Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Was 2019 the year when truth finally collapsed beneath the weight of lies?

Lost in a world of shameless fakery, who can we trust to tell it like it is, asks Fionola Meredith

Twitter issues: BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg
Twitter issues: BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg
Sports broadcaster Gary Lineker
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

We'll remember 2019 as the year when truth died. The poor thing had been on its last legs for some time, gradually suffocating to death beneath the weight of lies, rumours, fake news, conspiracy theories and opinion masquerading as fact.

Social media, where misinformation has been burning out of control like an Australian mega-bushfire for years, is frequently both the source for these myriad untruths, and the means of spreading them - and it happens faster than any wildfire.

But it is this year, in particular, that truth seemingly lost the will to live. Politics, always rife with spin and obfuscation, became rank with untruths - shamelessly so, as though there was no longer any duty to at least appear to be honest and give some semblance of moral integrity.

We are now ruled by a man who, during his quest to be Conservative leader, waved a kipper in the air to challenge the might of "Brussels bureaucrats" and their stupid, costly rules on 'elf and safety', which were damaging British trade.

It turned out the kipper was actually a red herring - it came under UK, not EU, food safety rules. But who cares about something so inconsequential and casually dispensable as facts?

Facts are no problem. Facts can be swatted away, Trump-style, either ignored, ridiculed or denied. What matters is the big gesture, the big statement.

Thanks to the manically relentless pace of social media, which increasingly drives both the speed and content of the mainstream media, by the time anyone notices it's wrong, we have all rushed on to the next burning issue.

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One of the most chilling reports I've read during the last year was about Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's top digital forensic specialists.

Farid is part of the war to combat 'deepfakes', which are highly convincing videos, altered with artificial intelligence, to show people saying and doing things that they haven't done.

Most current deepfake videos are pornographic, but already the technology is being weaponised in politics - a recent, admittedly absurd example, showed Boris Johnson appearing to endorse Jeremy Corbyn in the British election.

Experts say that the real danger of deepfakes is not whether people believe them or not, it's their capacity to undermine our entire trust in the truth.

Farid warns: "If you release something 48 hours before an election, it doesn't matter if we figure out it's fake - it's going to work."

So, who can we trust to tell it like it is in these radically uncertain times? The BBC has always prided itself on its historic reputation for commitment to the truth, but it has come under unprecedented attack this year, accused of bias from both left and right.

Now Boris Johnson has even threatened to axe the licence fee. No doubt this is a move which would bring a grudging smile to the dour faces of the DUP, who show consistent resentment of the BBC's propensity to ask them hard questions they don't like.

More than ever, it's vital that we are able to place our faith in institutions like the BBC. But if we're to do that, the corporation must curb its own addiction to social media, Twitter in particular, because its frantic pace means that this is where mistakes - which lead to further accusations of unreliability and political partiality - are most likely to happen.

For instance, during the election campaign, the BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg tweeted that a Labour activist had punched a Tory aide, a claim also made by ITV's Robert Peston, and repeated on the Twitter feeds of most main newspapers. The trouble was, it wasn't true.

Apologies ensued - but this is a classic example not just of how mistruth proliferates almost instantly, but of how such mistakes fuel suspicion of credible news sources in a so-called 'post-truth' world.

If the BBC is to survive - as an island of reliable information in a toxic soup of mistruths, half-truths and out-and-out fakery - it must renew its commitment to impartiality.

For a start, all of its political journalists should ditch Twitter, which would improve their analysis and give them more time to sort fact from fiction.

Get Gary Lineker off the platform, too: why should licence payers massively fund the smug junk-food salesman as he preaches the very one-sided truth according to St Gary?

The good news is that the truth isn't really dead. It is out there, as they used to say in The X-Files.

But we have to work harder than ever to find it.

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