Playing Fast and Loose With the Truth Before It Can Put On Its Shoes

August 11th, 2018

Have you noticed how hard it has been lately to determine the “truth” of things?

Perhaps it is some kind of summer madness, but I have noticed an almost daily trickle (drip, drip) of strange and disturbing stories in the local media (including social media). These are centered generally around one public or political figure or another and presented as fact. These assertions generally cast doubt – even suspicion – on individuals’ behavior and motives; said individual then has to respond swiftly to preserve his/her reputation.

This is an obsession of social media. Political activists have seized on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp in particular as moving parts in a kind of “suss” machine. Sometimes you can substitute one part for another, but keep the machine going. We don’t need to make phone calls or chat in bars now, to spread rumors. The quickest way by far to circulate a titillating story is via a WhatsApp group or a tweet. Moreover, this can be done any time of day or night, holidays and weekends. Social media is busy 24/7. If the targeted person is away or very busy, such stories might be circulated behind his or her back. They can be given life while that person is comfortably snoozing in bed – only to wake up to a rude shock in the morning. The person targeted then has to leap into social media him or herself to refute the story – as quickly as possible.

Within a couple of hours, traditional media has got wind of the story and runs with it. Many newspaper reports nowadays begin with “A video/photo/story circulating on social media…” Journalists cannot spend too much time investigating or researching the details, interviewing those allegedly involved – let alone getting to the facts of the matter. Perhaps that will come later (and only perhaps). Meanwhile, after a couple of quick checks – let’s just get that story out, before it’s stale news!

The problem with this is that by the time a denial or an explanation has gone out, the original story may have circulated far and wide. Its rebuttal rarely gets as much airtime or online space as the alarming story that first appeared. And that first story is, obviously, more interesting. It will appear at the top of a Google search result if certain words (perhaps the individual’s name) are included. This is because it would have been shared more widely. Any “but this was not true” story, however plausible, is likely to have much less mileage.

This leaves a foggy picture for us members of the public, who would still genuinely like to have the truth presented – or at least, a collection of facts that would enable us to arrive at something that looks like the truth. Whom are we to believe? Should we suspend our disbelief? This blurring of truth and understanding harms many, and it is dangerous.

Now, we know, don’t we, that there is a difference between truth and fact. I’ve noticed that religious or spiritual people use the word “truth” a great deal. They don’t use the word “fact” very often. Facts can interfere with the truth; and the truth can vary, depending on who asserts it. There is nothing you can do about the facts. They just sit there.

This brings us to the issue of trust. It has been said ad nauseam that the Jamaican public place little trust in their political leaders. Could it be that they are losing trust in the media, also? Do you believe everything you hear on the radio, for example? Or does it depend on the radio station?

One thing seems clear: many Jamaicans are quite happy to trust their own gut instincts. There is a Jamaican saying “If a nuh so, a nearly so” – which, translated from the patois, means: If it isn’t the truth, it’s close to the truth. OK, so we will go along with it. Let’s retweet it or pass it along on social media. Let’s post it as our lead story on the evening news, on a slow news day.

In a few days’ time, there will be something new to latch on to. So let the story flounder in a mire of uncertainty for a while. Allow the waters to get muddier and murkier, until the story sinks (along with someone’s reputation, perhaps).

 

The oft-quoted Mark Twain, perhaps prescient of our modern age, once said:

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Perhaps we could all take a deep breath, go slowly, and catch up with some truth – bolstered, perhaps, by a few useful facts.

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2 Responses to “Playing Fast and Loose With the Truth Before It Can Put On Its Shoes”

  1. Angela Ramsay says:

    Emma, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what is real and what is fake. I think we ought to look at a few criteria. I like this https://www.summer.harvard.edu/inside-summer/4-tips-spotting-fake-news-story

  2. EmmaLewis says:

    Yes – and thank you, Angela, for sharing this important article, which helps!

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