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White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, speaks during the daily briefing. PM

Alternative facts 'Trump sent a powerful message that facts can be altered to suit his own agenda'

Altering the truth is always wrong but it could be fatal if orchestrated to justify war or the use of nuclear weapons, writes Jason O’Sullivan.

FOLLOWING DONALD TRUMP’S inauguration, the newly appointed White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, lambasted journalists for what he claimed was “deliberately false reporting” regarding the attendance figures at the ceremony. He declared: “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”

This was Spicer’s first official press briefing and his lecturing tone to the attending press was rightly received both in a critical and ridiculing manner, particularly given his inaccurate claims on crowd size which were easily disproved through available aerial photographic evidence circulating on social media.

Trump already circulating ‘misinformation’

It is alarming however, that despite such clear evidence confirming the disparity in numbers between Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 and Trump’s in 2017, Spicer (and more so the new regime) persisted in knowingly relaying incorrect information to the world’s press, in an unashamedly and blatant attempt to reconstruct the truth.

In other words, circulating “misinformation”.  To compound such falsehoods, Trump’s senior advisor Kellyanne Conway attempted to defend and spin such nonsensical statements by claiming Spicer “gave alternative facts”.

Of late, the term “misinformation” has become commonplace within the political arena, and is in itself a sad indictment of the way politics has developed and transitioned in recent years.

Brexit propaganda

The Brexit propaganda machine utilised for the “Leave” side during last year’s EU referendum campaign, which saw the UK electorate voting to leave the EU, aptly demonstrated the powerful effect misinformation can achieve if orchestrated to the right target audience.

Conservative MP Michael Gove, a talisman for the “Leave” side had said during a Sky News interview before the vote that, “Britain has had enough of experts.” Such rhetoric was clearly unsubstantiated but utilised to fuel doubts about the role of experts and their societal importance.

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage admitted the day after the shock result, that it was a “mistake” to promise that £350 million a week would be spent on the NHS if the UK backed a Brexit vote, after this monumental funding pledge had been used as a key influencing tactic throughout the campaign.

The deliberate propagation of ignorance

Trump Kellyanne Conway gets ready to go on television outside the White House, January 22 2017. Manuel Balce Ceneta Manuel Balce Ceneta

Tony Blair apologised publically last year following the damning report from the Chilcot inquiry, which heavily criticised Blair for his decision to lead Britain to war in Iraq in 2003. The report noted that Blair had exaggerated the case for war in Iraq and that Britain’s intelligence agencies produced “flawed information”.

The above examples, to name but a few, demonstrate that the use of covert misinformation is not a new phenomenon and has been the subject of much research in previous decades. One prominent expert on this topic is Robert Proctor, a science historian at Standford University, who coined the word “agnotology” to describe the study of “deliberate propagation of ignorance”.

Proctor’s initial research into the so-called study of “agnotology” arose from the communicative tactics Big Tobacco companies deployed in the 1970s, to allegedly create doubt in the minds of the public about the harmful effects of smoking. Such confusion and deceit was aimed at obscuring the facts for the benefit of the ever lucrative tobacco industry.

In a more modern context, occasional dissenting and unverified data reports that question the validity of legitimate facts relating to climate change and the imminent need for protective measures, could be linked with such deliberate dissemination of mass ignorance for unscrupulous corporate gain.

Global brands use covert propaganda

Large-scale corporate self-interest enables global companies and brands to fund mass manipulative propaganda in a more covert and sophisticated manner than ever before.

Through the creation of biased think-tanks that have the potential to influence policy, or through the promotion of online bloggers who gain financially for their impartial support of industry positions or products, all play an important role in shaping public opinion and swaying the political agenda.

There is little doubt that Trump is unlike most modern day politicians and he has prided himself on being a businessman first. This exception to the rule can be attractive for some of the electorate who have grown tired or apathetic towards the political elite.

What is most unusual however, is that in the past such misinformation was carried out in a disguised and guarded fashion to avoid unwanted detection or scrutiny by the media or various interest groups.

Openly altering the truth

On the contrary, the attempt to overtly contradict clear evidence of previous crowd data as done this week by the new Trump team, sends a powerful message that the truth may be challenged and facts altered to suit Trump’s manifesto and future policies.

It is quite innocuous where the truth is openly altered for something as irrelevant as mere crowd numbers, but could be fatal when orchestrated for acts to justify war or the use of nuclear weapons.

It is a worrying time for world politics and international affairs. There is now an even greater need for journalistic endeavour to uphold the truth and maintain ethical integrity.

Similarly, an even greater role must be placed on all citizens to ensure they take responsibility for their civic duties in questioning such misinformation and seeking the truth, where possible, to ensure that justice and liberty prevail in these turbulent times.

Jason O’ Sullivan, is a solicitor and public affairs consultant at JOS Solicitors.

Trump’s chief advisor Kellyanne Conway defends crowd claims as ‘alternative facts’>

“Sometimes we can disagree with the facts” – the first official press conference of the Trump administration>


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