As anyone who has spent any time in Germany would agree, it is a highly pragmatic nation. It is perhaps for this reason that my whimsical sense of humour and spontaneous decision making is viewed with a mixture of confusion and pity. At least this is what I tell myself when no one laughs at my jokes. It’s equally of no surprise that German employees routinely score highly on cultural indexes for long term thinking and uncertainty avoidance and that one of the more popular maxims you might hear is “Glaube nie eine Statistik, die du nicht selbst gefälscht hast”. Roughly translated it means: “Don’t trust any statistics you haven’t manipulated yourself”. It is not clear who exactly said it first, although it is often falsely attributed to the Britain’s one man quote generator, Winston Churchill. Nevertheless, it is a universal German truth and one that perhaps the UK has forgotten.
Tangentially connected to the German mistrust of statistical manipulation is the term “Lügenpresse” or lying press. As the magazine Der Spiegel noted in a recent article, it is a term that dates back before the formulation of Germany in 1871, but more recently it has been the go to phrase used by right wing pressure groups such as PEGIDA or the far right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The term expresses the belief that the news is manipulated wholesale by politicians, to either bury difficult stories or to protect itself from crimes committed by refugees or other migrants who entered the country last year. In turn, members or supporters of these groups look for news in other places and are often exposed to conspiracy theories or misinformation.
This isn’t only a German problem, nor is it a problem of only the right wing or conservative groups. We are all subject to bias. I find it very difficult to listen to leave supporters arguments, simply because I know I am right. This is of course ridiculous. By taking this position, I am disengaging from the discussion, and my god, if we are going to exist in the post-Brexit world, we will need sensible discussion. However, the left are equally capable of declaring bonkers ideas as fact. I have been dismayed on a number of occasions to hear my normally clear headed liberal friends espouse conspiracy theories as absolutes. As a wise leader once pointed out, dealing in absolutes will always end in tears.
However, remaining informed is perhaps much harder in the UK than it has ever been. The most obvious issue is that many of our major media outlets, and our most read newspaper The Sun, are owned by one man, Rupert Murdoch. Despite suffering a semi fall from grace following the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, Murdoch seems to have resumed his place as king maker, despite owning a newspaper that hacked the phones of anyone and everyone, regardless of them being alive or dead. The most viewed news website, The Daily Mail, despite occasional flashes of journalistic integrity spend most of its time declaring everything gives you cancer and railing against migration. Since it’s very inception, it has been accused of lacking objectivity. Of course since it’s very inception it was designed to entertain as opposed to providing critical analysis. In a world rife with confirmation bias, the tabloid world of the UK is hard to navigate.
Germany, for its part has tabloids, Bildzeitung being one example, however there is still a strong readership of regional news and non-tabloid options. The common distrust of the media leads people to a variety of news sources as well, which generally leads to a better informed electorate. Although, there are claims that German political will is waning, election turnout is still high (over 70%). The long-term thinking of Germany might lead some to despair that the country is less flexible than it’s competitors, but it does help when making important electoral decisions. Many tabloid readers in the UK, of both right and left, might claim they don’t believe everything they read, it is increasingly likely that they discount news that goes against their preconceptions.
Social media also has much to answer for too and much has been made this weekend concerning Facebook’s news algorithm that promotes the things you like, such as a pro-remain posts or a pro-Brexit statuses that you liked. This creates an echo-chamber that filters out all counter arguments and viewpoints and supplies the user with only those things that they have already shown an interest in. This stunts the debate and polarises users, making reasoned discussion of differing opinions impossible.
So, what is the answer? Well, perhaps not viewing the news as an endless cycle of
Facebook updates, something to be thought about for a moment. Perhaps we could start thinking about things critically and not only accept those arguments that we agree with. Perhaps we should demand better standards of journalism and campaign with our pockets. For myself, reading these quotes from an interview with Austrian journalist Armin Wolf might be a good start:
“Only research, fact-checking and caution are effective against rumours and rumour-mongers, says Wolf, and they take time.”