There is no democracy without truth

4 min
The doors of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 6.

The start of this year saw an insurrection that tried to overturn the result of the US presidential elections, and take hold of the Capitol in Washington, DC. The insurrectionists believe that Donald J. Trump won the election, that there was massive electoral fraud, and some seemed persuaded that they were taking part in a revolution.

The media has kept track of Trump’s lies during the past 5 years. By July last year, the Washington Post counted more than 20 000 falsehoods or untruths said by Trump, with the more egregious coming in the last months of the presidency. There were lies about the seriousness of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the need to wear masks, etc.

Trump has subsequently lost his social media accounts, as did many of his followers. Parler, an alternative social media platform similar to Twitter, was used by people banned from other social networks. After the insurrection, Apple and Google removed the app from their app stores, and Parler went offline when Amazon, which hosted the platform, cancelled it. We may feel inclined to agree with the move from Big Tech corporations to (finally!) shut down hate speech on their platforms. But many have warned that we shouldn’t cheer them just yet. Many threats of violence can still be easily found, for instance, on Twitter. Are these platforms shutting down hate speech, or taking advantage of the insurrection to shut down dissent? And why should the wealthiest and more powerful corporations in the world have the power of censorship?

Andreu Mas-Collell put the finger on what (part of) the protection of democracy requires: democracies need judges with a democratic conscience, in other words democracies need the rule of law, and plural and diverse social and news media. Big Tech are neither. We should leave it to the courts, not to private monopolies, to apply the rule of law and assess and punish incitements of violence.

Donald Trump's Twitter account

The reason why we should not cheer on Big Tech just yet is that by allowing large corporations to control public speech – to exercise the power of censorship – we compromise the possibility of genuinely plural and diverse societies. By doing this, we compromise democracy and justice.

Last week, a Reddit group called ‘WallStreetBets’ turned the tables on depredatory Wall Street hedge funds by increasing the value of the stocks of the videogame retailer GameStop. Hedge funds like Melvin Capital lost half of its value. However, the revolt of small investors didn’t last. As David Sacks wrote, “All this outsider army needed to win was the continued ability to communicate with each other online, and their collective ability to keep piling into the “Buy” side of the trade. Within hours, they would be hobbled on the first front and crippled on the second… WallStreetBets investors were locked out of their trading accounts by online brokers such as Robinhood on Thursday morning… The censorship power is always justified in response to a genuine outrage or crisis, but it is rarely relinquished once the threat passes. Rather it gets weaponized to protect powerful, connected insiders, as the GameStop fiasco illustrates.” Giving social media platforms the power of censorship allows them to foment strategic ignorance in order for the powerful to gain or maintain power.

Democracies need to protect the rule of law and a diverse and free press. But they also need to protect the rights of the powerless to speak truth to power. Vaclav Havel, in his “The Power of the Powerless”, denounced the lies on which authoritarianism in Eastern Europe rested before the fall of the Berlin wall. He described a greengrocer who kept on his window a statement he does not care about: “Workers of the world unite”. Havel then describes this greengrocer’s small act of defiance, which resonates with the GameStop scandal:

“Thus the power structure, through the agency of those who carry out the sanctions, those anonymous components of the system, will spew the greengrocer from its mouth… The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game... He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted façade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.”

In his recent defence of realism, the philosopher Timothy Williamson explains that realism is the idea that reality’s existence is independent from our beliefs and desires. It is also therefore independent of what the powerful desire. Without realism, he says, the powerless cannot resist authoritarianism: “Whatever the future brings, we can be fairly confident that the need will be as great as ever to speak truth to power—and to the almost powerless, who can still vote, or join a mob. Imagine a future where a dictator or would-be dictator, accused of spreading falsehoods, can reply: ‘You are relying on obsolescent realist ideas of truth and falsity; realism has been discredited in philosophy’.” Timothy Snyder says the same with greater economy: “post-truth is pre-fascism.”

Ergo, there is no democracy without truth.

Teresa Marques is a professor of philosophy at the UB