In a hyper-connected and globalized world, the pursuit of truth becomes an arduous enterprise.
Fraught with geopolitical falsifications and commercially-invested fabrications, that which is regarded as ‘true’ is often hauled from the hands of its purveyors and fashioned into an altogether counterfeit sculpture with remarkable rapidity.
The manifestation of a post-truth reality, where facts become fluid and malleable, fragile to the touch and bitter to the tongue, is no modern phenomenon. But it is the agency and spread afforded to a post-truth statement in the digitized world that allows for an ‘untruth’ to gain such traction.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.
The issues the current context raise are manifold, but mostly hinge on the fact that ‘truths’ are regarded as possessions, as Nietzsche said: “The investigator into [such] truths is basically seeking just the metamorphosis of the world into man; he is struggling to understand the world as a human-like thing and acquires at best a feeling of assimilation.”
What Nietzsche means here is that sheer human confusion, delight, mystery and wonder with the world mutate into a human willingness to wrest from our everyday experience a sense of understanding. We create truths in order to try and explain our everyday experiences, albeit within the limits of our own species.
When the Commission’s Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, told Brussels reporters recently that it was ‘time to tell the truth about China,’ the truth that she wanted to perpetuate was woefully partial, possessed by her own reality and subsidized by a political currency spent on attempting to impose diplomatic pressure on the Chinese, ironically in the aftermath of Beijing’s attempts to disseminate their own ‘truths’ regarding the coronavirus outbreak.
With vitriolic tit-for-tat geopolitical recriminations such as these, how on earth can we ever expect citizens to be delivered a truth they can trust, a truth that is not possessed by another’s interpretation of reality?
In this climate, it is hardly surprising that the recently published Reuters Institute Digital News Report drew attention to the fact that trust in the media worldwide continues to fall rapidly, with fewer than four in ten (38%) of those surveyed saying that they trust media ‘most of the time,’ and less than half (46%) saying they ‘trust the news that they themselves use.’
The latter finding is particularly astonishing: nearly half of those surveyed do not trust the media that they absorb regularly. What does this say about a society in which citizens are content to subject themselves to information that they knowingly regard as untrustworthy? Has civilization really arrived at some sort of an abandoned fate whereby governments are satisfied with a populace vegetating in a state of acquiesced ignorance?
This is the mad purgatory that presents itself to the modern journalist. In a dizzying world of truths and untruths, where every other citizen doubts the very words that acquaint their gaze, any pretence to objectivity appears tenuous. The citizen is embedded in a wider ecosystem of what Hannah Arendt referred to as defactualization – where there is a legitimate incapacity on behalf of the reader to discern fact from fiction.
When Jourová made the aforementioned remarks about China, she was presenting a report about the state of disinformation on the bloc, which earmarked Russia and China as having engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns related to the coronavirus crisis.
Russia has an established track record in this arena, its Internet Research Agency, otherwise known as the ‘troll factory,’ having long churned out propaganda crusades aimed at sowing division among Western rivals.
In my view, the most effective remedy against such campaigns is an increased emphasis on a complete, total and unhindered commitment to transparency.
But what does ‘total transparency’ in political governance look like? Do we, as the steadfast purveyors of truth, in fact require a certain obfuscation of legal and political systems in order for our pursuit of transparency to be worthwhile? What becomes of transparency in a fully-transparent world?
In this case, one would assume that transparency becomes ‘normalized’ to the extent by which truth becomes discernible and objectivity becomes attainable. How can you question or scrutinize a political body which is transparent in total terms? The answers to your questions would already be in front of your eyes.
And it was Jourová again that made me dream of the chimera of ‘total transparency’ – speaking to MEPs in Parliament’s Civil Liberties committee on Monday, she said that the executive “wants to work further on developing a culture of transparency that stretches throughout the legislative cycle, including trialogues.”
For those not immersed in the Brussels policy cycle, trialogues are the three-way negotiations on legislative files between the Council and the Parliament, mediated by the Commission. They are strictly private meetings, cut off from public scrutiny entirely. A couple of years ago, I managed to attend one.
The whole affair was a bizarre carnival of messianic spirits engaged in a feverish debate into the early morning hours – embellished with servings of lukewarm sandwiches and chemical-infused red wine, the air soured by bitter overtones of body odour, extracted from the pores of fatigued and policy-beaten pink bodies. Maybe it’s not surprising that these meetings are normally off limits.
With that being said, the internal legislative process of the EU for many across the continent does indeed remain an unfathomable covert operation. In a post-truth world, where the minds of the masses become vulnerable to the imposition of divisive narratives, such ‘black boxes’ in EU law-making can be exploited as political capital by those who seek to perpetuate untruths. For total transparency to ever be achieved in Brussels, the doors should be opened up on trialogues, once and for all.
If today we are truly implanted in a post-truth society, it is only by a commitment to ‘total transparency’ that we can devolve ourselves from this nauseating culture of lies, untruths and disinformation, and seek out a society where truth can once again become an attainable resource – accessible to all.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.