple way of thinking about the matter is embodied by Parler’s espoused position toward speech content: no speech will be treated differently by those in power simply on the basis of its message, regardless of whether that message is Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, capitalist or socialist. Stepping from the merely political to the ideological, to remain neutral would be to think that no speech content was false simply on its face. Here is where the “problem” of fact-checking arises.

We live, so we keep being told, in a “post-truth” society. Whatever this exactly means, its practical import is that distinct groups of society disagree fundamentally both over their goals and how to achieve them, politically. The idea of fact-checking as a neutral arbiter between disagreeing parties breaks down in these situations because supposed facts will appear neutral only to parties who agree about how to see the world at a basic level. That is, the appearance of a fact-value distinction will evaporate. (The distinction between facts (i.e., how the world allegedly is without regard to any agents’ perceptions) and values (i.e., how the world ought to be according to a given agent’s goals/preferences) is argued by many to be untenable.)

In this atmosphere, fact-checking takes on the hue of a litmus test, examining statements for their ideological bona fides. When a person’s claim is fact-checked, and found wanting, it will appear to them not that an uninterested judge cast a stoic gaze out onto the world to see whether it is as the person says; instead, the person will feel that the judge looked into their own heart and rejected the claim as undesirable. When people feel this way, they will not stick around and continue to engage. Instead, they’ll pack up and go where they think their claims will get “fair” treatment. None of this is to say that fact-checking is necessarily a futile or oppressive exercise. However, it is a reason to not treat it as a panacea for all disagreement.

Truth and Contradiction, Knowledge and Belief, and Trump

photograph of Halloween event at White House with Donald and Melania Trump

At a White House press conference in August, the HuffPost’s White House correspondent, S.V. Dáte, was called on by President Donald Trump for a question. This was the first time Trump had called on Dáte, and the question the reporter asked was the one he had (he said later) been saving for a long time. Here is the exchange:

Dáte: “Mr President, after three and a half years, do you regret at all, all the lying you have done to the American People?” Trump: “All the what?” Dáte: “All the lying, all the dishonesties…” Trump: “That who has done?” Dáte: “You have done…”

Trump cuts him off, ignoring the question, and calls on someone else. The press conference continues, as though nothing has happened. Trump’s reaction to being challenged is familiar and formulaic: he responds by ignoring or denouncing those from whence the challenge comes. In a presidency as tempestuous as this one, that inflicts new wounds on the American democracy daily and lurches from madness to scandal at breakneck speed, this reporter’s question may have slipped under the radar for many.

But let’s go back there for a moment. Not only was it a fair question, it is a wonder that it is not a question Trump is asked every day. The daily litany of lies uttered by the president is shocking, though people who support Trump seem not to mind the lies, or at least are not persuaded thereby to withdraw their support. This seems extraordinary, but maybe it isn’t. As politics continues to grow more divisive and ideologically driven, versions of events, indeed versions of reality, which serve ideologies are increasingly preferred by those with vested interests over ones supported by facts.

Therefore, the answer to Dáte’s question was already implicit in its having to be asked. Given the sheer volume of lies, and given what we know of Trump’s demeanor, it seems clear that he harbors no such regret. Trump gave his answer in dismissing the question.

So, here we are then. The President of the United States is widely acknowledged as a frequent and mendacious liar. If you want to follow up on the amount, content, or modality (Fox News, Twitter, a rally etc.) of Trump’s lies, there are the fact checkers. The Washington Post’s President Trump lie tally database had clocked 20,055 lies to date on July 9. You can search the database of Trump lies by topic and by source. The Post finds that Trump has made an average of 23 false or misleading claims a day over a 14-month period.

Take the president’s appearance last month at an ABC Town Hall with undecided voters. In response to questions about his handling of the pandemic, and regarding the taped, on-the-record interviews with Bob Woodward in which Trump discusses his decision to play down the virus to avoid panic, Trump responds that he had in fact “up-played” the virus. He says this while making no attempt to square the lie off with what is already, in fact, on the public record. As with all Trump’s tweets, public speeches, rallies, press conferences etc., Trump tells lies and fact checkers scramble to confront them.

Of course, Trump should be fact-checked. Fact-checking politicians and other public figures for the veracity of their speech is, and will remain, a vital contribution to public and political discourse. However, it is also important to reflect upon the way the ground has shifted under this activity in the era of Trump; the post-truth era.

The activity of fact-checking, of weighing the President’s claims against known or discoverable truth, presupposes an epistemic relation to the world in which truth and fact are arbiters of – or at least in some way related to – what it is reasonable to believe. Truth and untruth (that is, facts and lies) are, in the conventional sense, at odds with one another – they are mutually exclusive. A logical law of non-contradiction broadly governs conventional discourse. Either “p” or “not-p” is the case; it cannot be both. Ordinarily for a lie to be effective it has to obfuscate or replace the truth. If “p” is in fact true, then the assertion of “not-p” would have to displace the belief in “p” for the lie to work.

