How writer George Orwell predicted fake news

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When a bulletin interrupted CBS radio’s musical programming in 1938 to announce an alien invasion of the US, thousands of people, in a panic, overwhelmed traffic and telephone lines in an attempt to escape. Only the threat, transmitted on the eve of Halloween, was not real. From New York, Orson Welles dramatized what H. G. Wells had imagined in your book To War two Worlds.

Welles’ radio play, which is based on the inventiveness of fiction, ended up streaming universal fears. The broadcast had content, packaging and intonation for journalism. But it was nothing more than a staging for the purposes of cultural dissemination. The panic resulting from hearing the program is still studied and at the time it was the subject of research at Princeton University. Many of the alarmed listeners are believed to have tuned in to the radio after the broadcast began.

“However, the most astonishing thing was that very few American listeners made any effort to verify,” comments one George Orwell who hadn’t written yet The Animal Revolution e 1984 when reviewing the book The Invasion from Mars), by psychologist Hadley Cantril. As much as radio journalism enjoyed great credibility at that time, the arrival of immense aliens in the United States lacked a certain skepticism, which could be resolved by consulting other sources.

For Orwell, it was of particular interest that researchers had found a connection between personal unhappiness and a willingness to accept something unbelievable. Contemporary events update this perplexity, because who knew that in 2020 Americans would ingest or inject disinfectant after the suggestion of their president? In the era of “deep fake” videos, history continues to confirm that credulity has no restraints and can cost reputations, political systems and lives.

The truth has never cost so much, Orwell would say. It is the challenge present in all times, revitalized with each outbreak of falsification of facts or discursive blindness. It is the theme most dear to the English writer born in India, as we can identify in the book About Truth, recently launched by Companhia das Letras and translated by Claudio Alves Marcondes. It is a collection of excerpts extracted from books and essays written in the 1930s and 40s – among them, Days in Burma, The Way to Wigan Pier e The Animal Revolution. Read in chronological perspective, the texts provide the assumptions that would allow Orwell to link the 20th and 21st centuries with the frightening 1984 and its Ministry of Truth that only manufactured lies.

Facing the facts, however bitter, was the commitment that Orwell demanded from anyone who read it. The refusal to the truth bothered him deeply, as in this fragment of the essay Culture and Democracy, from 1941: “One of the worst things about democratic society in the last 20 years is the difficulty of any frank conversation or thinking.”

Where condescension rested, hypocrisy was born. No wonder he, a socialist, did not shy away from identifying those whose conduct contradicted the values ​​of socialism. His criticism was broad and served any political spectrum. Crossed by battles such as the Spanish Civil War and World War II, Orwell could not condone deceit.

The Spanish conflict had imposed on him the certainty that human barbarities resided comfortably on all sides of the dispute, as shown in the text Looking Back on the Spanish War (1943). Orwell was impressed that people only believed in the cruelties that fit their political preferences. “Everyone believes in the enemy’s atrocities and doubts those committed by the side, without even bothering to examine the evidence. (…) Obviously, there are widespread fantasies and the war provides an opportunity to put them into practice. ”

The experience in the Spanish trenches taught him that history was written with the ideals of each party, not with facts. “For me, this is scary, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is disappearing from the world. After all, the possibilities are that such lies, or similar lies, will end up being incorporated into the story ”, he writes in the report.

In his constant warnings about totalitarianism, he called attention to the renouncement of the search for truth. Even though lies, misrepresentations and misunderstandings accounted for the inaccuracy and partiality of the story, a set of “neutral” facts could be recognized by almost everyone, on a ground of agreement. Totalitarianism, however, annihilates the existence of truth and establishes the convenience of the narrative: what endorses a certain worldview will be true. In his memoirs published in 1943, the writer anticipated one of the most terrifying ideas of 1984: that a leader can create or invalidate an event from his statements. “If he says two plus two is five – then two plus two is five. That prospect terrifies me far more than any bomb. ”

Orwell was no longer with us when ‘earthworks’ of different shades contaminated speeches and elected leaders, shuffling judgments with “alternative facts” and post-truth. When I was alive, I never tired of inspiring the truth as an ethics. More than the horrors of one-party power, the warning he made in 1984 it aimed at the responsibility of each person in the face of events, which implies defending the heterogeneity of thought and repudiating censorship. There was only one way to escape the totalitarian nightmare of 1984: “Don’t let this happen. It depends on you.”

* AMANDA MONT’ALVÃO VELOSO IS PSYCHOANALIST, JOURNALIST AND MASTER IN LANGUAGE APPLIED BY PUC-SP

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