“Fake news” and “post-truth” are popular neologisms — but they have actually been part of the political landscape for a very long time. We have learned to live with fake news, fake history and bogus law. We swim in an ocean of lies and dis-information, but somehow manage to survive the economic and political sharks all around us.
What is far more worrisome is the phenomenon that there are “real facts” that cry out for our attention, that demand urgent action, and that our politicians and media treat as non-existent or marginal, e.g. exorbitant military expenses, skewed national budgets, xenophobic war-mongering, structural violence, military aggression, unilateral coercive measures, financial blockades, the homologation of the media, manifestly unjust laws, the corruption of the “rule of law” through legal scams and “lawfare”, the penetration of public institutions by intelligence services, the “weaponization” of human rights, the imprisonment of whistleblowers like Julian Assange, unjust taxation, tax havens, tax evasion, corporate bribery, economic exploitation, ecocide, extreme poverty, man-made famine, social exclusion, etc.
Now pause, take a breath and ask yourself why these facts are largely ignored or trivialized by politicians and media alike. Why are these “inconvenient” facts shoved aside, as if they were only of marginal importance or as if they did not exist? Without a doubt these facts engender short-term, medium-term and long-term consequences, create or perpetuate imbalances and spread a vague, destabilizing sense of incoherence and cognitive dissonance.
“Facts without consequences” constitute a sui generis category of reality. These facts may be present and available in the internet and generally acknowledged — but only under the tacit condition that no genuine debate will be conducted and no concrete action will be taken thereon. It is worse than a conspiracy of silence. It is a conspiracy of irresponsibility.
There are also “books without consequences”, books without the urgent, imperative follow-up. Whereas some trash books like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man are given enormous attention, hugely relevant and challenging books by Noam Chomsky, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Kinzer, William Blum, Jeffrey Sachs, Nils Melzer, President Jimmy Carter are published by notable houses, but there is no follow-up. One would have expected that after the publication of Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, Kinzer’s Overthrow, Sachs’ The End of Poverty, Melzer’s The Trial of Julian Assange, Carter’s Our Endangered Values, or Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion not only polite academic debate and scholarly conferences would follow, but genuine democratic discussion would be conducted in townhalls, in the daily press, in the internet, throughout the spectrum of the media. Politically these and other necessary books were met by silence. They had the potential to advance international law and human rights, and that is precisely why they have been victims of “benign neglect.”
The facts are there and can be consulted in official documents and in the internet. We know that grave crimes have been committed and are being committed by our governments. We should be able to shout “not in our name”, but the corporate media refuses to address the issues, and dissidents are often ignored or ridiculed. We know that the United States government has overthrown government after government throughout Latin America and the world, that the CIA has destabilized countries in Europe and the Middle East and financed coups d’état. We know what Assange and Snowden have revealed, but there is a tacit agreement in the media not to focus on these facts, but to distract us with the demonization of our geopolitical rivals and with other “convenient facts”.
When important facts and publications are deliberately kept out of the political narrative, the core of democracy is being undermined. We observe this in the totally skewed narrative in the Western media concerning the current war in Ukraine. Such manipulation of public opinion is hugely dangerous, because the dis-information and suppression of genuine debate may lead us straight into World War III and nuclear apocalypse. President Carter was not kidding when he said that the US is “the most warlike nation in the history of the world” .
This abnormal state of affairs quite naturally generates “conspiracy theories”, because, as Spinoza wrote in his Ethics, “nature abhors a vacuum”. If people are deprived of the truth, if they cannot access information, they quite naturally start formulating hypotheses. No wonder that when the elites ignore or suppress facts, the vacuum is often filled byhalf-baked populists and crackpots.
The phenomenon of selective indignation and application of the law à la carte predictably subverts the system of governance and makes societies lose faith in the rule of law, or at least in the “establishment”. The attempt to deal with “fake news” through censorship and “hate speech” legislation is futile and will only lead to driving discussions underground and provoking an atmosphere of terror and fear, as our societies move closer and closer to the totalitarianism that Orwell anticipated and tried to avert.
What is needed is easier access to all pertinent information and pluralistic views, more open debate — not less! The internet must remain free of political controls – whether by government or the private sector. Official censorship of RT and Sputnik, private-sector censorship by Twitter, Facebook, Youtube constitute a frontal attack on everyone’s right to know, everyone’s right to access to information as stipulated in article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Everyone should be able to arrive at his or her own judgment. Only thus can societies meaningfully exercise democratic rights and responsibilities. Censorship constitutes an assault on democracy.
There must not be “filters” to test the truth of digital exchanges. The only legitimate controls are those to suppress pornography, war-mongering, incitement to violence, racketeering and other scams. In democratic societies no filters should be imposed in order to suppress the dissemination of factual information that the mainstream media deliberately ignores, nor to suppress an alternative interpretation of facts. What we need is a “culture of civilized dissent” – where everyone can express his/her opinions without the threat of career death and social ostracism. We need to reaffirm the right to be wrong — because only by preserving the possibility to err do we remain independent. Artistic, scientific, sociological progress depends on the freedom to postulate hypothesis, different models, different perspectives — which sometimes will be correct and sometimes not. But a failed hypothesis cannot be criminalized. The alternative is stagnation in homologation, robotization, Orwellian dystopia. The conformism of the current Zeitgeist is unworthy of democratic societies. It is up to us to vindicate the right to know and the right to dissent. That is the freedom we desperately need. That is the kind of democracy we must demand from our leaders.
Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-18. He is the author of ten books including “Building a Just World Order” Clarity Press, 2021.