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Democracy’s Inner Conflict: Post-Truth | Op-Ed

The Problem We Face: Democracies have become complacent with our post-truth society: one where individuals have the freedom to believe in different truths but become lost in a sea of immovable, conflicting values. A culture where opinions on facts are more powerful than facts themselves. 

In short: Public misinformation has become a serious problem for democracies and its citizens. To solve this, we need to use the legal tools available to ensure strong standards of public information as well as a free and informed discussion. 

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The Current Situation:

21st century states have developed robust cybersecurity methods to defend against traditional cyber attacks. But as our methods of communication become increasingly inseparable from mainstream and social media, democratic states have failed to sufficiently maintain standards of public information. 

Until public information standards are strengthened, the battle for hearts and minds is a constant struggle for free, democratic states. 

Society has begun to spiral out of balance and post-truth values have sunk to the point of misinformation. A point where the democratic pillar of free and informed discussions is further and further diluted. 

Citizens today have more access to information than ever before. 

  • They are being constantly exposed to new perspectives through politicians in the public sphere, news corporations in the mainstream, and the social media platforms that they frequent. 
  • Social media has become an integral aspect of our lives. The personal and professional spheres are increasingly dominated by social media platforms.

While this allows one to view a variety of perspectives, it can also create mass dissonance where the information presented to the citizens is conflicting, biased, or generalized to the point of inaccuracy. 

Social media allows for the quick spread of ideas from millions of users and generates unique perspectives, but also sows the seeds for division. 

  • Algorithms create ‘echo chambers’ where people see agreeable content based on their search history and social patterns. 

This system reinforces and strengthens personal biases alongside those of similar values – resulting in a ‘potent’ truth.

Personal bias AS truth inevitably leads to splinterings of ‘truth’ whereby varying opinions are held by different members of society, but are unable to be reconciled due to one’s belief. 

  • For example, the public debates surrounding the existence of climate change or whether vaccines cause autism show that regardless of fact or argument, many people will maintain their own truth in the face of contradictory information.

The Proposed Strategy: A Legal Solution 

The tolerance of multiple interpretations creates the foundation for a post-truth society; and it is democracy that is the best system of governance to facilitate it: one where cosmopolitan values are upheld and respected.

For democracy to survive in this era of post-truth, legal frameworks must hold companies, organizations, and individuals accountable for their public statements. This is not a contradiction of our values, rather a guarantee that they are upheld. 

A degree of post-truth is encouraged, guaranteed, and even needed for democracies to function. Freedom of speech, expression, and organization are just some of the core principles that democracy is built on; they’re irreplaceable. 

Our current situation, however, is unacceptable. Not only is the public in a state of confusion, but democracy’s election process also continues to erode.

We are then confronted by a problem:

  1. Freedom of differing truths is necessary for democracy.
  2. Limiting rights is necessary for democracy’s maintenance.

Authoritarian states like China with tighter controls of the media tend to avoid this problem by using mass censorship to control media output and consumption. They are also willing to ban global social media corporations like Facebook.

By nature, democracies cannot rely on the same measures of state control. However, while the principle of limitations on the freedom of expression may sound authoritarian at first, a deeper analysis reveals that it is neither authoritarian nor un-democratic. 

  • Take Section 1 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms as an example: 

“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

All strong democracies have some degree of reasonable limits to rights within their legal institutions. It’s a well-established principle in political theory that the idea of rights is not absolute. For freedom unhindered is anarchy and rights extinguished is tyranny.

This means democratic states do have the power and the authority to set what is acceptable. Through laws they outline what is a legal truth to obey and what is an opinion one is allowed to hold much like an authoritarian state.

So then democracy must be careful to not fall into the slippery slope of authoritarianism. The question is how “reasonable” can we be when controlling media or the rights of citizens? 

  • The state is also liable to spreading misinformation, so we can’t allow the power to be controlled by them. 

Implementation of Strong Standards

I recommend that the highest court of a state should be responsible for:

  • Holding social media firms accountable for  allowing misinformation, newsbots, and external political influence to spread on their platform,
  • Holding news corporations accountable for having sensational, misleading headlines,
  • Holding news corporations accountable for failing to uphold practices of good journalism,
  • Holding the government and its officials accountable for misleading, falsified, or otherwise untrue public statements,
  • Strengthening the connection between academics, institutions, scientific communities, and the public,
  • Educating citizens on social-media literacy and train them to identify fake news,
  • Promoting responsible journalistic agencies.

Strong, legal precedents need to be made to set the standard for optimal dissemination of events to the public. It needs to be clear, unbiased, and legally defensible in a court of law. Moreover, offenders must be meaningfully and reasonably penalized for their actions. Small slaps on the wrist mean nothing to multi-billion dollar corporations. 

The bottom line: Balance

Truth is the foundation of trust, and trust is the foundation of democracy. So it is paramount that we stay resolute in striking the key balance to maintain free and informed discourse in our democratic society.