This article was first published in the Trinidad Express Newspapers on March 30th 2018.
Fiction spreads farther and faster than the truth was the headline in the UK Economist magazine reporting on research done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laboratory for Social Machines. Apparently social media via the internet works almost as fast as a Trini grapevine when it comes to mauvais langue. The most recent example here has been the character assassination targeted at Minister Dillon, providing Trinis, as if we already did not know, of a clear example of how quickly the rumour mill goes.
Her Excellence, Donna-Mae Weeks in her inauguration address asked us for help – not by deriving a mathematical equation for E=Mc2 – but by each day committing a little act of decency – a little act of kindness. One such act which would not cost anyone anything other than a smidgeon of restraint is to not pass on a negative rumour that is as yet unproven.
The campaign for Grapevine Truth can begin in schools where the gossip mill has led more than one teenager to despair and suicide: “He is a ho”. All the guys on the rugby team have “had him” or that a popular girl in form six is “plying for hire”, people who delight in destruction and making other people suffer and die emotionally will pass it on, instead of asking “what’s the proof? Were you there when it happened?” And fake political news is the most likely to so viral.
Once such a rumour starts, the higher the status of the people that pass it on, the easier it is for it to travel. And the more likely it is someone whose idea of wisdom is a cartoon cliché will sniff and say “well, where there is smoke, there is fire”, a stupid cliché in itself. Sometimes smoke is just that: smoke. It is used to drive away insects and provide a screen to hide something else.
However, if you keep telling people that the USA, unprovoked, is planning to bomb your country and it is necessary to build nuclear warheads to protect you, some of the people will believe it some of the time and some will believe it all the time.
If you keep telling people the company they are working for has installed video cameras in a room not even used for that purpose to peek at women as they change their clothes, that dengue virus is coming via aerial spraying, or that Jewish people eat little babies as part of their religious ceremonies, some people will believe it. There is a technique call The Big Lie which guarantees that if you repeat an untruth often enough with enough passion, after a while a majority of people will believe it, rally to your cause and even go to war and die for it. Hitler did it to turn people against the Jewish people and a million and a half were killed in slave camps and gas ovens as a result. The Khmer Range did it. Governments and ‘mafia’ organizations all over the world are doing it as we speak.
A classic example played itself out in Trinidad and Tobago last Sunday when a blog on social media popped up on my WhatsApp saying that the US Supreme Court had that day found Edmund Dillon guilty of fraud and ordered him to repay thousands of US dollars to an alleged victim. The post included names of banks and sums withdrawn from each bank. It all sounded very authoritative and detailed, but for one thing. It said that the judgement had been issued that day which was a Sunday. I am known to have evolved into something of a skeptical cynic in my later years. It all started when I discovered who Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were and deepened when I studied Philosophy in University, and took over for good when I was exposed to politics. And the cynic in me found it unlikely in the extreme that the US Appeal Court sat on a Sunday which, once questioned, opened a sea of doubts about the veracity of the whole thing.
It will not be the first time, nor will it be the last in politics, which, as Mr. Panday famously said “has a morality of its own”, that someone has used “lies half truths and innuendoes” to influence political decisions. In this environment, the air thick with money laundering, drug dealing, human trafficking and government contract front-loading one imagines the Minister of National Security knows where many of these “bodies are buried”. Assassination, by bullet, as in the case of Dana Seetehal, would be too obvious and easily traced. But to kill someone’s reputation and authority would work just as well for the purposes of smoke screening. A judgement from the US Appeal Court is not even necessary. Lies, half truths and innuendoes work in T&T as effectively as bullets. And are as hard to recover from.
Even before there is a court decision, and despite what the court does decide, the damage is already done. It is now up to you how much you will believe of what comes your way on social media. Me? I remain a skeptic.