Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships – an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction. The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence.
George Orwell, in Inside The Whale
Following the article Manufacturing Consent in the 21st Century: the MSM and US Foreign Policy and resulting from a pressing debate on the freedom of access or control of information in a time of a long and destabilizing pandemic, this article aims to reflect on the catalytic implications of this dilemma in the emerging digital information age. In this sense, the epistemology of Plato, Francis Bacon and Alexis de Tocqueville will be the starting point to develop an analysis on the role of Mainstream Media (MSM) and social media in a changing international system, in particular on their repercussions on US’s and Portugal’s liberal democracies. After all, is Plato’s noble lie the best vaccine for the present fragility of Western democracies, to the detriment of greater autonomy and awareness of their citizens? The Carta dos Direitos Humanos da Era Digital (Human Rights Charter of the Digital Age), in Portugal, and the restrictive measures taken by world governments against the international crisis seem to direct some of the first hesitant steps towards a solution.
Allegory of the Cave
What is more dangerous for humans: coconuts or sharks? Although the answer seems self-evident, perception and reality do not always coincide. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is eternalized, by the timelessness of its analogy, as a reflection on this paradox – the screens of televisions, computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices are portals to a reality as remote as dimly lit shadows from Plato’s cave. In 2020, for example, the alienation of the media sphere from an issue as fundamental to the prevention of future pandemics as the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, obscured the value of public access to information of common interest and the free confrontation of ideas in the digital space. In Plato’s Republic, the light of truth is acquired outside, in contact with reality (and its forms); however, when an “enlightened” character returns to the cave with this knowledge, the perception among cave dwellers is still that shadows are what determine actual knowledge. In a present marked by a pandemic, heterodox opinions are also progressively marginalized, as exemplified by the reaction of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s state media to Li Wenliang’s revelation: the emergence of a highly human-to-human transmissible virus, in December 2019. Li was arrested for “spreading rumors” about a month before this “misinformation” was made official by the WHO and a global pandemic crisis was declared.
The Four Idols of the Mind
Francis Bacon, empiricist philosopher and precursor of the Enlightenment, developed the theory of the Four Idols of Mind, a scientific method oriented towards objectivity, which seeks to respond to cognitive dissonance and the predominance of superstitions in the appreciation of facts. His doctrine is divided into four categories of fallacies:
The Market Idol consists of the distortion of reality through rhetoric and results from limitations in human communication – fictions determined by vague terms, incomplete descriptions, imprecise concepts and misunderstandings. In 2013, retired US Army Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson said about the then CIA Director (2013-2017) John Brennan and the US President Barack Obama: “What’s happening with drone strikes around the world right now is, in my opinion, as bad a development as many of the things we now condemn so readily, with 20/20 hindsight, in the George W. Bush administration. We are creating more enemies than we’re killing. We are doing things that violate international law. We are even killing American citizens without due process and have an attorney general who has said that due process does not necessarily include the legal process. Those are really scary words.” As in the War on Terror, renamed Overseas Contingency Operations by the Democratic administration, its recourse to drone strikes, warrantless surveillance, murder and indefinite detention was conducted with impunity and led to the punishment of whistleblowers such as John Kiriakou, imprisoned for 30 months for revealing the identity of an agent involved in the US’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture), in violation of the Espionage Act. Today, Brennan is a national security and intelligence analyst at NBC News and MSNBC, while Kiriakou uses smaller media channels to describe his experience at the CIA. Also today, an analogy is commonly drawn between the pandemic and the state of war, which implies the use of the State’s restrictive power to ensure collective security, threatened by fear and anxiety.
The Idol of the Cave consists of the predisposition to follow personal biases and to infer thoughtlessly from preconceived ideas and out of respect or disrespect for admired or hated authorities. This idol can be exemplified by MSM’s coverage of an alleged plan by the Wolverine Watchmen militia to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and place explosives under a bridge, in October 2020. The MSM reported it shortly from the US elections, based solely on information provided by the FBI. However, official documents discovered during the trial of the respective suspects revealed that at least 12 informants paid by the federal agency (most of those involved) actively participated in this plan. According to the defense, this means that without the participation of these agents, the plan would never have been created. Another common fallacy in this category is the ad hominem arguments (relating to the character of those involved), used recurrently in MSM, as in the case of associating a negative image of Julian Assange with information revealed by Wikileaks, namely those revealing methods used by the US in the context of the War on Terror. In both cases mentioned, the information is associated with the reputation of the entities involved, either by casting a positive light on the FBI, or a negative light on Assange, instead of an objective and precise description of the facts.
