Post-truth constitutesa real threat to society

Updated: 2017-01-20 07:48

(HK Edition)

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Peter Liang says HK has become increasingly agitated and intolerant as a society, with social media playing a big part in it, which has led to a rise in anti-establishment sentiment

The biggest news of Hong Kong in 2017 has to be the election of the Chief Executive to lead Hong Kong in these turbulent times.

With so much at stake, it is all the more important for Hong Kong people to remain vigilant against the corrosive power of so-called "post-truth" - said to have unduly influenced the US presidential election and the (European Union) referendum in the UK last year. The term "post-truth", which has been newly included in the Oxford Dictionaries, refers to emotive and often irrational arguments which have no factual basis.

Improbable as it may seem, such post-truth arguments are considered by many political scholars to have helped seal US President-elect Donald Trump's victory and the British vote to leave the EU, or Brexit. Western academics have said that the post-truth world has been shaped by the rapidly widening wealth gap in many developed economies. This is since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008, resulting in a groundswell of resentment among the middle- to lower-income groups.

To be sure, campaign rhetoric won't necessarily determine the outcome of the CE election in Hong Kong. But that won't stop the many political activists from using post-truth arguments to push their own self-serving agenda. Even if these mostly false arguments aren't going to affect the election process, they can influence public perceptions and create additional problems of governance for the new CE.

Post-truth constitutesa real threat to society

With income inequality ranking among the highest in the developed world, Hong Kong has become particularly receptive to post-truth arguments in recent years. The discontent among some local people has been further heightened by rising home prices and the perceived insensitivity of the establishment, particularly the business community.

In today's Hong Kong, it is hard to find a middle ground on which consensus can be built. Emotive arguments, or post-truth, dominate in every forum and public hearing. In a BBC article, Professor A.C. Grayling, an influential British philosopher, laments the "corruption of intellectual integrity" by the prevalence of post-truth.

He says that the post-truth epidemic is further fanned by the rise of social media where strong opinions can shout down the evidence. "The whole post-truth phenomenon is about my opinion is worth more than the facts. It's about how I feel about things," he says.

Hong Kong young people are particularly susceptible to the influence of social media. That's because most of them are not getting much guidance from their parents who are usually too busy earning a living in this highly competitive society. The schools are of little help because they are too preoccupied with drilling students to pass exams. Anyone who cares to read social media will be shocked by the many twisted views of society masquerading as truth. Some of the social media sites are nothing more than snake pits where characters are distorted and minds poisoned by blatant lies being pandered with impunity.

Under the increased influence of lies, Hong Kong as a society has become increasingly agitated and intolerant. The resulting rise in anti-establishment sentiment among the public has been exploited by some political activists to get public support for their personal agenda. Post-truth arguments that have done so much damage to the establishment's credibility have become a common currency in local politics.

To combat this social disease, the government will need to take a more proactive stand in explaining its policies and the thinking behind them to the public in simple and easy-to-understand terms. It can borrow the style of the "fireside chats" on radio that was used so effectively by then US president Franklin Roosevelt to lift the public spirits during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Instead of radio, the government information officers must learn to use social media in reaching their intended audience.

The traditional media, including print, on-air and online, should reclaim their mantle by meticulously fact-checking the stories it deems fit to print or broadcast. This is the best way to beat back the social media that have been encroaching on their turf for so long.

Oxford Dictionaries define post-truth as where "objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". As such, post-truth constitutes a real threat to the fabric of any society.

The author is a veteran current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 01/20/2017 page1)