By Simon Jenkins
An unregulated internet was always likely to breed confusion, denial and conspiracy theories. This is its nadir.
The president is not really sick. He is very sick. He is pretending. He is not pretending. That was his body double in the car. He may die. The illness is a fake to win Christian sympathy.
To QAnon’s followers, Covid is a deep-state Democrat trick to enslave the US and Trump’s “illness” is tactical. So don’t trust anything any more. We are in a maelstrom of information, spin and lies. No wonder there are six explanations for every apparently simple development.
Doctors have never known how to handle sick leaders. They said Britain’s Boris Johnson was just fine and cheerful. When this proved untrue he was said to be dying. Bulletins merged into bullshit. Nothing was believed. Johnson had to bitterly protest his health only this weekend.
When doctors lie about the fitness of leaders it matters to the security of the state. Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 flu was critical to the outcome of Versailles. Churchill was ill as prime minister in the 1950s. The tendency now is to reveal all, but as Johnson and Trump show, any crisis is a gift to spin.
Viewers of the Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma, by the Silicon Valley ethicist Tristan Harris, are appalled at the manipulative behaviour of the big tech giants, and at the billions susceptible to it. Social media is crafted as a colossal edifice of confirmation bias. It is institutionally mendacious.
No holder of liberal values – however defined – can defend the cruel anarchy of the web. We have been taken back to the time of the Salem witches, when an anonymous lie pinned to a church door was known to a whole village in minutes. True, the management of information became the privilege of ecclesiastical, political and commercial power. The profession of journalism evolved into one of mediating, editing, checking, censoring that dissemination. It sought, and to a degree succeeded, in creating trust in news.
That trust has all but collapsed under the barrage of unregulated “platforms”. Their capacity for good has failed to match their evil. Even now they are undermining trust in any Covid vaccine. No politician dares curb them. It would be paradoxical if it took the illness of a president to finally subject internet “news” to the same regulation as has long disciplined the mainstream media. This must happen. The great editor in the sky must prevail. But how many witches will die first?
An old maxim holds that news is only as valid as its source. The advent of instant digital communication was supposed to free the conduits of information to a new age of objective reality, of incorruptible truth. This was rubbish. The internet turned information into something infinitely flexible and made its sources more powerful than ever before. The idea of instant validation and fact-checking defaulted to one of agency – who was checking the checkers? Mark Twain is still right. A lie is halfway round the world when truth is still putting on its boots.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist