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  • Geoff Mulgan

The case for a right to truth




We live in a world full of lies, distortions and misinformation. Should we have rights to be told the truth? If a government issues a statistic, a report, or a warning to its citizens should any rights guarantee that it’s based on the best available information? Should there be penalties if a government, or a political party, knowingly lies? If a doctor gives you a diagnosis, should it be your right that the diagnosis is based on the best possible medical knowledge? If a company has your pension invested in it, should any rights guarantee that their accounts are as accurate as possible?


It might seem reasonable that any institution which claims to serve us should give us the respect of telling the truth. Yet no constitution guarantees that right. The US constitution protects rights of free speech, but no rights to truth. British law supports many rights, but not this one. Nor does the European Convention on Human Rights, which supports freedom of thought and expression, but no rights to information or truth.


In this piece I set out why such rights are needed, and what they might mean. I show why existing laws can be built on, including recent ones designed to address the problems of deception on social media. I show why some of the assumptions of liberalism have become a barrier to action, and why freedom in reality depends on truth. And I show why rights to truth could help harness the populist anger against the deceit and self-serving of powerful institutions in a more constructive direction.


Finally, I address the main counter-arguments, which essentially say that no-one, and especially governments, can be trusted to determine truths of any kind.


The tide of lies


A growing tide of misinformation and lies has accompanied the explosion of information that now surrounds us. Surveys show large minorities holding erroneous beliefs — one recent survey found that nearly a fifth of Americans reportedly believe that Taylor Swift is part of a Pentagon psy-ops programme; another survey found that 15% of Americans believe the country to be run by a Satan-worshipping paedophile ring involved in child trafficking. Millions across the world believed that the coronavirus pandemic was cover for Bill Gates’ plan to implant trackable microchips. ‘Truthers’ still claim that 9/11 was organised by the CIA.


There is no shortage of research showing just how bad things are, some gathered by bodies like the OECD. In every country conspiracy theories, falsehoods and plain lies are circulating, and often taken to be truths. A 2023 survey in the UK found that nearly a third now believe that the pandemic was a hoax, with a similar proportion holding beliefs such as that 15 minute neighbourhoods are a government plot to boost surveillance and cut freedoms. Anecdote confirms the data: I keep meeting people near where I live who believe that the pandemic was invented to give governments an excuse to shut down their societies, or that climate change is an illusion.


According to a recent UN global survey, more than 85% of people are worried about the impact of online disinformation. The reason, of course, is the rise of social media platforms — Google, YouTube, Meta, TikTok, Instagram and their equivalents around the world. These now dominate our informational space, and their design has spread information based on assessments of profit, which in turn have led their algorithms to focus on the emotional characteristics of information rather than veracity (one study found that “each additional negative word [in a headline] increased the click-through rate by 2.3%”). The platforms could have been designed differently, but weren’t. There’s now abundant evidence on the effects this has had — how anger and fear have been amplified, how polarisation dynamics have been accentuated, and how space has been opened up for malign governments to disrupt others.


Some of the most worrying effects have been felt in politics. Politics has never been a bastion of truth-telling. But political systems in some countries had developed social norms that would punish the most overt lies. In the UK for example, the official ministerial code states that “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.” In the past many did resign if they were found to have misled parliament. But this is a norm not a law and over the last decade it has become less strict in its interpretation. The rules of Parliament are also interesting in this respect. You can be held in contempt of parliament for ‘deliberately attempting to mislead the House or a committee’. Yet bizarrely, you are more likely to be expelled from Parliament for calling another MP a liar than for lying yourself.


Elsewhere too these norms appear to have been eroded. It’s hard to prove that social media are the culprit but many politicians who are most active on social media, and most influenced by an echo chamber from their base, do appear to be more casual with facts. The Washington Post recorded over 30,000 false or misleading facts from Donald Trump during his Presidency (and he gleefully advocated ‘truthful hyperbole’ as a legitimate tactic), yet he is now perhaps on course to return. He is not alone. Vladimir Putin first denied that he would invade Ukraine, then denied that he had invaded (calling it a special operation), then denied that it was going badly and all along justified his actions by reference to a highly idiosyncratic reading of history.


