President Fake News
What happens when the head of government is himself the source of false information?
Donald Trump, the president of the United States, tests the limits of the possible — and the verifiable — almost every day. According to the fact-checkers at the Washington Post, Trump has lied or given false information at least 2,000 times in his first year in office — or a daily average of five or more times.
It is not only that Trump lives in a seriously circumscribed information bubble, where he watches Fox News almost obsessively; he has, for instance, since taken to the daily presidential briefings, which he used to dislike.
It must also be that he suffers from a condition; he cannot help lying — exaggerating his achievements, beginning on his first day with the lie about the size of his inauguration audience, despite overwhelming proof to the contrary; exaggerating his attributes, even calling himself a “very stable genius”; exaggerating the imperfections of his growing number of enemies.
The other day, he fathered forth into a hapless world another lie — a falsehood so epic, so enormous, so obvious, it is a wonder he did not keel over in the birthing.
In an interview with a sympathetic Piers Morgan, he said this astonishing thing: “The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records. They’re at a record level.”
Before we analyze why this is a complete and utter lie, let’s look at the psychology of his lying. The way he strung his words together follows a familiar rhetorical pattern that Trump is known for: the before and after.
Before he became president, “the ice caps were going to melt.” Now that he is president, “they’re setting records.”
Even in a matter that fully deserves the adjective “global,” Trump uses the before-and-after pattern to suggest that, well, the world is great again. “They’re at a record level.”
In fact, the polar ice caps are setting records, but not in the sense, or the direction, that Trump had in mind. The ice cover on both poles has reached its lowest level in four decades, according to the US government’s own National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Why would Trump say such an obvious falsehood?
The answer must involve both ignorance and incompetence, amplified by ideology.
Trump is known for preferring bite-sized, visually appealing information in his briefings; his lack of discipline in understanding policy or the latest research is a daily obstacle. But he is also ready, ideologically, to accept a “conclusion” that undermines the scientific consensus on climate change.
In the middle of a particular brutal winter, Trump had tweeted his ignorant conclusion: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!”
Because he felt cold, he thought the idea of a warming planet caused largely by human activity was already discredited.
In fact, another top-flight scientific agency of the US government, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reported that last year was one of the warmest years on record.
All these lies diminish Trump’s standing in the international community — never high to begin with. But they also undermine both the reputation and the power of the United States as a world leader. Lies have consequences, not least among them a lessening of credibility.
But in the Philippines, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque has plumbed even greater depths to rationalize “fake news” and other kinds of false information.
Instead of simply stating that lies and “fake news” are bad for public discourse and for democracy, period, he said in Filipino: “If there is no fake news, we won’t know what is true news. If we don’t know the lies, we also won’t know the truth.”
He attributed the thought to a judicial ruling, but it seems doubtful that the issue at bar was fake news as we know it.
What Roque’s defense amounts to is a plea to let liars and peddlers of false information alone. After all, he suggests, they add some value to “the free marketplace of ideas.”
This is complete and utter nonsense. Trump’s falsehoods have real and serious consequences. And so do the lies that are manufactured by some of President Duterte’s supporters.
But because he is not able to call them out, Roque instead pretends to philosophize. He should work for Trump.
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