Unraveling truth decay

November 26, 2023

A conspicuous void persists in Pakistan in the assessment of the profound impact of truth decay on important institutions

Unraveling truth decay


ruth Decay, a compelling non-fiction work penned by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D Rich, made its debut through the RAND Corporation on January 16, 2018. Delving into the annals of journalism, the book meticulously traces historical trends, such as ‘yellow’ journalism and ‘new’ journalism to make the point that the erosion of truth is not a recent malady but a longstanding issue in the American society.

Truth decay characterises the erosion of the foundational role of facts, data and rigorous analyses in shaping policymaking, discourse and decision-making — both at the individual and policymaker levels. This process blurs the distinction between fact and opinion in public discourse, diminishing the public’s ability to engage in reasoned arguments and eroding the capacity to find the common ground based on factual information.

After some analysts at RAND identified this diminishing influence of facts and analysis in the American public life as “truth decay,” a perusal of the report led this author to conclude that the trend is pervasively rampant in Pakistan. Its impact is tangible in everyday interactions and pseudo debates on television. It can undermine every institution in the socio-political sphere.

Kavanagh and Rich argue persuasively that the divergence in the perspectives on objective facts, coupled with the escalating dominance of opinion over fact in civil and political discourse, has been an enduring and pervasive challenge.

This lamentable trend, described by the term ‘truth decay’ (coined by Sonni Efron) manifests through four interconnected trends: a widening chasm in perceptions of objective facts; a merging of opinion and fact in discourse; an amplification of opinion’s quantity and influence over fact in discourse; and a waning trust in traditionally authoritative sources of reliable information.

Having set their sights on the ramifications of truth decay, the researchers meticulously explored its intersections with media literacy, individual resistance and the issue of vaccine hesitancy. They found that the tendrils of this phenomenon reach deeply into the realm of national security, exerting a profound impact on the day-to-day operations and overarching decision-making processes at all echelons.

Truth decay is not merely an abstract concern but a palpable force that adversely affects the intricate machinery of the state, injecting uncertainty into routine operations and casting a shadow over pivotal decision-making moments. The authors’ astute examination of the multifaceted issue is a valuable guide to understanding the profound implications of truth decay for countries like Pakistan.

Kavanagh and Rich identify cognitive biases, changes in information systems, educational challenges and polarisation as key drivers of truth decay. In Pakistan, political polarisation and the rampant spread of misinformation emerge as the central culprits. These are intricately woven into the fabric of the state apparatus.

The symbiotic relationship between political polarisation and misinformation creates a perilous cycle — exposure to misinformation fuels polarisation, while increased polarisation diminishes the impact of factual information. This dynamic vulnerability extends to individuals, institutions and the nation.

Traditionally, national security and foreign policy decision making in Pakistan were somewhat shielded from excessive politicisation. Top politicians and foreign policy professionals dictated the agenda with limited domestic influence, resulting in a relatively stable foreign policy across administrations.

However, the past two decades have witnessed a shift, marked by widespread disillusionment with the US among the Pakistani populace. Concurrently, the rise of nationalist movements has underscored the imperative for a diversified foreign policy. The evolving landscape demands careful consideration and strategic responses to navigate the intricate interplay of truth decay, political dynamics and foreign policy imperatives.

Public opinion on national security and foreign policy issues is susceptible to a cycle of polarisation and truth decay. Social cues from trusted leaders and peers shape the opinion. Extreme partisanship reinforces this effect. Polarisation amplifies the impact of popular leaders’ statements. This is further complicated by a selective presentation of information by the politicians.

In the current information landscape, distinguishing fact from opinion and discerning deliberate deception from self-deception is a challenging task. The influence of social media and the constant news cycle accelerate the global spread of blatant lies.

Even as the US national security apparatus strives for non-political operation, it remains vulnerable to the effects of truth decay. Intelligence work, in an ideal scenario, involves unbiased collection and assessment of information for policymakers. However, the reality often falls short of this ideal.

Truth decay poses significant obstacles to the core functions of intelligence analysts, hindering their ability to collect and analyse data. Like lay citizens navigating the surge of opinions to find facts, national security officials grapple with the issue.

Characterised by a decline in adherence to factual information and an erosion of trust in truth-seeking institutions, truth decay presents a global risk. Its impact extends beyond compromising the intelligence community assessments. It elevates the risk of policymakers globally favouring opinions, conspiracy theories or misinformation over evidence-based analyses. This has repercussions on national security, alliances, international relations and the recruitment of talent in intelligence and military sectors.

In Pakistan’s context, a conspicuous void has persisted in the assessment of the profound impact of truth decay on important institutions. Consequently, the pursuit of viable solutions to mitigate this phenomenon remains an unexplored terrain. While endeavours in media literacy may hold some promise, their effectiveness has yet to be established. The problem is further compounded by the unresolved inquiry into the extent of media freedom.

Legal institutions, susceptible to the insidious effects of truth decay, find themselves grappling with limitations in effectively curbing the dissemination of harmful false information. Revitalising healthy social and political norms is imperative to counter truth decay. Given the complex and nuanced reality in Pakistan, such an endeavour is a formidable undertaking.

The dearth of initiatives to comprehensively assess the severity of truth decay and its influence on critical national institutions underscores a critical gap in understanding and addressing this pressing issue. The elusive nature of effective solutions, coupled with the uncertain efficacy of media literacy efforts, calls for a more profound exploration into the delicate balance between media freedom and responsible dissemination of information.

Legal institutions, concurrently navigating their vulnerability to truth decay, confront the formidable challenge of formulating strategies that go beyond mere rhetoric to effectively combat the propagation of damaging falsehoods. In this intricate landscape, the rejuvenation of social and political norms emerges as not only a strategic imperative but also a linchpin in the overarching effort to counter the pervasive effects of truth decay.

Fostering a culture of individual freedom and upholding the rule of law, which instills accountability at every echelon, is imperative in halting the insidious march of truth decay.

Government agencies, private-sector entities, media outlets and non-profit organisations all bear a responsibility to mitigate the widespread detrimental impacts of truth decay. This necessitates not just concerted efforts but also a synergy of robust and coordinated initiatives.

The writer is Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse

National University, Lahore

Unraveling truth decay