Of fake news and falsehoodsThursday, October 14, 2021
The most recent public opinion polls conducted by Don Anderson shows some slippage in support for Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Although I expected this to occur early next year, I am not surprised.
The civil service helps to explain government policies to the members of the public. They carry out public advisory campaigns, especially through the mass media, to facilitate awareness and understanding of government policies and programmes.
There are, however, sections of our civil service that are performing poorly. Some sections are doing absolutely nothing, while the phones in other critical departments ring unanswered.
But Anderson's poll revealed that the management of the novel coronavirus pandemic was a major contributor to these falling numbers. He is not wrong.
A prime minister has to be a psychiatrist, a mentor, an accountant, an operations manager, a CEO, and a managing director all at the same time. He has to summon all these skills before making a decision. And the buck stops with him.
This pandemic has produced the largest number of Monday morning quarterbacks I have ever seen. Everyone has 20/20 vision, albeit in hindsight.
It is reasonable for the average citizen to expect delinquent inmates to receive physical punishment. They are, however, put into what is called solitary confinement. That is because this method is far more horrifying and long-lasting.
The war against this novel coronavirus pandemic demands social isolation and the wearing of masks among other precautions. When this was mandated by the prime minister, he was excoriated. Some of the reasons given betray an unbelievable level of ignorance and selfishness: “I have things to sell”; “I already made plans.” When word came that the Government had instructed the police to just “warn” people in breach of lockdown rules, further excoriation followed.
Then the lockdown orders were relaxed and a deafening salvo came from the other direction. Some left us believing that they were actually in the room with “Andrew” and his rich cronies, hatching plots to ignore the pandemic so that they could make more money. “What di hell di PM must do?”
I was reading a 2015 copy of Philosophical Transactions which stated that, “Loneliness and social isolation can wreak havoc on an individual's physical, mental, and cognitive health.” The authors pointed to evidence linking perceived social isolation with adverse health consequences, including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular functioning, and impaired immunity at every stage of life.
In a 2019 study of the consequences of social isolation, Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad of the Psychology and Neuroscience Department of Brigham Young University wrote, in part: “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators.”
In countries where the effects of social isolation have been studied, it is estimated that, at least 42.8 per cent of the population are at high risk of stress, anxiety, and depression. The influence of all forms of social isolation on mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality.
So let's give the prime minister some credit. When he relaxed the lockdown rules, he was just wearing his psychiatry hat – one that most of us know very little about. If those lockdown rules were still in place, most of us would, by this, be running naked and screaming from Half-Way-Tree to the waterfront downtown to try to swim to Port Royal.
For those of you struggling to find something for which to blame the Government, I would suggest you focus on the prime minister's claim that ours is a liberal democracy in which free speech is a right.
Of the few acquaintances I have, most are aware of the science of viruses and how they function. They are also aware of the need for vaccinations and masks. Quite often, however, we share videos from unknown sources making spurious claims about the pandemic and vaccines: “The vaccines are killing people”; “Pregnant women are having deformed babies”; “Micro chips are being implanted in our bodies”; “Here is proof that vaccines are the mark of the beast.”
Recently, Alex Berenson, a conservative media favourite, tweeted to his 118,000 followers that Amazon banned his 6,400-page booklet Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns: Part 1 – a publication loaded with “duppy stories” – which argues that mainstream media is overstating the threat of the virus. Billionaire Elon Musk replied to the tweet, calling the decision “insane”. He directed his comments to Amazon chief, another billionaire, Jeff Bezos. Oh, did I mention that Musk has 35.6 million followers? Well, the booklet has been reinstated. It is again available on Amazon, among other places, and Berenson seems set to become a millionaire.
Many of the videos we get spewing unscientific, illogical nonsense about the virus and vaccines are from long-discredited charlatans who are now in hiding and counting their millions. And, despite the honest, yeoman efforts of this Government to provide us with daily updates and explanations, we prefer to hug up wildly improbable claims by snake oil purveyors.
Many of these videos were made right here. They cast wild aspersions on the prime minister and his Government. They are professionally produced and, though spouting false information, are very convincing. But, according to the prime minister, we live in a liberal democracy and they are free. Free to mislead the public, prime minister?
And what is the attitude of other countries to the purveyors of fake news and mischief? In the Philippines, the sentence is 20 years and 20 million Philippine peso. If that seems extreme, let us look at South Korea. Section 140 (1) of their laws says everyone commits public mischief who, with intent to mislead reporting or in any other way making it known or causing it to be known that some other person has died when he or that person has not died is guilty of an offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.
In Singapore, one can be guilty of one or all six categories of section 245-247 of the relevant section of the laws – sending of false messages, publishing seditious material, and spreading of false statements likely to cause public alarm. The combined sentences could land the perpetrators in prison for 10 years with a fine of up to US$ 50,000.
In the US, however, a liberal democracy, things are different.
In Lamont v Postmaster General, the court struck down a cold war-era federal law that required the postmaster general to refrain from delivering mail supporting “communist political propaganda”. The court held that such a restriction constituted “an unconstitutional abridgement of the addressee's First Amendment rights”. Four years later, the court clarified that the “right to receive information and ideas, regardless of their social worth, is fundamental to our free society”. More recently, Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed civil and criminal penalties for “ knowingly disseminating false information...” It went nowhere as critics claim there would be “constitutional hazards” for such proposed laws. The problem in all this is that, in an attempt to be a liberal democracy, the US – like us – lacked certain prerequisites. In a liberal democracy, the citizens are seized of their responsibilities to community and country, as well as the consequences of calumny. Perhaps, without the benefit of civics and a pedagogy that missed the methodologies to produce well-rounded citizens with the ability to think rationally and logically, we absorb – sponge-like – anything close to us, turning us into the sons and daughters of Anancy.
The results of this swallowing of fake news and mischief is instructive. At the time of publication South Korea had a death toll of 2,605 and Singapore's was 183. In the freedom-loving US the death count is 719,000, with another 14,000 or so mainly misguided anti-vaxxers dying every week.
It is suicide to allow fake news and mischief to make its way into our political bloodstream, Prime Minister. We must prepare our people for liberal democracy by educating them in such a way that they are able to pick sense from nonsense by thinking critically and creatively. That, along with a vibrant, closely monitored civil service playing a vital role in effective policymaking and regulation, can take you and your bright young team to commanding heights.
Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.