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‘Quid est veritas’: truth and its consequences

Many solutions to fake news have been proposed. An obvious one is hardly mentioned.

One solution proposed to fake news is for Facebook to hire fact-checkers, and to ban websites perpetuating fake news.

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But how and why could Facebook or the proposed fact-checkers be trusted to officially certify what is fake news and what is not?  Has Facebook, or whatever institutions it trusts as fact-checkers, composed as it is of fallible human beings with their own biases, suddenly been endowed with infallibility? How could we be sure that Facebook or its fact-checkers are not, in fact, perpetuating their own falsehoods by selectively suppressing only the content that they dislike for no good reason at all? What and whose standards would Facebook and its fact-checkers use to distinguish what is fake news from what is not?

Those working for the journalism outlets proposed as fact-checkers, such as Rappler and Vera Files, are assumed to have skills and ethics for the task. It is a reasonable assumption; indeed, we should expect professionalism and ethics of journalists. But journalists can and do err. It is one thing to consider them reliable sources of information, and another to

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appoint them as official arbiters of the canon version of events.

The same problem besets proposals to enact laws banning fake news: Will whatever agency that will be tasked to screen out fake news be able to do so infallibly?  If that agency errs, who would, in turn, call it out on its error?

Furthermore, what would be the consequence of perpetuating what would be considered “fake news”? Would penalties be imposed? Would the penalties on fake news create a chilling effect? Would all discourse come to a halt as people refrain from saying or writing or sharing anything at all, out of fear of suffering the consequences of “fake news” for merely committing honest error?

Another solution proposed to the problem of “fake news” is to launch public information campaigns on critical thinking and to teach critical thinking in schools, to enable information consumers to identify fake news by themselves.

Any sane, thinking person who is active in the public discourse on social media knows the urgency of teaching critical thinking. But all the lessons in logic and language analysis would be useless without teaching what they are for: arriving at the truth. Otherwise, all that will be achieved is an intellectual climate similar to that for which Socrates criticized the Sophists: one where what matters is to win debates through the abuse of rhetoric, even to the point of twisting the truth. This leads back to the initial problem sought to be solved.

This is the crucial solution to the problem of fake news that nobody talks about: spreading the idea that there is such a thing as objective, universal truth, and inculcating love for truth.

Quid est veritas? What is truth? This question which Pontius Pilate asked Christ is age-old.

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Philosophers define truth as the conformity between what is in the mind and reality. This definition implies that truth is something outside, and larger than, oneself. It implies that it is reality that measures the mind rather than the mind measuring reality.

Thus, love for the truth is an uncomfortable position to take. It means accepting the possibility of being wrong and of one’s opponent being right. It means being willing to change one’s mind for it to conform to reality. It demands willingness to change one’s attitude and one’s behavior to be consistent with the truth, to follow the truth regardless of where it comes from and to wherever it leads, to its ultimate consequences even when those are not pleasant.

Indeed, many have lost their comfort, their egos, their reputations, their possessions, their social standing, even their lives, for the truth. But they did so willingly, because what is true is also good and beautiful.

If anything good ever came out of the “fake news” problem, it is that the importance of truth has been highlighted. It has provided an occasion to question ourselves on our capacity and willingness to embrace truth. “Fake news” can only be counteracted by promoting the pursuit of truth, regardless of the sacrifices involved.

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Lawyer Cristina A. Montes holds degrees in humanities specializing in philosophy from the University of Asia and the Pacific (1997) and in law from the UP College of Law (2005) and the Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain.

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TAGS: cristina a. montes, facebook, fact-checkers, fake news, Inquirer Commentary, truth
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