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This age of fake news threatens democracy

Be wary of populists who draw support with falsehoods instead of facts

"Alternative facts" was a phrase used by US presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway during a Meet the Press session on 
Jan 22, when she defended White House press secretary Sean Spicer's highly questionable statement about the attendance at Mr Donald Trump's inauguration as US President.

The use of the term invited strong rebukes because "alternative facts" are not facts but falsehoods.

Over the weekend, I was invited as a participant for the annual consultative meeting of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, headed by Mr Abhisit Vejjajiva, former Prime Minister of Thailand and leader of the Democrat Party.

We deliberated at length on the challenges posed by political populism that is sweeping from the US to France and the Philippines.

How do conventional political forces react to populists who have little regard for the truth and facts, but draw their support by amplifying the insecurities of the people and thriving in the fault lines of politics as opposed to rising above them?

How do we fight with one hand tied behind our back as we seek to call out those who purvey fake news with the sole intention of enamouring their audience?

However, before we seek to answer such questions, there is a deep underlying problem that compels one to ask: Does truth even matter?

Do facts change people's minds or most people believe what they want to believe?

These questions also have particular relevance to Malaysia, more so as election season nears.

An article in the Economist magazine, published on Sept 10, 2016, sheds some light on the phenomenon of "post-truth" politics and I quote:

"Mr Trump is the leading exponent of 'post-truth' politics-a reliance on assertions that "feel true" but have no basis in fact. His brazenness is unpunished but taken as evidence of his willingness to stand up to elite power.

"And he is not alone. Members of Poland's government assert that a previous president, who died in a plane crash, was assassinated by Russia.

"Turkish politicians claim the perpetrators of the recent bungled coup were acting on orders issued by the CIA.

"The successful campaign for Britain to leave the European Union warned of the hordes of immigrants that would result from Turkey's imminent accession to the union."

In a recent article in the New Yorker Magazine titled Why Facts Don't Change Our Mind, there is a robust discussion on how we rely on intuition or our own beliefs in judging whether a particular assertion is correct, instead of using facts.

The article also explains a study by Professor Steven Sloman of Brown University and Professor Philip Fernbach at the University of Colorado.

Both of them, who are cognitive scientists, wrote: "As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding."

And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless.

The unwillingness to subject our opinions to thorough examination and alternative views results in the development of opinions that are factually flawed.

This further perpetuates divisions in society because it is anchored in our deep-seated prejudices. What we want to believe in might not necessarily be what is accurate.

The recent debate on immunisation of children in Malaysia is an example of a dogged hesitancy to accept medically sound evidence that immunisation is good for the health and mental development of children.

Those opposing immunisation choose to believe in unproven theories because their minds are conditioned.

They believe what they want to believe, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

Last Saturday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak warned of peddlers of "fake news" who seek to undermine and destroy the country.

Mr Najib said that falsehoods masquerading as "news" is an insidious attack that targets the hearts and minds of Malaysians.

If left unchecked, "fake news" would have a debilitating effect on Malaysians as the ability to differentiate what is right and wrong is an essential component of democracy.

The electorate must take decisions only when they have all the facts and, that too, the correct ones.

The writer, a law graduate, is vice-chairman of the Gerakan Selangor Youth and secretary of the Gerakan Political Bureau in Malaysia. This article was published on The Star Online yesterday.

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