But in the Trump Era (the post-truth era) this relation is no longer operative. Trump’s lies often don’t even maintain the pretense of competing with truth in the conventional sense – that is, they don’t really attempt to supersede a fact but rather to shift the reality in which that fact operates as such, or in which it has a claim on belief, decision, and action.

When Trump says he “up-played” the virus without addressing his own on-the-record admission that he downplayed it, he is of course contradicting himself, but more than that he is jettisoning the ordinary sense in which fact and falsehood are at odds with each other. This could be described as a kind of epistemic shift, and is related, I think, to any meaning we might make – now and in the future– of the concept of ‘post-truth’, and what that means for our political and social lives. The concept of post-truth appears to signal a shift in what people can, within political and social discourse, understand knowledge to be, and what claims they can understand it to have upon them. The consequences of this we can already see playing out – especially, for instance, in the pandemic situation in the US, together with the volatile election atmosphere.

Having a concept of epistemology is important here – a concept of what it would be to ‘know’ and what it would be to act on the basis of knowledge. Such a concept would have to demarcate an ancient philosophical distinction – between episteme and doxa; which is the distinction between knowledge and mere opinion or belief.

Post-truth is the ascension of doxa over episteme. In the well-known philosophical analysis of knowledge as justified true belief, for a belief to count as knowledge one must be justified in believing it and it must be true. Knowledge, under this definition which is rudimentary, and somewhat problematic, but nevertheless useful, is belief which is justified and true. But in the post-truth era it seems that the conditions of both justification and truth are weakened, if not dispensed with altogether, and so we are left with an epistemology in which belief alone can count as knowledge – which is no epistemology at all.

It is easy to see why this is not only an epistemic problem, but a moral and political one as well. What knowledge we have, and what it is reasonable to believe and act upon, are core foundations of our lives in a society. There is an important relationship between epistemology and an ethical, flourishing, social and political life. Totalitarianism is built on and enabled by lies and propaganda replaces discourse when all criticism is silenced.

The coronavirus pandemic has been disastrous for the US. A case can easily be made that the pandemic has been able to wreak such devastation because of Trump’s lies – from his decision to downplay the danger and his efforts to sideline and silence experts, to the specific lies and obfuscations he issues via Twitter and at press conferences or Fox News call-ins.

The US has recorded the highest number of infections, and deaths, of anywhere in the world. So, when Trump says “America is doing great” the question must be ‘what this could possibly mean?’ This is no casual lie; nor is it merely the egoistic paroxysm of a president unable to admit error. Repeating at every possible opportunity that ‘America is doing great, the best in the world’ It is a form of gaslighting – and as such is calculated to help Trump disempower and dominate America.

This is in itself quite unsettling, but where is it all going?

In another, particularly bizarre and sinister example of ‘Trumpspeak’ from a couple of weeks ago the president mentioned a plane that allegedly flew from an unnamed city to Washington, D.C., loaded with “thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms, with gear.” In the absence of any ensuing clarity from the president or anyone else on what this might have been about, and in the light of Trump’s oft-repeated claims of the presence of a ‘radical left’ contingent, of ‘antifa’ and ‘radical democrats’ etc., it seems to have been an intimation of some threat, directly or indirectly, the symbolism of which appeared to be drawn from the ‘law and order’ platform of his campaign. Frankly, it’s hard to say.

But vague lies and unverified claims with dark intimations are the stuff of conspiracy. If you line all that up next to the fact that Trump has generously hinted that if the election does not resolve in his favor, he will consider the result illegitimate, then you can see how the lies, the false stories, the obfuscations and intimations are the tools Trump is using to try to shift power. He is trying to dislodge power from the elite – which can be read as ‘people who know things.’

One way of characterizing the situation is to say that the post-truth situation is creating an epistemic vacuum where ideology trumps reality and it is in this vacuum that Trump will attempt to secure his win.

Take the oft-repeated mail-in ballot lie – that mail-in ballots are subject to widespread electoral fraud. This has been firmly refuted, even by Trump’s own investigation following the 2016 election. Yet it is widely recognized that this lie could foment a sense of resentment among Trump supporters should he not get across the line on November 3. Or it could facilitate his (by now fairly transparent) intention to declare victory on election night should the result be inconclusive as counting proceeds. These are the possible, or even likely, outcomes if Trump is able to create, feed, and capitalize on a situation in which truth and fact have no purchase on, or have no meaningful relationship to, people’s reasons for acting or making choices.

Trump’s lying is both a symptom, and part of the disease of his presidency – a pathology which has infected pretty well the whole Republican party and which is putting great strain on many of the organs and tissues of the American democracy. This really is a time like no other in America’s history, and the stakes are as high as they have ever been.

