Don’t believe everything you read.
There is a certain degree of irony in that statement. But feel free to disagree with me.
When is a fact an opinion? And vice versa?
It is often said that we live in a post-truth world. This may be difficult for us as Singaporeans to process. After all, we have been brought up in a meritocratic society that emphasises education and science. Surely, there are some incontrovertible facts, right?
The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Fact.
2+2 = 4. Fact.
Donald Trump is the greatest president in the history of the United States… and the arguments start.
Facts can be interpreted in multiple ways. When opinion is stated as fact, we get into problematic areas. In fact, opinion as fact, taken to its logical extreme, is part of the reason fake news has become so pervasive.
Opinions must be based on facts, not on a distortion of facts. When I was a law student, it was impressed upon me that the facts of the case must be clearly determined before we can apply the law. Much of the work of the litigator is to establish the facts before the judge.
Unfortunately, not every debate we have can be conducted in a court of law, where there is a clear set of rules, a judge as arbiter and punishment for perjury. Too often, we skirmish in the court of public opinion, where facts get interpreted, events get a PR spin and there is scant retribution for deception.
Recently, the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma posed a startling hypothesis: Leveraging our addiction to social media, Big Tech has created algorithms to find out what we like and feed it back to us in an ever-growing echo chamber, and there are unknown players who utilise this data to subtly change our world view for potentially evil purposes.
That has led to the chief executives of technology giants Facebook, Google and Twitter testifying on Oct 28 at a US Senate hearing on tech companies’ treatment of speech and information on their platforms.
That debate focuses on an easy fall guy: Technology. Algorithms are passively or actively (if you believe the conspiracy theorists) censoring free speech, creating a narrative that is favourable to a few hidden players.
In other words, it is not our fault that we are spreading fake news; the big technology giants are creating an environment where shadowy nefarious players are manipulating us.
The criticism misses a fundamental part of the conversation.
The fundamental point of the conversation is this: Should you watch what you say on social media?
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Social media has the power to make great change, such as marshalling protests like the Arab Spring in the early 2010s in the Middle East. Yet more recently, social media has had more malevolent undertones, allowing fringe groups such as QAnon or 4chan to spread their beliefs to the mainstream.
Why do we need to blame algorithms for what we see? Instead, we should focus on what we say.
The question is: How do we govern what we say on social media?
My answer? We watch our words by determining our motives.
Before you post: Ask yourself, what are you posting? Are you sharing a fact or an opinion? Be upfront and describe it accordingly.
Next, ask yourself: Why are you posting it? No one can tell, aside from yourself, the true reasons why you post. If we all post with integrity, out of a desire for an exchange of ideas and knowledge, the world would be a better place.
It matters how we talk
The essence of a debate is a clash of two opposing views, with one caveat – the debaters approach the issue with integrity and a genuine attempt at communication.
A debate can get heated, but at the end of it, the two parties shake hands and walk away, perhaps agreeing to disagree or be swayed to one position, but with a broader mind and a wider view of the world.
Not so in an argument. An argument is when one or both parties refuses to see the other’s point of view, insisting on their own in order to “win” the fight. There are seldom true winners in an argument: No matter the outcome, the participants walk away angry and upset, narrow-eyed and closed-minded.
The distinction is important because it recognises early on whether someone wants to engage in a debate, or simply wants an argument. It saves time, effort and a lot of frustration.
Nowadays on social media, “debates” are a dime a dozen, and are often worth the same value. Team Jacob or Team Edward? Hufflepuff or Slytherin? Stark or Lannister? K-pop or J-pop? Liverpool or Man U?
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not denigrating these head-to-heads, as a lot of them are fun pop-culture quizzes to entertain and excite. Many fans often jump in feet first as they are a community of people who care passionately about something. And because it’s fun to talk about things we feel strongly about.
But then there is always one self-styled “true fan” who comes into the thread and declares the gospel according to himself. There is no debate because he has decided and therefore it is so. He is immune to discussion and impervious to reasoning. Anyone who disagrees “doesn’t get it”. When people realise there is no merit in the conversation, they drift away and the thread dies.
This is all well and good in the popcorn world of entertainment and pop culture. But what if these debates veer into topics that are more sensitive and these (often false) dichotomies become more polarising? What if the debate is over global warming, environmental pollution or the politics of a particular country?
The topics themselves are not the issue, but it is the spirit in which we approach the debate that is important.
Identify conspiracy theories
An honest debate starts with facts and comes to a conclusion based on mutual understanding.
A dishonest one starts with a conclusion and cherry-picks facts to support the thesis.
One of the most pervasive conspiracy theories out there is the notion that the Earth is flat.
Members of the Flat Earth Society say the Earth is flat because when walking around on the planet’s surface, it looks and feels flat and all evidence to the contrary are fabrications of a “round Earth conspiracy” orchestrated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other government agencies.
Flat Earthers start with a thesis, pick information that seems to support their case and present these interpretations and opinions as fact. They cling on to their beliefs like they are a badge of honour.
I believe that everyone has the right to have their own opinion. But similarly, we should put that opinion to debate. And if any dishonest motivations emerge – be it a hidden agenda to cause harm or embarrassment to someone or to society – we should call it out.
That social compact is key to a compassionate, kind and forward-thinking society.
When we start a debate in good faith instead of with bad intentions; when we open our minds more than we open our mouths; and when we stop “cancelling” others at the drop of a hat, then perhaps we can say we are well on the way to a more tolerant, sensitive, yet not hyper-reactionary society.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.