Many years ago, I read a brochure that was given to my (then) young son at school, about research. When using information from the Internet, he said, you must be sure of its credibility.
Check the sources and the evidence on which it is based, he instructed, before explaining that it was the nature of the Internet that anyone could write anything, but that did not necessarily make it true.
That process, which his school was teaching an 11-year-old boy, is called questioning. It’s about questioning what they tell you, not out of annoyance or irritation, but simply to establish the facts.
Sadly, it is a process that we are leaving behind, which gives enormous power to anyone who wants to lie to get what they want, as the checks and balances that require testing almost disappear.
For example, two weeks ago, I saw a claim picked up from a petition to Parliament and published in a news story. The claim was a lie. It wasn’t even true. The parties involved had simply made a false statement, with no evidence, that they were never asked to present in our deteriorating interrogation world.
So I went and verified the facts myself, from sources that simply included Wikipedia, which showed that the statement to Parliament was a lie with full references, but then further confirmed from the relevant government authorities, in a matter of minutes.
Our Parliament has no one doing that, it seems. For that reason, I then looked to see what the penalty is for lying to a parliamentary committee. In court, it would be perjury. But for Parliament, what is the position?
Now, I am looking forward to the wonderful mailbag that comes from the lawyers showing the charges that exist, because I cannot find any reference in Kenya to penalties for lying to a parliamentary committee.
So I checked the UK law, which was the original structure of many Kenyan laws, and the situation is not much better. Some old fine exists, but it has not been enforced since 1880, and law firms say that the penalty’s implementation has fallen into disuse. So that’s great: you can lie to parliament.
What about on the internet, as a blogger or on an organization’s website? Well, traditionally, false facts were covered by libel laws, which were based on proving that a claim was false and had damaged a person’s reputation.
But that falls short of the kinds of falsehoods we live with in today’s world of business and activism, with sometimes radical false claims that can bring thousands down. For example, you could claim that all the blue cars in Nairobi are defective, or that all the tomatoes in Kenya are poisonous; as far as I know, neither is true.
But suppose I say that, whose reputation have I damaged with that false statement? And yet, as tomato sales plummet or blue car sales plummet, my lie has surely hurt people.
Add to that, if the statement is made over the internet, there isn’t even a ‘know your customer’ law for social media, which means we can have avatars telling us that all tomatoes are poisonous and that there isn’t one. way of tracking down the individual who made the statement for a defamation case that we would still fight, while trying to show which person’s reputation had been damaged.
So while people complain about fake news, while accepting statements without asking for proof, we have created a perfect storm by allowing the formation of public opinion, decisions, reputation and our entire future to be driven. for unproven, unproven and inexplicable lies. And they work. Because people believe them, sometimes unswervingly, and act accordingly.
Which means that we must re-examine our legislation.
Because the answer is certainly not shutting down social media, or even shutting down parliamentary committees. It’s about holding people personally responsible for the truthfulness of the statements they make. Anyone has the right to say what they want, as long as they have proof that it is true. That seems like a reasonable limit, or when do we become obsessed with defending the right to lie?