Home | Opinion | Social media, fact-checking, and why ‘false equivalence’ drives Sacha Baron Cohen crazy
British actor Sacha Baron-Cohen. Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP

Social media, fact-checking, and why ‘false equivalence’ drives Sacha Baron Cohen crazy

The recent discussion about the appropriateness or otherwise of putting fact check notices on social media posts has once again raised profoundly important questions which concern truth and free speech.

This article re-ignites a more specific concern raised in November last year, in a speech at the Anti-Defamation League summit in New York by actor Sacha Baron Cohen, in which he denounced the fact that there are Holocaust deniers on Facebook and that through a simple click, Google leads its readers to the most repulsive denialist sites.

"One of the heads of Google once told me, incredibly, that these sites just show both sides of the issue. This is crazy." Baron Cohen, who has a degree in History, argued that on the internet, everything appears to be equally legitimate. "We seem to have lost a shared sense of the basic facts on which a democracy depends."

Without entering the debate over whether Holocaust denial should be criminalised or not (Mark Zuckerberg, for example, defends the right of denialists to publish positions in Facebook which he ‘personally’ finds offensive), the idea that denialist positions must be ‘respected’ for being merely 'perspectives' within a 'debate' is of unusual banality and does not withstand serious analysis.

Such thinking, however, is part of a serious misunderstanding that exists around the concept of 'open-mindedness'. It is also a disturbing rationale for a version of free speech according to which the truth should never be allowed to get in the way of a good story. This type of thinking is often supported (sometimes unwittingly) by those who endorse the ‘catch all’ postmodern notion of parallel equivalent versions or narratives.

Although the concept of 'open-mindedness' has enormous merit in itself and is of utmost importance in critical thinking, it is important to note that a completely open mind is also a completely empty mind. The mere fact that there may be multiple interpretations and versions around a theme, historical or otherwise, does not mean that they are all equally valid and respectable.

An attitude of openness and intellectual humility does not imply the equal respect for all perspectives; rather, it involves a consideration of relevant differing positions, followed by a critical evaluation of such perspectives on the basis of their merits. In other words, the attitude of openness and intellectual humility must be underpinned by a quest for Truth with a capital letter.

Even though absolute truth in complex matters is often beyond our reach, the search for it is paramount. That search also implies the courage to adopt a position on certain issues pertaining to our shared humanity which have implications for the present and the future.

This means that when we come to recognise in any open medium, social or otherwise, that others may be misled by a version of the truth which has been distorted, misrepresented or even in some cases deliberately fabricated, we have a responsibility to at least warn those others that this is the case. Beliefs based on false information have consequences in actions which may well harm us all.

We believe Baron Cohen is correct when he points to Holocaust denial as a significant problem that has led some commentators down an offensive and demonstrably flawed path, with unsustainable and contradictory relativistic consequences.

We know that there is a mass of exhaustive, convergent and corroborative evidence from multiple sources, including perpetrators, victims and thousands of witnesses, which place the Holocaust in a situation where it does not need to defend itself. Any published view to the contrary certainly merits a fact check post.

Furthermore, the denial of the Holocaust is not a mere academic position of an intellectual nature. It necessarily implies an accusation of conspiracy and invention on the part of the survivors, and denial of the responsibility of the Nazi perpetrators. In other words, Holocaust denial is not only unsustainable at the level of empirical evidence and academic expert consensus, but is also highly offensive at the moral level.

It is also important to recognise another underlying feature of our present circumstances that connects with Baron Cohen's concerns and amplifies them. We live in a society where in some important contexts the truth is being compromised, to such an extent that it is fair to say that it is under attack.

This attack comes from various quarters, reflecting an increasingly polarised social and political environment; a place where being loyal to a particular camp becomes a shield, warding off any truths which happen to be unwanted and inconvenient, while conversely, 'truths’ which are welcome to that camp are clung on to even when they turn out to be complete hogwash.

Baron Cohen has identified one important aspect of this wider problem with truth today. The problem is not new; it didn’t appear with the internet – though the internet has helped to facilitate its proliferation – it is not limited to the Holocaust and it is a topic of ever increasing concern to many commentators. In such an environment, fact checking warnings become more than just useful aids in a confusing world for those who receive them; they reflect a recognition of much needed social responsibility by those who publish them.

There is no dispute that truth is a complex concept. We must be on guard against dogmatic positions; it is very important to listen to others; the emergence of new evidence may lead us to re-evaluate certain aspects of our knowledge; knowing everything without error is impossible; no commentator can be a completely neutral observer; world-views influence the way events are interpreted and presented and pure objectivity in the representation and explanation of events past or present is beyond our human capacity.

These are all crucial and reasonable qualifying notions regarding the nature and possibilities of knowledge of the past and indeed the present. None of them, however, entails respect for what is demonstrably false and/or ethically wrong.

For this reason we are putting forward a guide for the arbitration of truth, a view of making judgements which is theoretically sound and practicable. According to this perspective it is almost inevitable that our understanding of what is the truth will contain an element of provisionality, or ‘work in progress’.

Having said this, however, it is perfectly valid – and indeed necessary in a functioning society – to be able to compare and evaluate the merits of different judgments. This can be done based on the grounds that some are more coherent, consistent and complete in their consideration of the most comprehensive available range of relevant evidence. When this guide is demonstrably not followed and/or deliberately avoided in the public arena, we deserve to be warned about it when possible.

The inevitable element of subjectivity in our judgments in many fields including history, in no way entails complete subjectivity. There is no valid logical argument to support that position. Indeed that error is the basis for ‘false equivalence’, which Baron Cohen is so concerned about. Apart from being a major cause for our current ‘troubles with truth’ in the social and political arena, it is also a demonstrable epistemological and logical flaw to be found in relativism and in some forms of post-modernism. Our judgments may be provisional because they are invariably subject to some revision in the future, but this in no way makes them completely subjective or equivalent.

The recognition of the existence of multiple perspectives is very important in the critical thinking process, but that recognition is only the beginning of an intellectual journey. Critical thinking involves comparing and evaluating options and forming reasoned judgments, informed by accepted epistemological and logical principles.

Since it is impossible to think, critically or otherwise, in a vacuum, the information upon which we base our judgements should ideally be as close to the truth as we can get. This means that any help we can get about assessing the veracity of that information such as appropriate and thorough warnings and pointers, become vital components in our capacity to think and judge. Furthermore, such information can shed light upon certain cases such as Holocaust denial, where universal ethical standards are also of central importance.

There is nothing 'closed-minded' about acknowledging that some perspectives are wrong and offensive. And nothing good about a form of ‘freedom of speech’ which denies us this right. The idea that such perspectives are just 'the other side of the issue' commits the sin of ‘false equivalence’ and gives them a legitimacy that they simply do not possess or deserve. We should also be warned about them when appropriate because they are, as Baron Cohen says, "crazy."

Stephen Green is the author of The Coherent Past: A Guide to Truth in a 'Post Truth World', 2nd ed, Boraga Academic 2019.

Ines Dunstan is a fellow in History at the University of the Sunshine Coast

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One comment

  1. Michael Holdeman

    It is so interesting that while pointing out that it is beyond us as humans to be completely Objective, we think it should be considered appropriate to allow some “higher” think people to determine what should contain a Warning and what should not. I doubt there is any danger in that!

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