Appearances can be deceiving, and the silver-haired, conventionally-dressed older couple who squeezed on to our table at a Tamworth Country Music event in January looked like a normal suburban pair of grey nomads. How wrong I was.
Property speculator Charles and ex-service station operator Edith, not their real names, were health nuts. Edith said she had lost 30kg in the last three months by giving up sugar, dairy and carbs; Charles announced he had lost six stone (an imperial man). They were both clear-eyed and skinned, slender, moved easily and wouldn’t have seen 70 for some years. They drank water. And they had in fact met only 18 months earlier, at an alternative health event at the coast.
Edith said all her grandchildren were autistic, and she existed in a cold, nearly incoherent fury with the iniquities of the medical profession. Her daughter no longer talked to her; they had fallen out over alternative treatments for autism. ‘Doctors are Dangerous’, she hissed; it turned out to be a website. Charles said he had already put his Earthing mat on to his bed at the inn where we were all staying; we should try it, he said. I had heard about earthing, the idea that direct contact with the planet’s electrons cut inflammation and more, so nodded along, and then Charles started talking about Rifing, an electromagnetic treatment I didn’t know about. When I pulled out my glasses to look up Rifing on my phone, Charles told me about techniques to improve my eyesight without using glasses, which weakened the eyes. In short, Edith and Charles, after long, varied and separate lives, had learned to distrust a lot of what they had been taught and once believed and were sorting out for themselves what worked and what didn’t.
This episode occurred just days after a trip to Maleny, the Nimbin of the North, where a fringe news magazine called Nexus, published there since 1987, has morphed into a double-fronted shop on the main street. I’ve dipped into Nexus for years, it’s big on left-field topics like aliens, crop circles, conspiracies and occasionally useful, novel bits of health information – it was where I first learned not to give my kids plastic water bottles. Clearly, Nexus was prospering. I opened the January issue to find an editorial headlined baldly ‘Everything We Know is Wrong’. Editor Duncan Roads gave nine examples of fake science; the sun, not CO2, caused climate change, HIV didn’t cause AIDs, the evidence for vaccines was not sound, the theory of evolution was bunk, etc.
On top of this, it turned out that none of a group of rural friends joining us at the music festival believed in anthropogenic climate change; and at a lunch in Noosa with a famous climate sceptic, the restaurant owner approached our table and confessed his own doubts. Edith and Charles, Nexus readers and country folk are among many who have learned to distrust traditional sources of authority and information. They know much news is fake and look for answers elsewhere.
This is a feature of our time that is new. Author and irritating public intellectual Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of Black Swan fame, noted in passing in his book Skin in the Game, that two centuries of corporate, hierarchical, top-down news management had ended with Donald Trump’s 2016 use of Twitter to set the news agenda. The Fleet Street era of Northcliffes and Beaverbrooks, in which wealthy men won power and status through controlling the flow of ‘news’, and hence public opinion, had effectively ended. (Don’t tell it to the Left; they still think Murdoch is the Master Manipulator stoking the fires of all that is climate denier, conservative and wrong).
Taleb’s observation struck me as both true and significant. Control information and thus the ‘Overton window’ of politically-acceptable debate, and you can silence your enemies, suppress inconvenient truths and keep the debate on safe turf. Trump’s changed all that. In the pre-internet era, journalists were gatekeepers of news and were accordingly duchessed for their favours; no longer.
The Left, and others predisposed to filtering information as a way of controlling social behaviour, know the genie is out of the bottle and are seeking new internet censorship controls to regulate social outcomes. The UK has just unveiled proposals to allow censorship of ‘harmful and illegal content’ online, following the lead of the increasingly restrictive EU.
In this context the coronavirus outbreak is instructive, and typical. Western mainstream media were slow to wake up to the enormity of what was happening in China, gulled by censorship and Chinese suppression of the problem in December and January. Western governments were also caught napping and were a couple of weeks too late in social distancing moves such as travel bans; it remains to be seen how many cases of infection will result from the unrestricted travel in and out of China in those final weeks of January.
But on social media, the alarm was ringing out loud. Videos of Chinese people collapsing in the street, of lockdowns, of crowded hospitals, body bags in the street, of crematoria working 24/7, military crackdowns, of apartment buildings with front doors welded shut, of villagers destroying roads to keep Wuhan citizens away, tales of masks and hand sanitisers selling out, all were telling a story at odds with the official ‘just the flu’ fiction – and increasingly draconian Chinese measures to enforce social isolation. Now, an almost unimaginable 760 million people are in lockdown, reports the New York Times, as epidemiologists predict a possible global pandemic that China’s daily tally of infections and deaths in no way reflects.
The virus situation is unclear and won’t become known anytime soon, with world leaders as much in the dark as the rest of us. Because of China’s repression and censorship, we may never know how many deaths Covid-19 has caused and the true toll of social dislocation and tragedy.
But enough anecdotal news escaped, through social media, ‘citizen journalists’, and Twitter videos to allow us to reject the official version of events. Indirect measures such as levels of air pollution in Chinese cities, domestic flights, steel demand and more supported the view that China was grinding to a halt. Without the internet, we may never have had the data to refute Emperor-for-life Xi’s version of events.
During a recent chat with one of my kids, he wailed, in a frustrated way, ‘I just want some source of objective news.’ Well, don’t we all? Blind faith in received wisdom is easy and comfortable. But that’s the game, and that’s what each of us must sort out for ourselves; we are all responsible for our own due diligence to discover the truth. The era of managed news, thankfully, is over.
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