War on Facts

By Jana Eismann

My brother recently had an argument with a delivery person who was trying to deny the Holocaust and literally said that the Holocaust happening was my brother’s fact not his. More and more, our society is faced with a baffling and dangerous phenomenon: a war on scientifically proven facts as unfounded distrust in experts rises. The idea behind individual freedom has evolved in a way that has many thinking they are entitled to their own version of reality. And with Coronavirus deniers, “Querdenker” protests in Germany and the recent US presidential election, 2020 truly was the year of conspiracy theories and “alternative facts”.

All the time now, remarks like “I do not believe in Coronavirus” and “I do not believe the Holocaust happened” ring in my ears. As if Coronavirus would magically disappear if we stopped “believing” in it. As if millions of Jews had just decided to vanish during Hitler’s reign, and concentration camps are only visible to those who “believe” they are real. “Facts” and “beliefs” have become the same to some. But that is not how facts work. Scientific studies – and election results – are not subjective. We can come to different conclusions and argue based on that, but the facts themselves stand.

While the clash of conspiracy theorists and scientist has taken an especially grave turn in the year of Coronavirus, the concept of conspiracies being widely believed despite irremovable counter evidence is not new. In an article from November 2016, New York Times opinion writer Farhad Manjoo observed this troubling phenomenon during the first presidential election with Donald Trump as candidate and points at earlier examples such as 9/11 truthers and birtherism. The fact alone that the ridiculous and disproven theory about Barack Obama’s birthplace is widespread enough to appear not only in a newspaper column but in this essay by someone who has never even been to the US is concerning. It speaks volumes to the tenacity with which conspiracy theorists push their made-up stories and how easily conspiracies can spread around the world.

Manjoo attributes this rapid spread of falsehoods to the internet and modern media, which have fundamentally changed the way information is circulated. I agree that the range of different media to choose from is both a blessing and a curse. While unlimited freedom of speech online sounds great at first, it becomes a problem when a random guy with a blog is given the same credibility and reach as professionally researched newspapers. Apart from designated opinion pieces, newspapers exclusively report news – their reporters do not argue for a certain point of view. There are codes of conducts in place specifically to ensure the objectivity of reporters – so their facts match reality and cannot be “alternative”. Your average Joe is not held to any standards, meaning he can handpick what to focus on and influence readers whichever way he likes. The difference between these two should be glaring, yet in recent years many people have accepted both as legitimate means of information.

Unfortunately, it is natural for people to gravitate towards stories that confirm their own preconceptions. Reading an article that validates someone’s own beliefs is much more comfortable than reading one that challenges them. Nobody likes the feeling of being proven wrong – having beliefs confirmed, however, feels like a nice pat on the back. It is hardly surprising that people prefer to be confirmed by the Media they consume when given the choice. A member of my hometown’s city council recently drew public ire when she did not wear a mask in a council meeting. To a local newspaper, she defended her move by exclusively citing sources making light of the Coronavirus while ignoring the overwhelming opinion of leading health organisations countering this belief with substantial evidence. This biased selection of information has become even easier with modern media and its infinite options, as Manjoo points out. He aptly writes: “Whether navigating Facebook, Google or The New York Times’s smartphone app you are given ultimate control – if you see something you don’t like, you can easily tap away to something more pleasing”.

When it is so easy to switch platforms, people form groups exclusively with like-minded people on like-minded platforms. This way support is easy to get and challenging views are non-existent. People create their own “bubbles” where an informative exchange of views is impossible. Having beliefs constantly confirmed by others not only deepens those beliefs but also drives people away from anyone who disagrees – a tactic eerily familiar from cults. Eventually, people’s glasses are so tinted that there is a rupture between their reality and the actual reality. Evidence no longer matters when any belief is automatically real – and anything countering that belief is inevitably fake. The mistrust in undisputable facts only spurs the “whoever disagrees with me is lying”-attitude that has now become common, especially online. This has been most recently shown by the number of people who still firmly believe that the US election was stolen from Trump despite there being no supporting evidence.

It is truly disturbing that with more access to information than ever before people seem overall less informed. It is also dangerous: Coronavirus has now killed more than a million people worldwide but still there are people who believe the virus is a hoax and nothing will convince them otherwise.

Referring to the Sisyphean task of fact-checking – where with every false claim debunked a new one takes its place, much like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down – Manjoo grimly suspects that “soon, that boulder is going to squash us all”. Sadly, I agree.