The power of lies

The problem of lies and false narratives has been compounded in the present era of technology

Raashid Wali Janjua August 20, 2022
The writer is heading IPRI and a PhD scholar at NUST. He can be reached at [email protected]

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. —Mark Twain


If mendacity had a face every contortionist would present a distorted visage to confound the truth. Lies have inherent strengths as well as weaknesses. The strengths include their sensational appeal to the gullible and lure of escapism while its weaknesses include evanescence and the boomerang effect of lies that can come back to haunt the originator, the worse being the reputational loss. The snowball effect of repetitive lies engenders credulity that imparts wings to the clever narratives through Goebellian strategic communications. The truth is morally powerful but logistically stolid as pointed out by the trenchant quote attributed to the master raconteur Mark Twain.

The problem of lies and false narratives has been compounded in the present era of technology. Powered by the internet, it has enabled vehicles like digital TV and the rapidly evolving social media platforms (SMP). The democratisation of information through smartphones has placed information within easy reach of plebeians and elite alike. The range and sweep of the information combined with its velocity has made it vulnerable to be manipulated by fake news peddlers and sensationalism hooked corporate media. The lack of moral, legal and intellectual checks in the form of editorial oversight and legal retribution make social media platforms the veritable weapons of mass deception with the same disruptive potential like the weapons of mass destruction.

James Baptiste Couteau contended as far back as 1794 that “oral calumny is tardy, feeble, and circumscribed, but give her paper wings, and, like a bird, she cleaves the clouds, and flies from province to province, from kingdom to kingdom”. In simple words the impact of the lies embedded in the written script disseminated through modern communication means is far more lethal than the spoken banter. The current onslaught of well scripted tweets and Vlogs attests to the truth of Couteau’s thoughts. A strategically directed calumny in the form of a Vlog or tweet can ruin reputations and implant doubts in the raw minds not exposed to the truth. In this postmodern age of atomised meta narratives the visceral utterances of the populists can destroy national integrity and social cohesion on account of their divisive and hate mongering nature.

Two serious developments in the field of media and technology have led to the empowerment of the calumny. One is the use of smartphone technology and the other is unregulated internet based social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter, etc. The lack of editorial oversight and regulatory checks has enabled every individual to disseminate information, lies and sensational stuff with gay abandon. Gone are the morality checks and self-restraint based on fear of peer criticism and voluntary moral strictures imposed by society. What has given ballast to the hollow yet attractive narratives is the mind boggling ad money introduced by platforms such as you tube. Nowadays a greenhorn media journalist could earn millions through YouTube channels because of the astronomical rise in remunerative packages for the crowd pulling VLogers and anchor hosts.

The biggest question that arises is: how could society especially the most impressionable segment (34% of our population being under 15 as per 2017 census) be protected from the implacable onslaught of this negative barrage of lies, propaganda, pornography and seditious content? How could we isolate Generation Z (Age 9 to 23) and millennials (age 25 to 40) from the torrent of half-baked opinions and outright bilge thrown down their throats by unscrupulous content generators driven by the lure of money? The corporatisation of the knowledge and information has developed a consumerist ethos between the content generators and the content consumers. The Vlogers and anchors generate what sells and the consumers lap up what is sensational, locking both in a vicious chain of sensationalism and willing suspension of disbelief.

Due to lax regulatory environment and the effete libel laws the tendency to prevaricate and lie in pursuit of ulterior motives is gaining traction by the hour. A lie fetches thousands of views which in turn fetch hefty revenues for the proliferators of the lies and by the time the truth tries to catch up the damage to the reputations is irreversible. Social media is being used as a weapon of choice to maul the political opponents spawning an eco-system of lies and counter lies. Like the fighter pilots of sixties and seventies who angled and jockeyed for an advantageous position to score a kill based on an information advantage through shortening of the famous ‘Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA)’ loop, the information warriors riding the YouTube chariots shorten their OODA loops through invention of bigger lies. And therein lurks the greater danger i.e. a wrong indoctrination of the influential segments of the population.

Populist leaders who are a step short of fascism find the social media driven political environment most propitious for the dissemination of their adamantine certainties and demagoguery. It no longer matters what they are saying is truth or not; what really matters is what is believed. The tendentious proliferation of messages to sow dissensions amongst rivals and cofound the opponents has become a norm that is being sustained by the power of money earned by content proliferators. A poorly educated, jobless, frustrated and angry cohort of young population is ready today to consume as well as generate the fake content as long as it pays. Poor civic education, lack of opportunities and absence of rule of law have created a dangerous environment where lies, populism and rumours abound.

There is an immediate need to starve unregulated social media content of the ad money through better social media regulation and effective libel laws. A better regimen of civic education, more chances for gainful employment and proper channelisation of the unbounded energy of the youth is another vital component of counter lie strategy.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2022.

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