At this point the ethical dimensions of the question of why truth is important to a healthy and just society seem to be slipping from view as America struggles under Trump to keep an epistemic foundation in political discourse that is broadly governed by principles of veracity. Fact-checking alone cannot win that struggle.

Of Trump and Truth

photograph of empty US Capitol steps

Donald Trump, president of the United States of America, is a pathological liar. This is not a revelatory statement or controversial position. But it is occasionally worthwhile reminding ourselves, in case we become numb to it, how extraordinary a fact it is that continuous deceit is the widely acknowledged reality and defining characteristic of the 45th presidency.

Trump lies about big, important things and small, banal things. He tells transparent lies: “Between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes caused me to lose the popular vote.” He tells absurd lies: “Now, the audience was the biggest ever. But this crowd was massive. Look how far back it goes. This crowd was massive.” He tells mendacious lies: “We’ve taken in tens of thousands of people. We know nothing about them. They can say they vet them. They didn’t vet them. They have no papers. How can you vet somebody when you don’t know anything about them and you have no papers? How do you vet them? You can’t.”  He tells self-serving lies: “I am the least racist person ever.” He tells offhanded lies: “My father is German, Right? Was German. And born in a very wonderful place in Germany, and so I have a great feeling for Germany.”

The Washington Post has a lie tally. At time of writing the count is, for 993 days in office, 13,435 lies or misleading statements.  That is an average of 13.5 lies per day. That’s a lie every two hours. But that’s just the flat average; actually, the daily number of lies has been increasing exponentially – the average had risen from five a day during Trump’s first nine months in office to thirty a day in the seven weeks before the 2018 midterm elections.

But lying is not, it would seem, merely an idiosyncrasy of the president, but official administration policy. Following the now infamous remarks about the inaugural crowd size, Kelly Anne Conway first used the phrase ‘alternative facts’. Rudy Giuliani, in August 2018, dropped his bombshell: “truth isn’t truth.” And remember the lot of erstwhile press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who may not have been progenitor of such zingers as Giuliani or Conway coined, but who nevertheless gave a stolid performance night after night deflecting reality?

This is a deeply shocking situation, and yet, even as it (currently) culminates in the revelations of an impeachment trial that has outdone itself for shocking testimony, the fact that the US president lies continuously, relentlessly, daily, is taking up a position as the ‘new normal.’ But truth is so fundamental to our political and ethical lives that without it politics and ethics will become all but impossible. So what can the effect of this ‘new normal’ be?

The epistemological problem, the problem of knowledge, is a deep philosophical question of how we acquire knowledge and what counts as knowledge. Epistemological skepticism casts doubt upon the possibility of knowing the world around us; upon the origins or the foundational soundness of knowledge. Notwithstanding problems of verification that are philosophically intricate, the idioms ‘alternative facts’ and ‘truth is not truth’ are not cases of epistemological skepticism. These statements are not questioning the nature or origin of truth; they are attempting to undermine its moral authority.

Truth has a fundamentally moral character. According to Immanuel Kant, truth is a categorical imperative. We have a duty to tell the truth because we could not live in a world in which we would not will others to tell the truth. A world where truth was not a ‘moral law’ would cease to function. In this sense truth is a kind of cardinal moral category. It is not just moral in the special sense of being a binding duty unto itself, but in the practical and general sense of enabling the integrity of the very structures of morality to be possible at all. Morality needs truth; truth is a necessary condition for ethics.

The companion concept of truth is trust, similarly without which a moral system could hardly function, since justice and compassion depend upon it. Without truth there cannot be trust, and without trust the political and moral is degraded and social contracts are at risk of breaking down.

Can morality be irrevocably eroded by Trump’s litany of falsehoods? What effect will it have? How will the ‘moral fabric’ of American society be impacted?

In her book On Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt makes a remark about a famous anti-Semitic conspiratorial forgery known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was widely believed and taken up. Arendt remarks that the circumstances of its production were not as significant as the forgery’s being believed by so many.

But surely, given that Donald Trump’s lies are mostly bald-faced, his supporters must know he is a liar? Certainly, George Conway thinks they do. In March he said in a tweet, “…Even his die-hard supporters… know he’s a liar. They just don’t care.”

Here, then, the situation may be worse: contrary to Arendt, the most important thing may not be the circumstances of the production of lies, or even that they might be believed, but that the lies are tolerated, brushed off, and factored in. This is not a moral failing, but a moral abrogation.

What’s Wrong with State Media?

