If there’s a word that defines the year 2018, says Dictionary.com, it’s “misinformation.” An unintended consequence of the Information Age, misinformation—and its cousin, deliberate disinformation—is a rising flood tide of lies, delusions, and blind, adamant belief that imperils our ability to govern ourselves. The pollution pours in from Facebook and other social media, Russian troll farms, and a White House that denies that objective truth exists. Did Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman order the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi? “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” President Trump said, shrugging off the CIA’s evidence-based conclusion that he did. When asked why his client wouldn’t testify in the Russia investigation, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani explained, “Truth isn’t truth.” There’s no way to determine who’s lying and who’s not, Giuliani and his client insist. Truth is inherently partisan. It’s whatever you prefer to believe.
To see where this leads, consider Vladimir Putin’s Russia—the world’s leading practitioner and exporter of Orwellian propaganda. In a chilling piece, The Washington Post this week examined how Russia is aggressively undermining the West’s concept of truth. (See Last Word.) When the Kremlin was caught using a chemical weapon to poison a Russian double agent in Britain, Putin’s disinformation machine pumped out a stream of conspiracy theories: Maybe Britain did this to make Russia look bad! After being bombarded with lies on state TV and social media, most Russians either believed Britain was behind the poisoning, or said, “It could have been anyone.” The goal of such propaganda, experts told the Post, is to create doubt about the obvious—to flood the zone with so many alternative explanations that people “begin giving up on the facts.” Sound familiar? This may be foolishly optimistic, but my wish for 2019 is that the word of the year will be: “Truth.”