Good and Bad Politicians in the Age of Lies and Social Media

The Sept. 10 cover of The Economist depicts a profile of a blackened human face with a long, red tongue protruding from its mouth. Everything here would have looked normal if not for the forked, serpent-like tongue and the cover’s truly bombastic title, something noteworthy, as this is a respectable magazine. Titled “The Art of the Lie; Post-Truth Politics in the Age of Social Media,” a 16-page article followed inside the magazine, which focused on the topic.

I laughed when I first saw the cover, as I had already begun to write this article a few days prior, my plans being to focus on this same issue when I returned from vacation. The idea for this article topic had initially come to me when I was a guest on Radio Morabeza, commentating on the high-handed elections that took place on Sept. 4, where I pointed out the significance of the fact that the new leadership of the African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (Partido Africano da Independência de Cabo Verde, or PAICV by its Portuguese acronym), which lost elections both on Sept. 4 and March 20, had been Cape Verde’s governing rulers for the past 15 long years.

Returning to the article, it points out how, while it is true that politicians have always lied, this practice has only gotten worse in the modern era due to the ways that politicians nowadays lie, as well as the devastating repercussions that arise from them.

The article begins with a terrible example, detailing how Donald Trump publicly accused both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of being founders of the Islamic State. When the radio reporter asked him if he’d meant to say that Obama was responsible for the appearance of the Islamic State group as a result of his policies, Trump went back and reiterated, “No, I meant he is the founder of ISIS,” also reaffirming that Hillary was its co-founder. We’re talking about a presidential candidate of the world’s greatest superpower here …

The article goes on to state that, for many onlookers, this is an example of how the world has entered into an age of “post-truth politics.” It is an era where it no longer matters whether statements have any basis in reality or not; instead, what now matters is firing up your supporters!

Another lucid example relates to how millions of British citizens voted in favor of Brexit on the basis of false statements, including how belonging to the European Union was [allegedly] costing the United Kingdom close to 470 million sterling pounds per week.

The difference between lies told by politicians today and those from before is that, previously, lying often had some basis in reality—that is to say, lies were often told to hide the truth or to delay it from coming to light. In today’s world, by contrast, people don’t bother themselves with maintaining this same link to reality. Politicians now fabricate and insinuate on a whim, whenever an opportune moment arises. And when these same politicians are confronted with the truth, they make up conspiracy theories. Evidence has shown that there has never been such a large number of conspiracy theories and false information being disseminated around the world as there is right now. The article goes on to cite examples from countries like Poland and Turkey while also singling out Russia as the country that has been immersed in this culture of post-truth politics the longest. This, of course, is not counting North Korea.

An explanation for this new age’s popularity is the scientifically proven fact that human beings, by nature, do not seek out the truth and that, at times, they even avoid it. People have the tendency to view information familiar to them as the truth and seek out other information that reinforces their beliefs, a process that Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, called “cognitive bias”—which, to summarize, means that humans tend to avoid those facts that force their brains to work more.

It’s also been proven that confronting people with facts that should help clear up their misconceptions ends up conversely reinforcing their beliefs, a process referred to by researchers as the “backfire effect.”

On reading about these scientific findings, which support the theory of the post-truth era of politics, I recalled various personal experiences, notably when I ventured temporarily into the arena of partisan politics, having been motivated by a civic impulse to do so. I remembered many get-togethers in which I noted moments where people simply refused to learn more facts that went against their pre-established beliefs. In such situations as this, it really wouldn’t make any difference if you were speaking to a wall.

Two factors have contributed quite a bit to this new age, the first of which is the public’s traditional lack of trust in politicians, who are increasingly embroiled in a race to the bottom. The other important factor has been social media, which provides everyone with the ability to publish anything he or she wishes. Any idea can go viral from one moment to the next without anyone worrying about its validity. As a consequence, individuals with common ideas form groups—or, better said, tribes—in which they exchange information that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs and where anything contradicting these beliefs ceases to exist.

