Can we really trust the mainstream media?
Snapshot
  • We must begin with the assumption that whatever we see or read in the media is false.

    The default is that it is fake and will be considered true if and only if there is significant evidence to the contrary.

What is the rate of growth of India’s gross domestic product (GDP)? Some people will say it is close to 7 per cent while others will claim that it is 4.5 per cent with a 95 per cent confidence interval of 3.5-5.5. Some will say that it depends on the base year that is chosen. A common man like me with no access to ‘real’ data, whatever or wherever it may be, will have to believe someone or the other.

How many people were killed in the recent communal conflagration at Sandeshkhali, on the Bangladesh border? Some newspaper reports say seven or even more, while the others quote the police and say four. Who were killed? The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) says that its supporters were murdered by Rohingya intruders while the Trinamool Congress claims that their supporters were killed by Bihari goons. Sitting in Kolkata, or reading this somewhere in India, one would never know what the truth is. You would have to believe someone whom you trust. But can you ever know whom to really trust?

Most of us know that Narendra Modi and Donald Trump are the Prime Minister and President of India and the US respectively, but how many people in India can recollect the name of the President of China? Or France? And if we were to write that Saye Zerbo is the President of Burkina Faso, it is more likely than not that most readers would go ahead with the ‘fact’ without checking on Wikipedia where it is written otherwise. Change that question and ask about the name of the mayor of a specific town in Burkina Faso and it is most likely that you will never get the answer even though there must have been a man with a name at almost every point of time. That fact will never be available to most of us.

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This lack of direct knowledge, this dependency on belief, or to flip it around, this lack of certainty of information is something people have seem to have suddenly woken up to. Fake news is big news. In the past, producing a photograph was considered good evidence, of someone being somewhere or meeting someone. No more. Thanks to Photoshop — both the software package and, more importantly, the concept of modifying images — it is now possible to change any image to reflect any point of view.

Audio and video recordings were once considered sacrosanct and admissible evidence of saying or doing something. But with artificial intelligence software, it is now possible to create a talking-head video of anyone saying anything that you want him or her to say and it would be almost impossible for anyone, other than a technology specialist, to know the difference. What is worse is that the non-specialist common man will still have to believe what the specialist has said without having any means to verify the truth of his observation.

From the mundane to the most profound, even the Nasadiya Sukta (Rig Ved 10:129), that great repository of knowledge, throws up its arms in despair:

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"Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?"

Western philosophers, in general, believe that it is important to find and prove the ‘truth’ — as opposed to eastern philosophies that accept truth as given. They have tried to clear a path through this fog of uncertainty and ignorance by championing the cause and rise of rational and experimental science. The pinnacle of this endeavour was of course the mechanics of Isaac Newton — even though there were many aspects of his life that were not really ‘scientific’, but that is another story. The opening years of the twentieth century saw two developments that put a spin on the nature of truth.

First was relativity that wrecked the concept of an absolute space or frame of reference. Paradoxical as it may sound, who was moving and who was standing still was no more something that could be decided upon with certainty. All frames of reference were deemed equivalent in their ability to account for physical phenomena. If the results did not make sense, then you would have to change your ‘tools of measurement’, the time keeping watch and the measuring ruler, to ensure that they agree with the respective measurements or perceptions.

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Crudely speaking it was similar to changing the way GDP is to be measured so that the different answers are consistent with the respective perceptions. Wise men brought in non-uniform motion, or non-inertial frames of reference, to be able to distinguish between the fundamental perception of motion and rest but then gravity appeared to make it even more difficult to distinguish between the two states. In fact, even though we are taught that the Earth revolves around the Sun, Einstein’s General Relativity would say that these two statements:

  1. For an observer who is at rest on the surface of the earth [that is us !] , the Sun rotates around the Earth.
  2. For an observer who is at rest on the surface of the sun, the Earth rotates around the Sun.

Are both correct! However, the second statement is far easier to work with when we try to calculate trajectories of spaceships, the change in seasons or the movement of a cyclone.

It is very difficult to distinguish the true from the false because the definition of true or false changes.

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The next bouncer was the uncertainty introduced by quantum mechanics. Was light or an electron a particle or wave? Is an object here or is it there or is it in both places? And in a grotesque, but crude analogy of the body count in Sandeshkhali, Is Schrodinger’s Cat dead or alive? The same uncertainty carries through to even today when we build a quantum computer and cannot say with certainty whether a particular switch is ‘on’ or ‘off’. The very basis of logic and determinism has been upended by the introduction of uncertainty in measurement and observation.

The third and far less well known joker in this circus was incompleteness. Kurt Godel, an acquaintance and close companion of Einstein, came out with the astonishing conclusion that there will be facts that are true but not provable or verifiable, and the converse, that there would be facts that are false but again not provable to be false. Godel’s Theorem of Incompleteness used the letter of a false science — mathematics or rather arithmetic — to demolish its spirit, and shows that arithmetic is incomplete or inconsistent. Provability or verifiability is a weaker notion than truth or falsehood.

