In the war against disinformation, politicians should stand on the front line

AI fact-checkers are fine, but the onus to nip lies and fake news in the bud lies with those in positions of power

A 'Vote Leave' battle bus is parked outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London in July 2016. Getty Images
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned, correctly, that “the proliferation of hate and lies in the digital space is causing grave global harm now. It is fuelling conflict, death and destruction. It is threatening democracy and human rights”. We do indeed live in an age of disinformation, as Preslav Nakov wrote in these pages over the weekend.

Action is clearly necessary, and codes of conduct and AI fact-checking are welcome. But they can only do so much if politicians and governments do not set better examples themselves.

Let me present three statements made by prominent political leaders over the past few years, which I would argue were demonstrably false – a fact that the speakers ought to have known.

In 2016, one of Malaysia’s longstanding opposition figures, Lim Kit Siang, said that under then prime minister Najib Razak the country was headed towards becoming a “failed and rogue state”. That same year, leading figures in the Leave camp claimed before the Brexit referendum that if the UK stayed in the EU, 77 million Turks could come to Britain “without any checks at all”. Just a few days ago, US President Joe Biden said that China’s Belt and Road Initiative “turns out to be a debt and confiscation programme”.

Too many leaders are persuading people to take a black-and-white worldview

Mr Lim, or “Uncle Lim” as the now-retired politician is often fondly called, has won admiration for his independence and determination over a total of 29 years of leading Malaysia’s opposition – not always an easy task. But saying that the country was on the way to being a “failed and rogue state” when it had had years of good growth, low inflation and unemployment, and had been attracting record levels of foreign direct investment under the Najib administration, was utterly unjustifiable. The fact that the government changed after the general election two years later showed that it was also a properly functioning democracy. “Uncle Lim” knew better.

Anyone with the slightest understanding of the EU knows that Turkey will almost certainly never be allowed to join, and such is the scaremongering about mass Muslim immigration that there is no way EU officials would ever conceivably allow 77 million Turks (the entire population at the time) to enter the bloc without a visa, then grant them citizenship, after which they would all decide to move to the UK if it remained a member. Again, Leave campaigners were well aware of this.

Lastly, I think Mr Biden is a decent man, but he must know that the myth of the BRI as “debt-trap diplomacy” has been thoroughly debunked. No one has been forced to take loans. If one or two leaders have taken on unwise debts in bids to polish their own images, that has been their own choice. Most countries are very grateful for the financial support to build critical infrastructure that has not been as forthcoming from other powers. Indeed, it has recently been claimed by John Thornton – an American professor in China who is a former president of Goldman Sachs – that in 2013, when John Kerry was US secretary of state and Mr Biden was vice president, Mr Kerry had a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in which they both proposed constructing the BRI together; and that Mr Kerry later said that the failure to take that forward was the single biggest missed opportunity in his political life.

Mr Kerry is now Mr Biden’s climate envoy. Perhaps the two should have a word about the real nature of the BRI. Because politicians owe it to us to be straight, and careful, with the facts. Hyperbole may be permissible on the campaign trail, but distortion and outright misrepresentation should not be.

Unfortunately, there’s a long history of that, particularly in the US, as former senator Al Franken detailed as far back as 2003 in his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. One example Mr Franken gave was when Democrats voted to extend a time-limited tax. Republicans would claim their opponents were voting to raise taxes, which was a false description of maintaining a levy that already existed. A lie? Mr Franken certainly thought so.

Another kind of deception is the omission of inconvenient facts. Bruno Macaes, the former secretary of state for European affairs in Portugal, recently tweeted that he “talked to a top foreign policy official from Taiwan a couple of weeks ago. No concern whatsoever about an invasion or blockade from China this decade”. Where, pray, has that voice been in the frenzied debate about Taiwan? Isn’t it of the utmost relevance?

But on Taiwan, as on the BRI, and maybe on Ukraine as well, we are being fed reductionist narratives by the “democracies versus autocracies” proponents that you are not allowed to challenge without being painted as a stooge or a puppet.

In western circles, for instance, the finger was universally pointed at Russia after the Nord Stream pipeline was blown up. Yet, citing leaked information online, The Washington Post reported last week that the Ukrainians had a plan to do this – and that the White House knew about this three months before the explosions.

Too many leaders are persuading people to take a black-and-white worldview by being economical with the truth or peddling falsehoods. And that includes those who should, and do, know better.

In Malaysia, where I live, we face this constantly, with people warning that Islam and the Malays are under threat, when in fact Malay Muslims are dominant in all state institutions and are making up an ever-increasing proportion of the population.

We are all diminished by this. AI fact checkers can certainly help a lot. But politicians in all parts could set a much better example by ensuring that what they say is properly based on the truth. It doesn’t seem too much to ask grown-up, experienced leaders to observe a rule that is one of the first we try to instil in our children.

Published: June 14, 2023, 7:00 AM