A pointed example of this would be how Donald Trump’s campaign insisted that Obama was not born in the United States, something that mobilized his followers quite forcefully. After years of building up this crusade, several days ago, the world watched as Mr. Trump spent less than a minute’s time admitting in a calm and brazen tone that Obama, indeed, had been born in the United States, quickly moving onto other subjects thereafter. He didn’t even bother to apologize—nothing.

This situation has been worsened by the way social media platforms have been structured. It all began with Google, which “intelligently” made information we all habitually search for available to us. Facebook later intensified this situation as it began selecting personalized content for us based on what we had previously “liked.”

The problem is that these social media platforms were not created to select content whose veracity has been proven. Studies have shown that whether something is true or not will not influence the way in which information circulates around the internet. Said differently, there’s no advantage to being truthful.

This phenomenon of not separating the wheat from the chaff is not restricted to social media alone; it applies to other forms of media, particularly online media, as well. People share content without worrying about its validity. This scenario is made all the worse by the less-than-scrupulous media outlets whose only major concern is their audience. As a result, the more anomalous things a candidate like Donald Trump says, the more coverage his campaign gets!

“The age of neutral journalism has passed,” said Dmitry Kiselyov, the propaganda chief of the Kremlin, in a recent interview. This quote says a great deal.

And yet, there remains some hope: Efforts are underway to change, through technology, the way social media filters information, a process we hope will be quick and efficient.

The problem is how to control those who compulsively lie or deliberately spread lies in a world where the media not only ferociously competes for their audience, but also depends on these same lies for their survival.

In political campaigns, things are much worse. Who could forget those notorious two million euros that circulated widely in Cape Verde or those false accusations of “land being sold,” which were used as a means to attack those in power? What about the refusal to face such self-evident facts as the decadent nature of our teaching, something that receives such bombastic retorts as “our professors are as good as those from developed countries”? We could be here all day citing similar examples.

Several years ago, a Portuguese colleague of mine from my college days told me how everyone on Earth should have the ability to vote in the U.S. elections. At the time he said this, we were in the midst of George W. Bush’s presidency. Following that disaster, the American people voted for a man both sensitive and well balanced, something quite the opposite of that Texan cowboy. And yet, sensitivity has its own disadvantages in this world where populism and demagoguery are both growing like weeds. The danger, of course, in playing this game of alternating political styles is that it has come to benefit the time bomb by the name of Donald Trump, a man who has never cared for the common good.

We are in the midst of an age where those who lie, pretend, go back on what they’ve said in the past, promise emphatically they’re incorruptible and promise everything to everyone still end up with the added bonus of being considered “good” politicians. These are, after all, the types of people that win more elections and prevail in the political world—a kind of cancer without a cure.

Quite to the contrary, those who selflessly serve the public, prioritize the well-being of others and have the decency to live virtuously are considered “bad” politicians and oftentimes fall victim to abhorrent slander.

This has also been the case here in Cape Verde amongst the political class of our much-lauded democracy. It is not something to be admired, that virtuous, capable young people are avoiding active involvement in politics like the plague. It is a worrying scenario for the future.

It’s equally worrying that Cape Verde is not alone in experiencing this sort of “Greek tragedy” and that unabashed populist demagogues are winning elections everywhere, disgracing their respective nations and political systems.

It shouldn’t be like this. Politics should, above all, mean public service and championing the common good—not merely exercising power. For this very reason, those who are ultimately bad people should not be compensated.

The luck of people on this planet is such that the more one lies and spews falsehoods, the more one ends up becoming entrapped in a world of their own making, which leaves them with no energy to focus on what truly matters: paying attention to the well-being of others. These same people end up being booted from power, the only thing that matters to them. Those who arrive through the front door end up, invariably, being tossed out the back door.

The ancients used to say, “lies are short-lived” and “crime doesn’t pay.” In this new age, however, crime does pay—at least temporarily—as those crooks over there in the United States continue to rise to power.

In this new, scarcely admirable world in which we live, Machiavelli would have a lot to learn from many public figures in the United States.

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