The Tribe Idol is essentially a process of generalization, starting from a tiny sample, mere impressions, anecdotal evidence or personal experiences; it is founded on human nature itself, on the tribe or human species itself, and on a distortion of reality based on emotion, to the detriment of a thorough and demonstrable understanding. An example present in the MSM is the media adoption of the acronym ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards), in the context of the reform of the US criminal justice system, which led to the emergence of a movement aimed at defunding, or even abolishing the police, in 2020. Empirically, a reference can be found in the experience that took place, on a scale of just a few blocks, in Seattle: named “CHOP” or “Summer of Love” by the mayor of the city. This microsociety, in whose presence the police was prohibited, would be dismantled just three weeks after its creation due to several incidents of violence that went unpunished. As for the role and performance of the police and authorities in the US, despite the media perception emphasizing the abuse of power in several cases emblematized by BLM, their performance is comprehensive and diversified, and in this context a broader understanding of the corporation would be needed so a real reform can be considered, as evidenced by the refinancing that several American metropolises ended up adopting in the face of an internal surge in crime. Moreover, about the movements associated with the “woke” and “cancel culture” progressive orthodoxy, Obama commented: “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good things have flaws.”
Finally, the Theater Idol is based on creed and it is the attempt to impose through dramatic artifices a view as tacitly correct, appealing to tradition, authority, political, philosophical or religious dogmas, as well as ideologies. The restrictive measures to combat SARS-CoV2 exemplifies this fallacy, since they changed throughout the pandemic, while information that would prove to be correct was repeatedly suppressed on digital communication platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, for disagreeing with the orthodoxy. For example: in early July 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assured that vaccinees rarely contract SARS-CoV-2 (about 0.01% of those vaccinated, July 17) – which suggested a “non-vaccinated pandemic,” according to President Joe Biden. However, at the end of that month, the CDC reported that vaccinees transmit this coronavirus approximately as often as non-vaccinated people due to its Delta variant, present in the country since December 2020. Thus, the decisive importance of vaccines remains, but the ambiguity on the ways SARS-CoV2 spreads has significant implications for policy decisions, including further restrictions for vaccinees. Anthony Fauci had opined in February 2020 that the public should not be concerned about the new coronavirus, whose danger was “minuscule” and in March he said: “People shouldn’t wear a mask” because “it doesn’t provide the perfect protection that people think”. However, in April, the CDC would recommend face coverage and Fauci argued that his initial advice was after all due to the lack of equipment available to health workers at that time. Furthermore, according to the New York Times, Fauci acknowledged in an interview that he had “slowly but deliberately moved” the percentage of vaccinated people needed to achieve group immunity – from 60% to 75-85% –, “in part based on new science and partly because of his feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks”. As Fauci himself had consented before his noble lie: “lack of transparency leads to a loss of trust among citizens”, as “the public will believe that health agencies are not being 100% true due to motivations policies”.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s America
In Democracy in America (1835-1845), Tocqueville identified two imminent dangers for the maintenance of American democracy: on the one hand, the centralization of state power; on the other, conformism – the generalized apathy of its population and the complacency of a materialist society, anchored in the consumption of an economy in transition, from agricultural to industrial. Tocqueville also foresaw a possible civil conflict in the US before the Civil War, alluding to a fundamental tension between two unavoidable trends: equality of conditions and freedom, or the tendency of liberalized and hierarchical societies to create inequality. An imbalance between the two trends results in the stigmatization of people and self-censorship, not only because of their immutable characteristics, but also because of heterodox opinions. According to his concept of the “tyranny of the majority”, or the soft despotism of public opinion, with its genesis in that confrontation: “In America, I saw more than America… I looked for the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions.” To prevent a possible rupture, Tocqueville saw as necessary the combination of a government acting in the interests of the majority and the maintenance of individual liberties and rights, through a strong civil society (its three pillars: robust civil education, intermediary institutions and organized religion). He also foresaw the dangerous rise of benevolent guardians, persuasive in rhetoric but despotic in their ends; at the same time criticizing US’s prison system: “Whoever has studied the interior of prisons and the moral state of their inmates, has become convinced that communication between these persons renders their moral reformation impossible, and becomes even for them the inevitable cause of an alarming corruption.” It is precisely a growing polarization in this opposition that threatens the future of the US. In the 21st century, this confrontation took on different contours, with the movement for equality of social strata giving way to a movement of identities, while, for Hillary Clinton, regarding the current state of democracy and disinformation: “There’s no doubt that the Chinese are basically making the opposite case that democracy is messy, things take too long, people are in and out of office, there’s no continuity, you can’t have the kind of fixed goals that can be moved forward in a socially cohesive way and therefore choose us. We are facing that struggle.”