Graffiti image of three happy individuals under communist flag with Vietnam skyline behind

In a statement to the Washington Post earlier this month, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez announced that Fox News will not be allowed to host a debate for the 2020 Democratic Party primary election cycle. The DNC’s decision was based in part on Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article accusing Fox News of acting as a propaganda machine for President Trump’s administration. Mayer’s article points to frequent cross-hiring between network management and Trump’s campaign and White House administration, as well as the president’s consistent attention to shows like “Fox and Friends” to demonstrate the close relationship between the administration and the media outlet. The article even includes a quote from professor Nicole Hemmer, who calls Fox News “the closest we’ve come to having state TV.” Implicit in Hemmer’s statement and Mayer’s article is the premise that a state-run media network would be a bad thing for the United States. Leaving aside the debate over whether Fox News or any other news organization is disseminating propaganda, it is worth delving into why (or perhaps even whether) we should be worried about a state-run media in the first place.

A state-run news organization would seem to run counter to the values which inspired the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union specifically highlights the role of the press as a critic and watchdog of the government in service of the people. Investigative journalism is a necessary component of democratic society. The research undertaken by reporters into not only the government, but also businesses and wider societal trends helps the general public understand the world and current events. It seems likely that an organization funded, overseen, or otherwise closely involved with the government would experience a conflict of interest precluding the total fulfillment of this watchdog duty. Certainly, a country with only state-run media would be missing the opposition viewpoint critical to the democratic process. Without the full breadth of information, the general public would be unable to make informed decisions about the government, therefore depriving the people of the agency of self-governance that defines democracy.

The United States can look to other countries for models of what state-run media might look like. Russia, for instance, is widely regarded as operating state-controlled media: two of the biggest television channels, Channel One Russia and Russia-1, are controlled by the federal government, and the English-language network RT is also funded by the government. These media outlets tend to support the policies of the government, and some have accused these organizations of acting as propaganda machines for the Kremlin. In particular, RT has garnered attention because it is directed to a more global audience; while critics say it is designed to generate international sympathy for misguided or dangerous policies of Vladimir Putin’s administration, the network claims it is simply providing an alternative viewpoint to the largely anti-Russia opinions of other international news networks.

Many regard Russia’s control of media and restriction of free press as problematic. What is it about the media situation in Russia that constitutes a breach of ethics? Is it the presence of state-run media, or is it the absence of prominent independent media outlets? Perhaps the more pressing concern is the active legal restrictions on journalists who attempt to look too closely at issues like corruption. Journalists have been banned from Russia, sentenced to time in prison, and even attacked and killed, often under suspicious circumstances. These are obviously more severe threats to press freedom than state-run media, and one could argue that in the absence of such dire conditions, a state-run news outlet would not be an ethical violation in itself.

Being government-sponsored does not guarantee that a news network will collaborate closely with the government. One of the most well-regarded news organizations in the world is the British Broadcasting Corporation. While the BBC was founded by a royal charter and remains under the auspices of the government of the United Kingdom, its charter explicitly calls for the corporation to be “independent in all matters” and a provider of “impartial” services. One could argue that true independence is impossible while the future of the organization is determined by the government, but the presence of other, non-state news outlets in the United Kingdom suggests a much wider latitude of press freedom than in Russia.

Our fear of state-run media seems to stem from a fear of an Orwellian dystopia in which objective truth is hard to come by and public narratives are constantly malleable. The tendency towards a “post-truth” world seem ripe for sinister developments like manufactured consent, wherein public opinion is gradually and subliminally bent to suit the aims of policy makers and other power players. These fears seem even more troubling in the era of “fake news.” President Trump’s use of the phrase to discredit news outlets like CNN, as well as his suggestion for a state-run cable TV network, could be construed as part of a drive towards more extensive state control of the media.

But is there an upside to state-controlled (or at least state-funded) media? For several years, observers have been bemoaning the rise of clickbait—stories and headlines designed to grab immediate attention, often at the expense of in-depth reporting and thoughtful investigation. The primary motivation for this trend is to ensure a profit in the digital era. Free from the need to turn a profit, a state-funded media outlet would theoretically be better equipped to cover substantial, potentially unpopular stories. This is the mission of America’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a government-financed organization that provides some of the funding for public radio stations and other services.

All of this does not absolve Fox News from its duty to provide impartial coverage of government policy. Fox News is not openly an arm of the state: any connection or cooperation between the network and the Trump administration is covert. When it is perceived as an impartial, private corporation, any criticism or praise delivered by the organization to the government is taken as objective assessment, rather than propaganda. But precisely because it is perceived as a free agent, the network also has a duty to fulfill this expectation and act impartially; anything else would be misrepresentation, unethical not only to the extent that lying is unethical, but more so because of the special duty of the press in maintaining the democratic system. At the same time, it is difficult to ascertain true impartiality. The determining factor is intent, rather than outcome. An impartial organization coincidentally supporting the administration on every issue and a partial organization actively colluding with the administration would look practically identical to an outside observer.


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