A small incident in British politics in early 2024 showed just how much misinformation has become normal: Azhar Ali, a Labour candidate in the Rochdale byelection, who was on course for election, was reported to have commented that Hamas’ 7 October attack was tacitly encouraged by the Israeli government. There was no evidence for this claim but it had been widely spread on social media. After briefly trying to excuse his words, the Party disowned him. Similar incidents now happen all the time. Ali’s case was unusual in that he paid a high price. Not surprisingly, the UN survey mentioned earlier also found that 87% of people across the world believe that online misinformation has already harmed their country’s politics.


The tide of misinformation is in part the effect of the blurring divide between the public and the private: the rise of communications that are rooted in private life but made very public. Because Facebook posts and Instagram and TikTok content appear like the chats or comments of private life, the norms of public communication don’t apply. Even in the most ethical circles, private life is often marked by embellishment and outright lies, secrets and half-truths. Information travels as gossip, and much gossip is simply wrong: but we lack the time or incentive to verify, particularly if the gossip is inherently interesting. Now however such communications reach vastly bigger audiences than they ever could if they were just chats amongst friends.


In this new landscape large minorities no longer believe anything from the traditional media. If you ask people how they know that a particular conspiracy theory is true, they typically answer that the information comes from someone they trust on the internet, whose many followers are taken to confirm their reliability. Quantity becomes a proxy for quality. Few can be bothered to do the hard work of interrogating these claimed facts. And growing numbers are now immunised against corrections, convinced that the mainstream media are part of a conspiracy to lie and deceive.


Unbalanced principles


Our systems have struggled to cope for a simple reason. The liberal tradition that guides Western countries argues for rights to freedom of expression but not for rights to truth, or duties to tell the truth. Indeed, traditional liberalism says that the spread of lies and conspiracy theories is just the price we pay for freedom. The crazy, deluded and just plain wrong have as much of a right to free speech as anyone else. Liberals also worry that any restraints on free speech in the democratic world will be used by dictators to justify censorship and more.


These beliefs are founded on the assumption that free and fair competition in the marketplace of information and ideas will ensure that the true tends to drive out the false. This was the argument made by John Milton in the 17th century, James Madison in the 18th and John Stuart Mill in the 19th. It seemed plausible when set against the censorship of monarchs and the Church.


But we now know that the free flow of information does not automatically privilege the true over the false. Quite the opposite. In economics Gresham’s Law states that bad money drives out the good, and something similar seems to happen with information (indeed this can be a deliberate strategy. Steve Bannon’s media strategy involved, as he put it delicately, ‘flooding the zone with shit’, so polluting the informational space that people would distrust everything and cease to distinguish facts from lies.


As I will show, the fields where truth is most secure are ones that rely on institutions and regulators as well as the open competition of ideas. Traditional liberalism, in other words, neither explains the current landscape nor is adequate for the changed environment we are now in, and one symptom is that in all the countries having elections this year — more than ever in history — there are no institutions empowered to act decisively if a serious deep fake goes viral a day or two before an election.


The liberal tradition of privileging free expression over truth is deeply rooted, and it has arguably even become more deeply rooted thanks to the dominant intellectual currents of the last century or more. The great insight of much modern art, literature and philosophy was to highlight the multiplicity of perspectives that surround us. They showed that what we see depends on where we sit, that knowledge is socially constructed not absolute or objective, and that your truth may not be the same as mine. It is less possible than ever to play what Donna Haraway called ‘the God trick’: the pretence that the expert or researcher can sit above and outside society, looking down with detached objectivity. Generations were taught in universities to doubt any claims to authoritative truths, and scepticism about truth became a mark of sophistication in many circles.


Much of this shift has been positive — attuning us better to the complexities of the world, the dubious authority of old power structures and elites. But it has also often overshot, with relativism becoming, in Roger Scruton’s words, the ‘first refuge of the scoundrel’.


Truth-seeking institutions


A parallel history points in a very different direction. Even as the intellectual world immersed itself in theories that made truth misty, unreliable and fragmented, many countries strengthened institutions designed to seek workable truths, that is to say truths reliable enough to support high-stakes decisions.


