Attacks on fake news are currently all the rage. Governments have found it somewhat irritating that people disseminate rumours or focus on stories that the government would wish that are ignored. A political solution that is currently being mooted is the creation of a government ministry that will oversee news stories and adjust them accordingly should they be found wanting in some respects or other.
Unfortunately, the greatest propagator of fake news has always been and will always be government. People engage in gossip and rumours but we are free to ignore or to challenge our friends stories or the assumptions behind them, But when government determines which new stories are to be produced and which are therefore deemed fake, we enter the realm of totalitarian politics that is more reflective of national socialism communism and fascism than democratic governments.
Private gossip can harm people’s lives and urban myths can last a long time - but they are subject to the constant critical attention of other people. Our ideas - once expounded - immediately enter the arena of the survival of the fittest, they become vulnerable to other interpretations or conflicting facts. Freedom is based on the right to propose ideas freely, and to have them critiqued in turn - indeed, we can only progress when we are free to express our thoughts and intern to let them be challenged by our friends and colleagues. We are constantly learning...that is our nature. Only our conditioning to not think, so well impressed upon us by elements of our school systems, encourages intellectual laziness, which governments tend to prefer and foster.
When we stop expressing our thoughts, we can become psychologically repressed, and when we demand that our ideas are not criticised, we repress others. Our notions can be strange, Silly, innovative, ludicrous, amazing, brilliant-they can change the way other people think about the world and about themselves. But when we create institutions that halt critical thinking on the grounds that people should not be free to be stupid or to disseminate false information, we effectively become brain-dead.
Critical thought is paramount for progress and for civilisation, and it is always been the enemy of the state which seeks to control and to heard its citizens like sheep. When governments lie, the danger can be immense-peoples lives and wealth can be destroyed, people can be misled into programs of social engineering, or a nation can be lured into war based on the fake news that government may propagate.
We should all note that a primary principle of political philosophy is that governments lie.
Governments lie about economic statistics, about their political intentions, about the connections between political officers and corporations, about the reasons for going to war ("weapons of mass destruction" anyone?). Spin doctors and propagandists seek to present 'facts' and interpretations to fit government agendas - and sometimes these agendas are independent of the party and leadership in power: bureaucracies are incredibly powerful at sustaining a war against truth or commonsense...or accountability...from the Soviet Union to California and Greece. Lies, damn lies, statistics - government is the masterful wizard of the lot. Until free expression and critical thinking dare raises a voice. And that is what governments are always afraid of - that the truth be out.
To entrust government with truth is so brutally naive that it barely warrants a counter argument, except that because of our educational systems, people have learned to not be very critical and to accept mainstream ideas and to plug them selves into watching TV or Internet media instead of thinking about the world around them. Governments like such people because they are the ones who will nod passively and except the notion that the government should control what they think and express.
For the past for centuries, our ancestors have fought against such totalitarian thinking and yet today we are on the verge of excepting more government control of our thoughts because of alleged fake news in the media. Instead, the government and its leadership should remind its citizens that they and only they are responsible for what they think about and what they learn. But of course that is not something governments do willingly, they would prefer that we remain quiescent and obedient leaving so-called experts to teach us and to inform us and to educate us.
These are dangerous principles.
To motivation for writing this was that the news company Breitbart got into trouble for an alleged fake news story - this editorial from Breitbart, London, makes interesting reading.
Dr Alex Moseley is a philosopher and economist living in the UK; he is the author of several philosophy books including An Introduction to Political Philosophy.