Article 6 of Carta dos Direitos Humanos na Era Digital
The Carta Digital dos Direitos Humanos na Era Digital, approved by the Portuguese Parliament and pending consideration by the Constitutional Court, clarifies in its article 6, nº 1 and nº 2 that it intends to “protect society against natural or legal persons” that “produce , reproduce or disseminate a narrative considered to be disinformation”, that is, “any narrative that is proven to be false or misleading” with the intention of “deliberately misleading the public, and which is likely to cause public harm”. From the outset, the criteria for evaluating the veracity of the information and what constitutes public harm are not defined here, which reveals an ambiguity similar to that of the examples of fallacies previously mentioned. Paragraph 6 of this article, reads: “The State supports the creation of structures for verification of facts by duly registered media and encourages the creation of quality seals by trustworthy entities endowed with the status of public utility”; while paragraph 4 distinguishes “mere errors in communicating information, as well as satires or parodies” from the applicable scope. Regarding the collaboration of veracity verification mechanisms with the government, let us look at the following examples: Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for the White House, said that the Biden government was in contact with Facebook to block “disinformation” regarding Covid- 19. However, it was under the same administration that, according to a New York Times lawyer, the Department of Justice (DOJ) secretly tried to obtain emails from four journalists and forced a gag order on the newspaper’s executives; this after Biden had promised that the same department would not repeat a violation similar to the one that occurred under Donald Trump, when he obtained private information about CNN and WSJ journalists. Finally, opposition to article 6 of the Charter can thus be summarized by portuguese Iniciativa Liberal: “it opens the way for the systematic censorship of legitimate political content, attacks basic principles of liberal democracy, and undermines rights, freedoms and guarantees recognized by our Constitution to all individuals”, also defending that “the power to define what is ‘truth’ in politics; of sticking ‘false’ or ‘wrong’ stamps to inconvenient political opinion, or which cannot be proven to be true; and to act to suppress nonconforming political speech, or even to silence people” constitutes “an unacceptable red line”.
Orthodoxy in a Time of Pandemic
In conclusion, taking into account the theories and examples already mentioned in the development of this text about the dilemma between the censorship of “disinformation” likely to cause “public harm” and freedom of expression in an expanding digital space, subject to recurrent fallacies, it appears that such censorship can be used for political purposes (controlling the “narrative”), namely in favor of a government, or it may later prove to be counterproductive. This is because this information may be correct, even if it is momentarily at odds with an ever-changing scientific consensus. Accordingly, note the downward trend in cases of SARS-CoV2 infection in the United Kingdom after the lifting of the restrictive measures of the “Freedom Day”, contrarily to discouraging expectations widely propagated by the MSM. It is also worth mentioning, once again and as a final example, the origin of this virus: still unknown, although the target of an investigation by the WHO based only on data provided by the PRC. This investigation, whose validity was rejected by the G7, featured Peter Daszak, a biologist and president of the Ecohealth Alliance who collaborated with the Wuhan laboratory and funded research on coronaviruses associated with SARS-CoV. However, the WHO proposal for yet another investigation, this time including Wuhan’s laboratory was rejected by the PRC. Furthermore, although the theory generally accepted during the first year of the pandemic was that of a natural origin of the virus, speculation about a laboratory leak from Wuhan would be defended by Robert Redfield, former director of the WHO, and the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs. This last theory had not only been rejected because, according to Chris Cuomo of CNN, it was “politically charged”; it was also censored by social media, including the suspension of several (democratically elected) members of the US Congress from major digital communication platforms. Thus, the censorship of “disinformation” that has been contemplated is above all a threat to heterodoxy – the flag of liberal democracies – whose importance goes back to Socrates, Copernicus, Galileo or Einstein, since these important philosophers and scientists were also marginalized and punished for having seriously compromised the orthodoxy of their time, defying its idols.