Global Pairings

COVID 19: Post-Truth Age – Or Facts Making a Comeback?

In crises, there is no room for “post-truth.” Denying facts and the truth endangers lives. Peddling misinformation for political purposes proves too reckless, even for populists.

Takeaways


  • There is no room for “post-truth” in the management of this crisis. Denying facts and the truth causes outright danger to society.
  • The case of COVID 19 will show that responsible leadership is not only needed -- but that it is critical for survival.
  • Brazil is a good example of how the public can react when a leader does not act responsibly in the face of a public health crisis.
  • If society works together to combat misinformation, people may feel they can actually control their environment and contribute to a greater good.

We know the lament: Societal trust in institutions has waned, as the general population is more inclined to believe that institutions such as academia or the media are simply platforms through which the establishment tries to control the narrative in society.

A “post-truth” environment?

Amidst this crisis of confidence, the current “information age” is a perfect breeding ground for the perpetuation of multiple competing narratives, mistrust, confusion, sensationalism, polarization and creates what seems like a “post-truth” environment.

No question, social media play an immense role in this “post-truth” concept. But despite all the misinformation about the COVID 19 virus that is floating around, this pandemic has revealed an interesting twist in the form of an emerging truth.

It’s about the facts, stupid!

People can say what they want to say, but there is simply no getting around dealing with the actual numbers.

Numbers such as the number of cases, number of deaths, needed hospital beds, needed ventilators and witnessing the effects of one response compared with another on this set of variables.

True, U.S. President Donald Trump and some right-wing U.S. media, in tandem with Fox News, were early on downplaying the disease, saying it was a “hoax.” However, once the numbers caught up to them, there was no getting away with that type of rhetoric anymore.

Disregarding facts is dangerous to your life

Some leaders along with their most supportive media outlets have now turned to playing catch-up for their slow reactions and are seeking to blame others for their own failings, whether in terms of administrative actions not taken or mindless media opining.

Accusations of this sort ring much hollower now. A responsible leader knows and admits fault and focuses on how to improve from there on out.

And, of course, responsible media outlets have a duty to accurately report how our leaders are handling the situation and what the scientific community is advising, without succumbing to further hyper-politicization of events.

Simply put, credibility is lost when one toys with matters of life and death on this scale. And even one’s own true believers worry about their own life and/or death. In such a scenario, they no longer prefer to operate on the basis of suspended disbelief.

Brazil: An inspiring, hard lesson for fact deniers

Brazil is a good example of how the public can react when a leader does not act responsibly in the face of a public health crisis of this proportion. Jair Bolsonaro still hasn’t gotten the memo that distrusting the scientific community and generating misinformation can be dangerous.

Instead, Brazil’s President has described the illness as a “cold” and has accused his country’s media of manufacturing hysteria. Meanwhile, the governors of Brazil have gone ahead and imposed lockdowns using their own powers, but Mr. Bolsonaro has encouraged Brazilians to ignore them.

His irresponsibility towards the crisis has stirred a strong reaction from the public. Through his recklessness with the lives of Brazilians, he has hastened the possibility of his own departure on the political scene.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta’s approval rating has soared to 76% over his handling of the coronavirus crisis as he actively informs the population of the current situation and the appropriate measures to take.

In contrast, the popularity of President Bolsonaro slipped to 33%, a poll by Datafolha showed.

Thus, even Bolsonaro’s own support base, people who elected him in the hopes that he would reduce the rampant corruption in Brazil, has deemed him irresponsible when faced with this crisis.

The Brazilian example certainly creates concrete hope for similar changes occurring in other countries.

COVID 19 and responsible leadership: An anti-populist backlash?

Thus, this world crisis actually offers tremendous positive momentum for more fact-based news outlets. This is a time when those political leaders who advocate ignoring experts, who are keen on sewing confusion and who cling to a lack of transparency are seen as acting irresponsibly.

Because such irresponsibility during a public health crisis can easily lead to more infections and deaths, these misleaders have to face their own music.

There is no room for “post-truth” in the management of this crisis. Denying facts and the truth causes outright danger to the society. Mishandling it for political purposes is reckless.

Likewise, encouraging false narratives not only steers the goal away from tackling the issue and responding with urgency, it comes attached to real penalties for those who promote them.

In the end, there is a clear binary choice between what is responsible here and what is not.

Leadership does matter

For all the challenges we now have to deal with, the case of COVID 19 will show that responsible leadership is not only needed, but that it is critical for survival.

While media have an important responsibility to point out misinformation and deficiencies, there is an even greater game underway.

If we work together as a society to combat the common enemy of misinformation and take responsibility, people may feel the return of a sense that they can actually control their environment and contribute to a greater good.

That, coincidentally, is a feeling that provides a sense of reassurance which would help stabilize our current crisis of confidence.

Conclusion

This development is refreshing and essential in a world that, until recently, prided itself for creating so many different versions of the truth.

Editor’s note: The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of their employers.

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About Suzanne Loftus

Suzanne Loftus is Professor of National Security at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

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