(This is the keynote speech delivered via Skype on April 22, 2019 by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David on the occasion of the 2nd Democracy and Disinformation Conference. Bishop Ambo’s speech was also preceded by a short interview with Patricia Evangelista.)
Truth in the Age of Disinformation
Bishop Ambo David
Some time ago, I saw a film about professional political strategists who do consultancy work for politicians, especially those who are still aspiring for public office. Their work consists basically in packaging their candidate’s campaign in such a way that the public opinion, which they gauge through surveys, is influenced and swayed favorably—meaning, in favor of their candidate.
The opening scene is an interview with the character Jane Bondine (played by Sandra Bullock), being considered for a job. First question is, “Did you ever work for politicians you did not believe in?” (Her answer: “Sure, I could convince myself many things if the price is right.) Second question: “How important is honesty?” (Answer: “Oh, truth is relative in politics. The truth is what I tell the electorate the truth is.”)
In the film, both the administration and the opposition candidates hire American political strategists for the same purpose. On the one hand there’s Jane Bondine (the character played by Sandra Bullock) who works as consultant for the Bolivian presidential candidate, Pedro Castillo, and on the other hand, Pat Candy, who works for a very popular opposition candidate Rivera, who is topping the surveys.
The setting is actually before the digital technological revolution; they are still dependent on the print & broadcast media for information dissemination. Each camp spends a huge amount of money paying a whole staff of campaign assistants and consultants, most of them behaving already like our modern-day trolls in the age of social media, whose task is to engage in smear campaign against the contenders in order to sway the public opinion against them and to achieve for their candidates high ratings in the surveys.
Their primary objective is obviously to get their candidate to win, by hook or by crook. Truth and morals are least among their concerns, given their ultimate goal.
The majority of the public they are trying to influence are just numbers, figures in a survey, a mass of nameless, faceless, unthinking people—whose opinions could easily be swayed by manipulated information drive whose actual objective is disinformation. But make no mistake about it, the strategists are not always after telling lies either. Sometimes or oftentimes, they actually pick up a little bit of truth and twist it or use it as a weapon for demolishing the contenders, or as a means of conditioning minds towards adopting a specific mindset.
The first most important step for the political packaging is the quest for a proper BRANDING, as is done with consumer products in grocery stores and supermarkets. In the film, Jane Bondine is able to persuade her candidate Pedro Castillo to shed off the typical clean, decent and straight corporate image, which most other candidates try to project during their campaign. She does this by telling Castillo to get rid of his formal coat, roll up his sleeves like someone always ready for work, not hesitate to punch an enemy or hurl some cuss words and project a tough guy or strong man image, and convince people that in not-so-normal times like theirs he’s exactly the kind of leader that they need, convincing them that all the other typically decent candidates were nothing but a bunch of hypocritical elitists. This explains why the film is entitled, OUR BRAND IS CRISIS.
Honestly, while watching the movie, I couldn’t help but see a lot of eerie parallelisms with our existing state of affairs in Philippine politics today. The most obvious one was the candidate whom Jane Bondine was hired to work. How he rose from obscurity to extreme popularity because of the way he had been branded. I recall how similar lines had been routinely peddled during the whole duration of the political campaign period in the 2016 election. The only difference was, that much of it was done in the social media, the cheapest and most efficient way of reaching the majority of the electorate. I imagine the same Jane Bondine briefing her candidate and saying: “Our brand is crisis caused by drugs, criminality, and corruption.” No need for real statistics. The important thing is to bloat the figures about drug use, exaggerate them and say addressing this problem is a matter of life and death. Our solution is a strong man, one who talks tough and would not hesitate to make short cuts. One who would not allow himself to be hindered by legalities and human rights concerns in the fight against illegal drugs and the task of getting rid of criminality and corruption. Since the millennials hardly have any memory of the dictator anymore, now is the perfect occasion to revise history. Present the former dictator the best leader our country ever had, a leader whom the pro-American oligarchs succeeded in vilifying. Present him as exactly the kind of leader that we need again.
Disinformation has become a full-time job in the age of social media. As Jane Bondine said, “Truth is relative. Whose truth?” What is the criterion for truth? In the psychology of the social media, the criteria for truth are indeed changing. Among the principles are the following: “If it is trending, then it must be true.” “If he’s leading in the surveys, maybe he’s the guy to vote for. Who loves a loser anyway?” “I’d rather trust somebody who flaunts his immorality than hypocrites who have skeletons in their closet.” “If most of the comments about him are negative, he probably really deserves them.”
The Quest for Truth
Truth, according to Aristotle is to say of WHAT IS THAT IS, AND WHAT IS NOT THAT IS NOT. It is basically a conformity of knowing to reality.
Later modern philosophers like Bernard Lonergan would react to this understanding. Lonergan would say truth involves more than just conformity. It demands fidelity. And so he prefers to define truth as “the cognitive fidelity of knowing to being.”
FIDELITY or faithfulness presupposes a relationship. This was the same direction that was taken by another philosopher at a later stage in his philosophical career: Ludwig Wittgenstein.
In his earlier years, Wittgenstein actually tended more towards the Aristotelian notion of strict conformity and came up with an epistemological theory he called “logical positivism,” demanding practically a one-on-one correspondence between what the knower knows and what there really is, out there.
In his Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, the earlier Wittgenstein insisted that we have “no right to speak about what we do not know.” About God, for instance, if there’s no objective reality out there that corresponds to what we call God, then it makes no sense to engage in Godtalk. (This is the basic premise of agnosticism.)