A hundred years ago, the two demons of uncertainty in observable facts and the relativity of truth played havoc with what was perceived to be a logical and deterministic explanation of the physical world. Today, when we talk, and despair, about fake news in both mainstream as well as social media, we should remember what had happened in the early years of the twentieth century and learn a lesson. Because strangely enough, even with its two feet kind of chopped off, science did not collapse or stop running. Indeed it has gone to scale new heights in nuclear power, space travel, digital computers and artificial intelligence.

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So what is the secret that we in the twenty-first century must learn from the twentieth century as we get ready for the coming deluge of fake news?

First, fake news is inevitable and we cannot wish it away. No amount of head banging could ever negate the uncertainty associated with relativity and quantum mechanics.

Similarly, passing draconian laws on distribution of fake news or building huge and complicated systems to detect and delete fake news may not succeed. Just as science has quietly accepted relativity and quantum mechanics, we must learn to live with fake or erroneous news. We must accept that facts can no more be treated as sacred because we may never know what the real fact ever was. It is lost forever as it travels through multiple transmission channels that have different degrees of reliability or fidelity.

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Science handles this uncertainty by introducing probabilistic models of the physical world and has been quite successful with this. Media, communications or social science must look for equivalent paradigms if they wish to be as relevant as physical science has been till date. What could be the contours of such a strategy? Obviously there is no clear answer — or solution to the problem of fake news —as yet, but with the passage of time things must and will emerge.

But the first big step would be to accept the paradox of ‘fake news being real’! Practically, what this means is that one must begin with the assumption that whatever we see or read in the media — mainstream or social — is false. The default is that it is fake or false and it will be considered true if and only if there is significant evidence to the contrary.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to dictate a piece of news that was favourable for my company to a reporter of India’s premier business newspaper and then had the pleasure of seeing my words being reported as news. What diminished my pleasure was the realisation that I had no idea about who had dictated, and paid for, the contents of all the other articles that were published along with our article. That is when I realised that whenever one reads a piece of news, one must try to guess why it was written and who has paid for it.

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What happens in the world and what you see about it is determined by a process — Facebook calls it an algorithm — that depends on many factors very few of which are visible to the public. The world outside and the image in my head could be, and most probably is, two completely different things. Life could be much simpler if one were to understand this and behave appropriately.

Once one learns to accept that the news, information or facts, that is presented is most probably false — except in the case of obviously verifiable data like weather, share price or whether there is a fire in the corridor — what should be the next course of action? One option is of course not to take any action and in many cases this is quite a sensible thing to do. Other, logical and rational options could be to corroborate the news with other sources but the difficulty is that there is no guarantee that any news source is correct or honest. This is where the process becomes, for lack of a better word, illogical or irrational. We depend on hunch or intuition.

Intuition has been studied by both Eastern and Western philosophers, and in India intuition is strongly associated with spirituality and mysticism. Western philosophers like Rene Descartes, David Hume and Immanuel Kant have all acknowledged the existence and importance of intuition and have established their own points of view about the subject.

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Without getting into details, what this means in practice is that once we have a reasonable pool of information, not necessarily true or consistent, it is best to leave the mind to cogitate on its own and wait for it to settle on a conclusion. The truth is not out there, waiting to be discovered. It is inside, in the depths of your mind, your psyche, waiting to be experienced.

In practice, this would be something like this: before casting your vote in an election, you could do an intense research by looking up and exploring each and every aspect of each and every candidate. Or as many people do, you take what is known as a judgement call after getting a general feel, the ‘big picture’, of the candidate and his party’s policies as a whole. You may not be able to explain why you took that particular call or justify all actions and aspects of the individual but, perhaps, that is how it is or should be.

It is possible that your actions are coloured by a built-in bias but even biases are built up over a period of time and through the accumulation of information some of which could be self selecting. But net-net, a subjective approach to decisions may be the better option when your objectivity is completely compromised by fake news and facts. This is analogous to quantum mechanics accepting the probabilistic nature of the universe instead of sticking to the absolute determinism of Newtonian mechanics.

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Fake news or information is of course a well-known subject for Indic philosophers and they prefer to refer to it as maya or illusion. Brahma Satya, Jagat Mithya is an ancient aphorism that states that the world that we see around us is an illusion or rather a distorted ‘image’ of brahman that is, in reality, without form or attributes. Maya is the veil, or layer of fake news, that stands between the object or event and the observer.

There is really no way to remove this veil, this illusion, this maya as long as the object and the observer remain separate and distinct. It is only in and through yoga, perhaps in the deepest introspection of Raj Yoga, that one can experience the union of the atman and the brahman, the observer and the object.

The ubiquity and inevitability of fake news is a corollary, or belated acceptance of the concept of maya in Vedanta.

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