True lies: how the seeking of facts can sometimes distort the truth

Alternative facts are intended to make us question all that is presented before us – and thus ignore greater realities

BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 02:  A stand hostess attaches a photo to a wall themed against Fake News at the annual re:publica conferences on their opening day on May 2, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. Re:publica 18 is holding a series of conferences themed with digital society on topics such as media, entertainment, politics, culture and technology from May 2-4.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images) ***BESTPIX***
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How negotiable is a fact? As a journalist, even asking that question is considered sacrilege. And yet, we live in an era of increasing misinformation, half-facts and politicised narratives.

How facts can constitute the truth is being challenged daily. In the play The Lifespan of a Fact, which recently opened on Broadway and is based on the book by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, there are two central arguments. One is that facts are non-negotiable and collectively make a singular truth.

The second argument is that a single fact does not always reflect the whole truth. Rather, sometimes facts can be misleading.

The protagonist in the play argues that the measurements of a chair do not always add up to the space needed to put it through a tight space. Does that mean that its measurements are wrong or is the truth that the design of the chair would make it impossible to fit through some door frames? This is a simple and tangible example of the daily challenges we are faced in assessing what is passed off as “fact” and what we believe to be true.

Centuries of writing about the “truth”, whether religious or political, articulate similar questions.

However, it is the flood of information and the multitude of opinion writers, influencers and government spokespeople, in addition to the trolls and algorithms that dictate much of what we read online, that have changed how modern day “truths” emerge.

Google processes close to 3.5 billion searches a day. Of course, many of those searches are related to where the closest petrol station is, or what time a local restaurant might open.

Sitting in the pockets of the world’s 2.5 billion owners of smartphones is an infinite amount of information – all posited as fact. And to each narrative, there is a counter-narrative.

In her book The Death of Truth, Michiko Kakutani says that "the possibility of anonymity on the web has promoted a toxic lack of accountability and enabled harassers and trolls".

That lack of accountability has meant that misinformation and distorted facts can be spread quickly.

Fake news and alternative facts are all intended to make individuals question all that is presented – and thus ignore the greater realities of what is happening.

The Syrian regime has perfected this technique. For example, the truth is that thousands of children have been killed in the war in Syria.

Does it matter that a child reportedly killed in Idlib by regime air power was actually in Raqqa?

It does of course matter, in the same way that all facts matter. However, if there is a discrepancy, that doesn’t take away from the bigger truth.

As conflicting sides cherry-pick which “facts” they choose to focus on, the narrative of the truth is inevitably impacted.

The fact in itself might be wrong but the essence of the truth is still there: that a child was killed. And getting information from the ground that proves the child was killed by air power means that the only side of the war with air power is responsible for that death.

However, if every detail of the death is picked apart, that truth is itself questioned.

Journalists are inundated with statements that convey positions of countries, while leaks seek to influence how those statements are covered.

Most editors and journalists are very familiar with the subjective way in which a story is approached and formulated.

Which headline is chosen, what photo accompanies a story and which quote is given prominence are all subjective daily choices that we make to give emphasis to a particular stance or argument.

There is simply no getting away from that. Popular images are shared online that show pictures being manipulated, depending on the angle they are shot from.

And yet all of that can end up being a distraction from the reality that there are hard facts that cannot be ignored or overlooked.

The daily decisions we make about what we accept as fact, and what comprises our truth, impact our lives, both personally and professionally.

At its heart, that acceptance is linked to our convictions. The trustworthiness of the source of that statement is central to our belief in it.

The ability to change someone’s opinion in the current climate is becoming more and more difficult. Each person’s convictions become increasingly entrenched as a defence mechanism to protect against a deluge of information and those seeking to manipulate our perceptions.

Hence, the lifespan of a fact becomes intricately linked to who is relaying the fact and how it fits into a greater truth.