By MARK PEARSON
A passage by the great philosopher John Stuart Mill in his seminal work ‘On Liberty’ seems prescient almost 160 years after it was published. It offers insights into ‘false news’ in a ‘post-truth era’.
Much has been written about the sycophants who surround some leaders of politics and business, too fearful to suggest that their views might just be wrong or misguided.
In modern times some have suggested that nobody in the White House would dare question or debate the assertions US President Donald Trump emits daily via Twitter and at rallies of supporters. They have called it the “Emperor with no Clothes” phenomenon.
Related to this is the suggestion that social media and modern means of communication adds to the “echo chamber” where we accept as truth the rumours and assertions of those we “follow” or of commentators on the media channels that best suit our world view.
Again, it is said that the echo chamber for Trump and his supporters centres upon information and commentary in Fox News, which he has excluded from his rants against what he labels ‘fake news’ in other media.
While the communication media might have changed since 1859, there is nothing new about this, because Mill warned us of both phenomena in his landmark text.
I stumbled upon the passage this week when researching an address for a conference session and thought it was timely to share it with you here.
It offers important insights into our conceptions of “truth” and adds credence to better education in fact checking and source assessment, not just for journalists but also for the broader citizenry:
“Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated … place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of “the world” in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society … Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; … Yet it is as evident in itself as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.” – John Stuart Mill (1859). On Liberty. London: John W. Parker and Son. [underscore added by author]
© Mark Pearson 2018 and John Stuart Mill 1859
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.