In his later years, Wittgenstein abandoned his own theory, even if other thinkers continued to hold on to it. He began to speak instead of the complexity of truth-seeking, as evidenced by the kind of language game that it requires. For example, a dog is a dog, not a snake. A man is a man, not a dog. But how come we are sometimes able to say, “That man is a lapdog or a snake,” and actually make sense in a metaphorical way. He calls the use of metaphors a different language game, all together, as evidenced by theology and metaphysics.
Recall how Galileo defended himself when he was tried by the authorities for allegedly questioning biblical truth in his scientific theories and thus committing heresy. He said, “I am a scientist, not a theologian. I am talking about how the heavens go, not how to go to heaven.” It goes the same way with evolution and creation as two distinct statements about the world. One is scientific, the other is theological. They do not necessarily contradict each other. They are just two distinct ways of using language to describe the truth.
On recognizing the complexity of the human language game which, he says, is incurably metaphorical, the later Wittgenstein gave up his positivism. From “Whereof one knows not, thereof one speaks not,” he would later say, “Whereof one knows not, thereof one rambles and stammers, making an effort to make sense in expressing the truth through language.” You make a statement and allow it to be challenged by other seekers of truth in a mature process of dialogue. We never seek the truth alone; we always do it as part of a community of truth-seekers.
The later Wittgenstein would recognize that Truth demands a commitment not just to WHAT THERE IS but also to what THERE OUGHT TO BE. The latter refers to the two other characteristics of being, aside from truth—goodness and beauty. Not only is human intelligence able to grasp WHAT IS, but also WHAT SHOULD BE, that which COULD YET BE from what presently is. Human imagination is able to develop an insight not just into things in their actuality but also in their potentialities. What brings this about is the active interaction between the knowers and the objects known.
Truth, as an attribute of being, cannot be separated from the other attributes of goodness and beauty. Some people who question the existing state of affairs and advocate a new kind of economic and political order may engage, not just in laying out the facts about the present condition but also in the propagation or promotion of an ideology that runs counter to the current system that is behind the present condition. This is what is commonly known as “propaganda”. Even the Church is running a Vatican curia office called “Propaganda Fidei” the promotion of faith.
Sometimes, it happens that some peope get so obsessed with an ideology, as it does with fundamentalists. Instead of telling the truth about the existing state of affairs, they present caricatures, or even deliberate misinformation for a sinister purpose. This has become the more common negative meaning of an otherwise neutral word as “propaganda.” This is the common accusation hurled, for instance, by right wing politicians against the left, accusing them of “pure propaganda” while they themselves are actually involved in it. Finding out which propaganda is faithful to or grounded on the truth is precisely a whole philosophical issue. You see, the quest for truth is inevitably a philosophical issue. Specifically, it is EPISTEMOLOGICAL in its objective. It is not enough that we know. It is important that WE KNOW THAT WE EITHER KNOW OR DO NOT KNOW.
One of the important issues in epistemology is, IS THERE SUCH A THING AS FALSE KNOWLEDGE? Can I call it knowledge if it’s not true? Apparently, this is a contradiction in terms. Knowing presupposes the interest in establishing the truth, following some criteria for distinguishing between what is and what is not (whether it be about truth, goodness, or beauty).
For Believers, the quest for truth is more than a philosophical endeavor. It is also theological. Since we associate the quest for truth with the quest for God, TRUTH is supposed to be a spiritually impelled moral imperative. We love to quote Jesus, who says in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Or in John 8:32, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Or John 4:23: “The time is coming and has indeed come when people will no longer worship God i this or that mountain but in spirit and in truth.” Or John 18:37-38 “I came to testify to the truth…” and Pilate says, “WHAT IS THE TRUTH?”
Truthfulness is a presumed value in the Judaeo-Christian faith. Hence one of the ten commandments (the eighth) states, THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS AGAINST THY NEIGHBOR.
The evil one is often presented in the Scriptural narratives as the purveyor of falsehood. In fact Satan is regarded as a Prince of Lies in Christian tradition. In yesterday’s renewal of baptismal vows, the first vow, which is a rejection of evil is formulated this way: DO YOU REJECT SATAN?
In the Scriptures, the purveyors of disinformation are often portrayed as instruments of the Evil One. We have, for instance, the snake character in Genesis 3 (who tricks Eve with half truths and outright lies). We also have Cain in Gen 4, who lies when God asks him where his brother is. He says: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We have the wicked accusers of Susanna in Daniel 13. We have the detractors of Jesus and their false testimonies against him before Pilate in Luke22:2,37.
V.2. “They brought charges against him, saying, “We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Messiah, a king.”
V.37. So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king.* For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
We mentioned a while ago about Lonergan’s definition of truth as the cognitive fidelity of knowing to being. It is important to note that the act of knowing itself involves the dynamics of EXPERIENCING, UNDERSTANDING, & JUDGING. Later Lonerganians would propose the addition of DECIDING as being of utmost importance as well in the quest for truth.
In one of my postings during the Holy Week, I noted that Pontius Pilate gave the people a chance to vote which prisoner deserved to be released for the Passover Festival. The choice was between Jesus and Barabbas. They elected Barabbas, and had Jesus crucified, relying on the strong public opinion that the Sadducees had successfully generated against Jesus.
I ENDED BY POSING THE QUESTION, “WILL YOUR VOTE IN MAY BE FOR JESUS, OR FOR BARABBAS?” It can only be for Jesus if the truth still matters to the one who votes, and allows his vote to be informed by experience, understanding, judging and decision-making.