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The global crisis in credibility

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 25 February 2020


Despite an earlier perception that the current Millennium would herald a new Age of Enlightenment, with the emerging Internet as a potentially open, egalitarian platform, the ability to gain access to accurate information on which to base democracy is under attack as never before.

On the one side is the increasing ability of governments to both censor news and to manage it to their own benefit. On the other is the ability of non-state actors to create their own versions of reality that to common readers are indistinguishable from the truth. It was after all Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, who defended a false statement to the Meet the Press talking heads program by saying she had access to "alternative facts."

At least 11 countries have taken up President Trump's charges that the media publish "fake news," arresting journalists, according to the US-based Poynter Institute. Some 51 countries in total have taken various steps, both benign and malign, to cast a cold eye on the press.

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Chief among them is Singapore, which according to the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development and the Think Center has used its cumbersomely named "Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) againstpoliticians, a political party, journalists, alternative media websites and even a human rights legal organization based outside of Singapore.

It isn't just state actors. Vibrant free speech across much of the world has been muzzled and controlled with new forms of bowdlerization. Although state-centered censorship has drastically changed, other forms of censorship, societal and corporate, have drastically curtailed free speech and the expression of alternative ideas. The world has entered into a dark-age of expression of opinion.

Societal censorship is an extremely powerful form of restricting free expression. So-called political correctness weaves a fabric around community assumptions, beliefs and values that stifle any views that may be seen to contrive, offend or exclude any groupings, emerging as society's most powerful censorship tool. Once a modern center-leftist concept of politeness and respect, political correctness has become a defense mechanism to protect the sensitivities of millennials and has consequently slipped into all aspects of life through politics, media, education, science, and humor.

Now agreeing to disagree and giving any alternative views in public forums can lead to ridicule by audiences, as a conservative Australian Senator Jim Molan recently found out on Australian national television. As a short film clip shows, it is often not ideas that are rebuked, but ad hominem slurs and manipulative media are now becoming the standard tool of rebuttal in public debate.

The boundaries of political correctness can be and are being manipulated. Organizations like the Russian-funded Internet Research Agency manipulated, through social media, Ukraine and US politics, resulting in a continuing months-long scandal and divisiveness in the United States, culminating in President Trump's impeachment, although the Senate refused to convict him

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte used social media manipulation to dominate the election that brought him to power. Social media manipulation is rife throughout most Southeast Asia nations including Cambodia, where, according to Human Rights Watch, two reporters have been jailed for writing accurate criticism of the government.

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We will never know the truth behind Greta Thunberg's rise to prominence on the world stage, due to organizations and trolls on both sides giving different versions of the truth. What we do know is that it is the media that is used to create new myths and personalities.

Today, there is no way of determining what reality is. It may have been a big problem, as many critics have pointed out, that the world's mainstream media were controlled by white gatekeepers who decided what was and what wasn't news. But the gatekeepers, white or not, had some dedication to responsibility, finding the truth, or at least reality, and printing it. With the Internet becoming the sole source of information and discourse for many people, the corporate sector is now the main guardian of censorship. Google has become a major global reality interface. People tend to rely on the first few pages of a Google search to take bearings on reality, an assumption totally misleading. Google's algorithms are programmed for ranking manipulation.

This plays on the fallacy that if information is not on the first couple of pages of a Google search, it is either unimportant or doesn't exist. Google utilizes ranking manipulation to assist governments in a non-transparent manner by filtering certain types of results which may be considered detrimental to particular sectional interests. US courts have ruled that the First Amendment protects internet companies manipulating search engines.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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