Showing great feel for language that encapsulates the dominant discourse of society, the Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as the Word of the Year 2016. If a choice has now to be made of the term that has captured the public consciousness in the last two years, it would most probably be “fake news”, the constant, never-ending refrain of Donald Trump when referring to the media. He can justifiably claim credit for this banal term resonating so deeply across the world at a time of grave crisis for democracies due to the loss of credibility of the political class and the media.
Today’s Frankenstein monster with its lethal arsenal of entertainment, manipulated news, propaganda and plain rubbish has supplanted the traditional social and cultural institutions as the primary mineral resource for our politics, our prejudices, in fact our world view. It is no surprise, then, that the world over, the media is largely controlled by the state-corporate nexus. So great is that stranglehold that Amy Goodman has contemptuously referred to the mass media as “stenographers to power”.
Disinformation, distortion, exaggeration and plain falsehoods pervade cyberspace, cable, newsprint and the air waves, mainly sourced from our politicians and media. A frightening new dimension has been added by the ubiquitous social media. In our licentious surreal world of “anything goes” news, reporting, tweeting and commentary where it is becoming almost impossible to sift truth from fiction, the indifference to facts has now assumed the proportions of a cultural phenomenon. People now freely choose news and views that align with their identities and world view, the truth be damned. It would be no exaggeration to state that our country today is a truth-impaired, “fake news” Republic (no pun intended).
We are in a dangerous place. The universal liberal values of tolerance, inclusion and equality are under grave threat in the face of a creeping majoritarian impulse that is not only undermining our hard-fought freedoms and values but dividing our people by targeting those who are seen as inimical to the right-wing ideal of a supremacist Hindu Rashtra of Hindutva. A deepening cultural mutation is destroying institutions vital to the democratic project. For Muslims and Christians, the country is a minefield of uncertainty, anxiety and fear. They feel under siege in a social environment that has undermined the country’s core values and transformed the land of Buddha and Gandhi that was deeply inclusive and tolerant of all groups and justifiably proud of its “unity in diversity” into a polarised, predatory majoritarian state.
A particularly worrying feature of the present times is that violence against vulnerable sections, which used to be unplanned and sporadic in the past, has now become cold-bloodedly strategic. In these dark times, we need a fearless, honest and independent media more than ever before, but what we have is a largely submissive fourth estate that has been equivocal and even complicit in its response. Instead of focusing on the real issues of the people, large sections of the media are guilty of acting as conduits for government propaganda and feeding the self-delusion of the powerful.
The ubiquitous social media has become a prime instrument of political and cultural power. It has also, unfortunately, been a lethally effective participant in this erosion of social cohesion and solidarity. It is being used with deadly effect to spread the poison of hate and violence. Permit me to give you an example. Earlier this year, a Facebook post listed the names of 100 interfaith Hindu-Muslim couples and called on Hindus to hunt down the Muslim men mentioned as “it is a matter of Muslims taking over our blood and taking over our wombs… the wombs that would (otherwise) give Hindu children”. Facebook responded to the uproar by taking down the offensive page within a few days but took many more weeks to track down and delete the thousands of approving copied versions that swept across cyberspace. The account of the author of the offensive post was suspended but he has resurfaced with a new account. Similar hate-mongering posts inundate cyberspace with sickening regularity. Significantly, the right-wing storm troopers not only have a near monopoly on hate-mongering posts on social media but also over the venomous trolling threatening opponents with lynching, rape and other forms of retribution. Considering that some senior functionaries of the ruling party are actively abetting and even participating in the hate-mongering, can the ruling dispensation absolve itself of complicity in this pervasive bigotry plaguing cyberspace that has so divided our society?
It is true that across the world the cosmopolitan spirit is being throttled by hyper-nationalism, xenophobia and racism. There is a clear tectonic right-wing shift and a deep distrust of the liberal values of tolerance, inclusion and equality as one country after another has become an “illiberal democracy” where a shrill nationalism has subsumed democratic values. But in democracies like the US, a vibrant media is leading the charge against the governing elites’ bigotry, falsehoods and attacks on immigrants and other vulnerable sections. Sadly, in our country, there are but a handful of newspapers, TV channels and fact-checking websites ploughing a lonely furrow, dissenting and exposing the undemocratic ways and venality of the political elite and corporate buccaneers. The rest have failed in their responsibility as conscience-keeper and whistle blower of society.
The great crisis that the world faces today is the crisis of truth. And it is the media, in tandem with the politicians, that has seriously undermined the value of truth as the quintessential obligation in all human interaction. Stephen Colbert, the American comic, has coined a deeply meaningful term “truthiness” to describe what people think is right and true even if unrelated to facts, essentially falsehood masquerading as truth.
Increasingly, “truthiness” has pervaded our thinking. There is now the very real danger that the power of truth has been irreparably diminished by an enveloping “truthiness” engendered by the media and the political class.
(The writer, a former civil servant, is secretary general of the Lok Janshakti Party. Views are personal)