Much has been written about the climate of “lies, fake news and coverups” (e.g., Joe Camilleri in The Conversation). I could find a dozen examples but will limit myself to Camilleri’s because it provides an excellent overview of the problem.
This is not to dispute or try to correct Camilleri, but simply to add another perspective.
Towards the end of the article, as he is wrapping it up, Camilleri says:
Lies, “fake news” and cover-ups are not, of course, the preserve of politicians. They have become commonplace in so many of our institutions.
He then mentions the Australian Banking Royal Commission and revelations of the cover-up of long-term sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Having previously run through the gamut of international political tendencies, from Trump to Brexit, the rise of the populist government in Italy, and the revolving door prime ministership of Australia, he says:
These various public and private arenas, where truth is regularly concealed, denied or obscured, have had a profoundly corrosive effect on the fabric of society, and inevitably on the public sphere. They have severely diminished the social trust on which the viability of democratic processes vitally depends.
This very nicely sums up our current political situation. But Camilleri’s article is subtitled “How has it come to this?” To the extent that he addresses this question, he seems to treat the phenomenon – as do so many – as a very recent one.
The role of social media and the decline of the corporate media are often cited as contributing factors, although Camilleri doesn’t go there. Sometimes the argument goes something like “with the web, anyone can post anything. there’re no checks and balances, and so a lot more fake news is generated.” The assumption then seems to be that the consumers believe the fake news, which sows distrust about social institutions.
Evidence of coordinated disinformation campaigns by Russian bots, conservative “think” tanks and political parties of every persuasion certainly lend great credence to this perspective.
However, the revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church point to a much longer-term development. When we start probing in this direction, it becomes apparent that the roots of our current malaise do not stem from the purveyors of fake news, but lie, rather, in the trustworthiness of social institutions.
Consider the decades-long campaign by the tobacco industry to cover-up what it knew about the harms of its products, of chemical and manufacturing industries denying the harms of pollution, the continuing insistence that pesticides are safe, despite the bees, or Purdue Pharma’s successful campaign to market Oxycontin as a “safe” pain-killer. And so on.
The Internet is no doubt a mixed blessing. The great liberation that its pioneers promised has not been realized, but it has helped to foster an environment in which the lies and deceits of destructive industries can more readily be brought to light, or at least to a larger and broader audience.
Our current “crisis in trust” is more the result of a great unveiling of the untrustworthiness of various social institutions, rather than a degeneration in those institutions’ trustworthiness. Global corporations whose only guiding compass is the maximization of profit have been shown again and again to have lied and covered up illegal, immoral, anti-social, environmentally destructive and down-right toxic practices.
Camilleri is right to point out that from within their neo-liberal ideological cage, in which economic growth is the only measurable outcome, contemporary politicians have no tools to address the economic forces of globalisation. No doubt, much of their most blatantly untrustworthy performances can be traced to their determination to maintain the illusion that they are nevertheless in charge.
But a much deeper malady lies in their need to ignore and defend industrial-scale malfeasance. With economic growth the only measurable value, the cost to social justice, public welfare, health and well-being are immaterial.
There is no simple remedy to the current political disarray. The powerful forces driving financial flows and production and communication technologies are reshaping culture, the global economy and policy-making processes in deeply troubling ways.
Truth and trust are now in short supply. Yet, they are indispensable to democratic processes and institutions.
A sustained national and international conversation on ways to redeem truth and trust has become one of the defining imperatives of our time.
My two cents worth: it’s certainly not simple, but it’s necessary for elected officials to take the social good and social trust into their calculus. This requires governing for the people, rather than the corporate oligarchy, which will no doubt require getting corporate money out of our political system.
If politicians want to rebuild social trust, they must demonstrate that they are holding both themselves and other social institutions to account for their behaviours. As long as they continue, for example, to seek greater powers for public surveillance while simultaneously introducing draconian penalties for reporting on their secrets, distrust and cynicism is the only rational response of the electorate.