Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Politicians have always lied — it’s just part of the job description. At best they make unrealistic promises. At worst they deliberately mislead and conceal what should be revealed. Here, think Nkandla’s “security upgrades” to President Jacob Zuma’s residence, or the bugging at Watergate that eventually felled President Richard Nixon.

In President Donald Trump’s first few days in office, in the face of wide protests against his accession to power, his spokesman Kellyanne Conway spoke of Trump’s “alternative facts” when challenged on one of Trump’s fibs.

You can see why she did that. In a world of instant access to millions of bytes of information, it isn’t particularly hard to find the “facts” you want to massage your message — no matter how brazenly deceitful it may be.

Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Trump’s first gift to the American people is the debasing of truth; it’s how he ran his campaign, after all. Lie; then attack those who hold you accountable for what you say — the media.

With truth so devalued, the value of trust in established sources has never been at a higher premium.

But let’s ignore his fibs over the minor matter of how few people attended his inauguration, it’s far more serious when it comes to policy.

Trump talked of 96m unemployed Americans — a claim quickly trashed by experts. It turned out Trump’s crude arithmetic had included retired people, schoolgoing children and people who cannot work. The real number was 14m. It was so mind-blowingly wrong, it smacked of more than mere dishonesty.

The problem is, in a world where facts have lost their currency, Trump’s 96m will be repeated by those who need it for their narrative — as were his lies that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US and that he is a practising Muslim.

Our own president isn’t immune to reframing “facts” so as to develop a new narrative for himself. He was reported as saying he wants to lead the ANC’s “political education” on leaving office. “Our comrades must learn to elect people based on merit,” he said, “and not because of the amount of money he or she can afford to buy votes.” Yet this comes from the man who, by his actions, has shown people the value of exactly the opposite approach.

“Alternative facts” were on keen display on Twitter this week too, as fake social media accounts were created to push a specific narrative against finance minister Pravin Gordhan.

The Bankorp bailout of the 1990s has been exhumed for this cause, and the Guptas’ own affidavit this past week was seized upon as “evidence” that Gordhan and others, including journalists, are stooges of white monopoly capital.

Only trouble was, these were paid Twitter accounts using false names. So much for these trolls having the courage of their convictions.

So how do South Africans navigate around the onslaught of manipulation and propaganda, masquerading as fact?

For starters, we need to take a step back and remember the currency of politics has always been half-truths.

Mud is thrown and some of it sticks. Some politicians have always traded in simplifications, wilful misinterpretations and scandal. The difference now is that the swirl of allegations, character assassination and overt lies has moved from the domain of rumour into instant and constantly repeated electronic communication. It can be overwhelming.

With truth so devalued, the value of trust in established sources has never been at a higher premium. The remedy — as it always was — is to source information and get guidance from the places with the most credibility: tested and trusted sources, proven commentators, fact-checking websites and the independent media.

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