We know the phrase and we tend to believe it is true. Yes, numbers sometimes give us a clear view of reality, but sometimes they are used to distort reality and tell us a ‘reality’ that is far away from the ‘truth’.

While writing this article between Christmas and New Year, I received various emails telling me that ‘truth still matters’ or that we have ‘to invest in the truth’. They all come from organisations asking for donations so they can continue the work they are doing in the coming year. And obviously, they ‘have the truth’ and want to tell us what this truth is.

However, we all know how very tricky this business has become. We all know the many problems with ‘fake news’ and ‘false truths’. Even if we are aware of this new reality, we all have doubts, time and again, about the reliability of some data, some news, some offers, or requests. It has become a daily reality. It is not only statistics that can distort the truth.

In fact, ‘fake news’ is not a new reality. It has always existed because there have always been people who, for one reason or another, wanted or needed to mislead people, mostly to build or maintain power or to legitimate some actions. If the problem has become more serious today, it is because the possibilities of doing it are much more numerous, thanks, amongst others, to new technologies.

I see three major resources for spreading false news.


First of all, censorship. It is false by omission. We might have thought it almost disappeared in our Western democracies where freedom of expression is anchored in most constitutions, but this is hardly the case. The new wars, in Ukraine and Gaza, show us there is no freedom of expression anymore. Condemning the Russian invasion while putting it in a geopolitical context of post-Cold War politics, is now considered to be support for Russia. We daily hear and read about the misdeeds of the Russian army, but hardly know anything about the corruption and the popular discontent in Ukraine.

With the war between Israel in Gaza and Palestine, the situation is even worse. Israel already had managed to impose its ideology that criticism of its policies was, by definition, ‘anti-semitism’. How a campaign was organised by the media against Jeremy Corbyn because of so-called ‘anti-semitism’ was telling.

Today, one first has to condemn the terrorist attack committed by Hamas, before one is allowed to say some words on the massacres in Gaza, often compared to genocide. In several European countries, it becomes a criminal offense to use the slogan ‘Palestine, from the river to the sea’. Numbers of victims, necessarily coming from the Gazan authorities, are always qualified, while no questions are put on Israel’s refusal to have an independent examination of the facts of October 7th.

Censorship – and repression, think of Argentine’s new President who bans all social protest against his shock therapy – is becoming a daily reality that does not allow us to look at the world as it is, to form an opinion, and to question the ‘official’ voices. Julian Assange’s legal ordeal is one of the most brutal examples of it.

Social media

A second resource that makes the spreading of false news a lot easier is social media. Everyone who has a computer and access to the internet can say whatever he or she wants, for instance, that the Earth is flat. Instead of spreading the freedom of expression, this has become a real danger because there is no control or even knowledge of who is talking, from what perspective, or with what objective. Journalists, who certainly may be biased, do have deontological rules, but the man in the street has not. Members of academia have rules of integrity, but more and more we see these can be disregarded.

The whole period of the COVID-19 epidemic has been a sad example of how some highly educated people were spreading the most dangerous news on conspiracies or against vaccination. Or think of the many voices denying the climate crisis or its human origin, leading to a delegitimizing of scientific knowledge. These two examples make clear that fake news can have very serious consequences, allowing epidemics to spread or hindering political decision-making. Social media companies only have very limited means to stop the spreading of false truths and in several cases have been closer to a form of censorship. The case of President Trump being banned from what was Twitter is a good example.

Artificial Intelligence

The newly introduced' artificial intelligence' is the third example of what is helping the spreading of fake news. It is probably too early to have a clear view of what it makes possible and not, but it is already clear it can ‘make’ facts and truths, giving us concerts with disappeared artists, and making texts with uncontrollable origins. Artificial intelligence only works with resources that have been fed to it, but precisely that is dangerous since we know what mainstream media and academia are discussing. It is not the ‘marginal’ news about poor people or poor countries, it is the truth as it has been constructed and spread by formal media. That is why, for instance, the answer to the question of whether Israelis or Palestinians have a right to live where they live, was very biased in favor of Israelis.

In any case, even if we have not seen the full extent to which AI can forge new truths and new realities, we already know that it will be very difficult to make the difference between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, with all the consequences for people without resources to check. Can the answer to ‘how much is 2+2’ really be 22 as well as 4, ‘depending on your perspective’?

It goes without saying that this multiplication of false truths and fake news can have enormous consequences for democracies in general and societies in particular. Many people may not even care whether what they see or hear is real or not. Should we not get very worried when reading that one in five young Americans think the Holocaust is a myth?

We live in post-modern times where everything can become questionable and where diversity has in many cases replaced universality whereas it should be crystal clear by now that we need both. There can be no respect for people’s rights in all their diversity, if, at the same time, there is no universality, something that unites us all in a global world. In order to have a minimum of cohesion, there needs to be a minimum of common beliefs, whereas these past decades it is diversity that has been focused on.

While all the attention for non-Western and post-colonial thinking has been tremendously important to recognize people’s rights and their right to be different, it is a fact that the values societies and communities live with are very similar if not outright the same. They just are made concrete in different ways. Colonialism has destroyed many knowledge systems and there certainly was no need for it, since all societies are seeking some way or another to achieve a peaceful living together.

Post-modernity has also seriously strained our belief in what ‘truth’ is and can be. According to a ‘correspondence theory’ truth coincides with reality and can never be a linguistic fact. Even if it is expressed at the level of language, the fact, the reality is extra-linguistic. If the language does not refer to anything ‘real’, there can be endless discussions and debates without anyone knowing what one is talking about. Or, in other words, for democracy, the organized difference of opinion, one needs some common references.

Now, truth can also be the result of a collective decision, related to a specific context. It means truth can change and social constructs will need language to exist. What is ‘true’ can be the result of an evaluation and whether it succeeds or not in being accepted. Words can indeed create things and the subjective world can become an objective reality. However, the reference to something ‘real’ is always necessary.

All this is linked to the eternal opposition or convergence of words and things. This was brilliantly examined by Michel Foucault in his ‘Words and Things’ (‘Les mots et les choses’), describing the history of how, in a long time past, words always coincided with things and could only be repeated, whereas, from modernity onwards, words got dissociated from things, through representations and double representations. It seems as if now, we are slowly entering a period in which words are totally dissociated from things and that means, our democracies are dying, that we are living in a void. It means we have no common references anymore on which to have different opinions. We should never forget that it always is, basically, materiality that constructs knowledge and truths.

In today’s world of lies, damned lies, and statistics, it should be our duty to go and look for new rules for building truths, for meanings and how they are constructed, and by whom, in science, journalism, and politics. ‘Truth’ and ‘facts’, however difficult to define, are at the heart of democracy and our possibility of having different opinions, discussing them, and living together in peace. They are closely linked to power relations, obviously, but then again, these power relations can only change if we succeed in better defining truths, based on realities and facts.

It probably would be a good idea to take another look at the failed idea of the 1970s, the New International Information Order, treating information as a key resource for building truths, trying to reach a new equilibrium with, as the McBride Report stated: ‘Many Voices, One World’.