As never before in previous centuries, the communication of information is so easy, fast and multiform. This gives rise to a phenomenon of unequaled magnitude: fake news and conspiracy theories. Even if, in the past, fake documents already existed that gave rise to false information, and sometimes led to tragic events. Was not the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 provoked by a German dispatch containing fake information?
But during the most recent years, as a consequence of new technologies, the question of fake news and that of conspiracy theories have taken an international dimension. Because both are related since these theories are based on unverified information. Admittedly, the development of social networks has offered fanciful and mischievous people a great opportunity, since they can even take refuge cowardly behind anonymity. But are social networks the only ones responsible?
History and current events teach us that governments – and especially those who most often give lessons on democracy to the rest of the world – have made lying a method of government. The first and the second Indochina wars were fired on fake news, the first time by the French colonial authorities, the second time by the US president himself.
And did not the new spokeswoman for the French government say recently “I fully assume to lie to protect the president”? Joining these liars are the spokespersons of the executive all over the world. As was in his time Ron Ziegler who protected Nixon in the case of Watergate. Or, also, the spokespersons of US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair who spread false information about alleged weapons of mass destruction to justify an illegal war of invasion of Iraq. But, and it makes a big difference, it was in the US and in the UK, countries where most – not all – of the press is fortunately independent of power. As it is far from being the case of mainstream media in France, the lies of President Macron anointed a lot of chances to be repeated for truths.
Thus, the example comes from above, from those who should “speak the truth” but are rare – as are rare courageous politicians who are not afraid to displease by giving priority to the general interest rather than private interests.
It is the permanent lie of those who govern that gives birth to conspiracy theories and fake news. Since we no longer believe them, since we no longer trust their words, we seek explanations. Some are reasonable; others are fanciful or malicious.
There is no doubt that conspiracy theories and fake news are a great danger for the democratic debate that requires transparency and truth. Fake information pollutes the democratic debate, creates artificial divisions, causes unrest and disorder. It is the weapon of the demagogues, of those who deceive public opinion to become popular. Lying is never a democratic practice. Which means that it’s never good for the people.
But lies are also the weapons of business. It is the weapon of those who put private interests before public interest and it is the weapon of the politicians who serve those interests. During the past decades, private companies have been known to finance reports and press materials to show that asbestos is harmless, that tobacco is not dangerous to health, that there is no alternative to carbon energies, that dioxin is safe (despite the thousands of victims of Agent Orange in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam), that pesticides are not dangerous. Every time, there were politicians spreading the lies of these private firms at the expense of people’s health and biodiversity. Today the chemical giant Bayer-Monsanto denies that glyphosate causes cancer. And this lie finds supporters in parliaments and newspapers, despite the fact that Bayer was part of the industrial consortium IG-Farben which produced the Zyklon B for the Nazi gas chambers in World War II and that Monsanto was a supplier of Agent Orange to the US Air Fo
rce during the Vietnam War.
Advertising also carries a heavy responsibility when it lies on the product it promotes – when it does not state the limits of the product or when it announces performance tests that are false. How is it possible to trust when the lie is spread by the most powerful? It is the loss of trust in the public speeches of rulers and in the affirmations of private firms that nourishes the conspiracy theories and fake news. In a society where transparency and truth are the rules, where lies and intentionally false information are punished, these phenomena would disappear quickly.
The first step governments should take to combat conspiracy theories and fake news would be to show the example and to speak the truth. But also, without confusing deliberate lies with the error of good faith, to punish fake news when it comes from political demagogues or unscrupulous businessmen who put their profits before public interest. Both require exceptional courage.
Thomas Fowler is a Cambodia watcher based in Phnom Penh.