The role we play in aiding the illusion of truth.
As I turned on my television, there was an interview with the Information Minister airing. This man was the Chief Propagandist that helped his party the opposition party, win the presidential elections. I paid no attention to the interview as he was notable for his extravagance in distorting facts. When I picked up the remote control to switch to a less biased station, what I heard next stopped me. “Everything I tell our people is the absolute truth. He continued emphatically, almost as if to lift an index finger to the sky to swear. “I present only facts and figures to you and I will never tell a lie”. I could certainly relate with his ‘facts’. ‘Facts’ like, vitamin C cures common cold and eating carrots can improve my eyesight. Indeed these were alternative facts that I found to be untrue over the years.
In my years following politics in a country with a fragile democracy, I never witnessed the promotion of inaccurate information and mudslinging between political parties as I saw that year. The campaign slogans for the two major political parties aiming to disparage the other were ‘Transformation’ and ‘Change’. While the prospects of ‘transforming’ the corruption image of the country didn’t seem very promising, the only ‘change’ the election achieved was the public’s acceptance of propaganda. Shortly after the elections, the new President made his first major political appointments. The Campaign Publicity Secretary that spearheaded the campaign narrative was rewarded for his propaganda prowess by getting appointed as Minister of Information.
Popular as the ideology of the ruling party had become, the most citizens across party lines found the Information Minister to be uninspiring. As I paid attention to political debates of ordinary citizens, I observed how people can make an effort to discern truth but facts no longer mattered when a lie was repeated very often. Voting the ruling party did not necessarily mean that people believed in the sincerity of their campaign narrative. Repetition only made propaganda seem like the truth. This ‘truth’ motivated them to cast their votes at the elections.
I believe that politicians understand the power of repetition as much as the Advertiser. President Donald Trump of the United States in my opinion could easily earn a PhD in Psychology if he was to document his proficiency in using the ‘illusory truth effect’ to a thesis. Trump is rivaled by no other president in effectively deploying alternate facts through his twitter account_ one the most followed in the world. It becomes the job of Fact-checkers race behind every tweet to check and debunk any falsehood they find. Interestingly, they almost never succeed in changing the views of his fans whom have been shaped by his tweets since 2017.
The power of repetition works everywhere in the world and more so in Africa where poverty and poor education entrenches the gullibility of citizens. Religion uses repetition as an anchor for its doctrines, just as traditional African culture promotes superstitions that influence compliance to traditions when someone hears the same thing over and over. Political propaganda has also influenced social communication in the way we have become more yielding to fake news on social media. We become more comfortable with information we are more familiar with when it is shared on every WhatsApp group we belong to.
Psychologists suggest that in order to separate truth from lies, our brain first must accept a false statement that is made as the truth. This is the only way the brain can begin to engage with it. The brain engages in a kind of mental certification process of either accepting it or questioning it. For instance, the brain can immediately react to ‘news’ that a government official embezzled funds for a national carrier airline, by saying something like “oh, really it must be true” or by saying “wait? How can that be? No way!” The next level of engagement is to detect whether the information was actually the truth or a lie.
Continuously receiving lies can become so mentally overwhelming that the brain gives up questioning its validity and accepts it. If we stop at the first level of receiving news and not engaging further it is possible that the ‘illusory truth effect’ applies. This highlights the role of Facts checkers in realigning us to the truth when we could have accepted a false information. I can definitely relate with this as an Advertising practitioner. It also implies that the power of repetition is amplified and becomes more powerful the more a person avoids responding to it. This is how repetition propagates fake news.
What role do we then have to play after detecting an information to be untrue? Do we keep silent and allow others become victims of the ‘illusory truth effect’?
Having monitored the spread of fake news on social media, I realize that the silence of those who identify news that is fake but fail to report or debunk it, could be helping to reaffirm familiarity over rationality. You could be promoting the triumph of travesty in a world where decisions and actions of masses are shaped by the greed of the Powerful. Staying silent makes lies become more famous as the truth becomes less popular.
Imagine a world without the Facts checkers who diligently research and debunk false information peddled by rumor mongers and those of lying politicians that deceive the masses. Imagine the falsely accused men on deaths row languishing in prisons because the only witness on their case withheld the truth. That witness could have been you. Let’s say you detected the truth but held on to the proverbial saying that ‘silence is golden’, such silence that fails to protect the weak and vulnerable. The world certainly needs less of your silence, don’t you think? Because your silence is not gold, if anything at all_ it is bronze.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies,
but the silence of our friends”
~ Martin Luther King Jr.