In law, courts and the police evolved stronger methods to determine if defendants were guilty or not. Ever more sophisticated policing techniques, from fingerprints to DNA and forensic science, promised fewer errors. Finance in the 20th century built up strict laws that penalise lies and deception in accounts and public statements of all kinds (Mike Lynch, once one of the UK’s leading entrepreneurs, is now on trial in the US accused of having distorted his company’s accounts ahead of its $10bn sale to Hewlett Packard: he faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison if convicted).


The world of modern science tests ideas and mobilises critical peers to interrogate claims. The slogan of the Royal Society is ‘nullius in verba’, which roughly means ‘take no-one’s word for it’, summing up an ideal of reaching closer to truth through doubt. The knowledge that science generates is never final or definitive: but all of its institutions are designed to distinguish truer statements from ones that are less true.


We saw this during the pandemic. Do facemasks reduce the risk of infection? Should people in their 20s vaccinate? The answers to these and many other questions were often conflicting and ambiguous. But over time, as the insights of many minds accumulated with the help of rigorous research methods, we got closer to clarity (and in this case the conclusion that the balance of risk and reward is probably negative for people in their 20s and younger).


Similar processes guide technology and engineering. Engineers cannot be casual about truth: bridges either stand or fall, and planes either fly or crash. Engineers know that we are surrounded by physical realities that operate according to their own logics, regardless of what happens in our minds. Winds blow, meteorites fall, climates shift, and earthquakes shake, and the wise try to get as close as possible to the truth about these phenomena.


The media, too, have at times worked hard to build up their capacity to find truths. This was the mission of Walter Lippman a century ago who wanted the US news media to focus primarily on facts, distinguishing facts from opinion, and using methods similar to detectives to sift and assess evidence. His writings advocated that both journalists and experts should cultivate an ethos of tough detachment in search of objectivity. The BBC was built on a similar commitment — not to providing a singular or definitive truth, but rather to using powerful methods to reduce the risk of misinformation, and many newspapers and magazines have a similar ethos which drives them to publish corrections regardless of external pressure.


These institutions do not give us absolute, permanent truths. Rather they give us the best truths available at the time, usually through combining many verification procedures that both validate and show the absence of disconfirming information.


Medical knowledge is a good example. Doctors learn only to believe that a claim that a particular treatment works once it has been confirmed by many different pieces of research, and alternative claims have been disconfirmed. It’s not enough to believe something because one study appears to show it, or to select only the research that fits your preconceptions. Instead, the most useful knowledge comes from meta reviews and syntheses, and, even then, the knowledge may, and often does, change.


So large parts of our society do not live in a post-truth world. They have accumulated mechanisms to spot falsehoods. They have a strong ethic of truth-telling and both police and punish their own, whether police, accountants or rogue journalists and scientists if they knowingly lie. All invest heavily in their methods of verification, and all suffer periodic crises when their methods fail them or individuals are shown to have taken short-cuts.


Other fields by contrast don’t value truth-seeking in the same way. We don’t expect this of the arts or literature. Fiction is free to invent and to roam. What you say in your private life is your own concern. Religions are expected to have their own definitions and interpretations of truth. But when it comes to power that affects us, we already have the bare bones of rights to truth.


What can be done?


So what could be done to shift the balance between truth and lies? There are many answers. But at their heart is a simple idea, the idea that we should have a right to truth, a right to receive the best, and truest available information, and that such a right implies that every organisation with power has a duty to provide that to the best of its ability. Indeed, the more impact its actions have, the more important this responsibility is.


The ethics of such a right build on long established principles. Every civilisation has some notion of a golden rule, a principle that we should do unto others as we would wish them to do unto us. None of us wishes to be lied to. In more democratic societies there is also a growing sense of a duty of care, whether or employers or banks, or public services providing health and education. With knowledge and power come duties. In the field of health, it is increasingly accepted that patients have a right to the truth from their doctors (while also having the right to having that truth withheld, if they wish). And within the economy it’s widely accepted that both law and ethics should support duties to provide accurate information.


What follows? Here I suggest actions that can help avoid a steady corrosion of truth and turn back the tide of lies and deceptions.


Mobilising law


The first field for action is law. Consumer law in Europe and elsewhere has powerful methods for punishing misleading and false claims, whether in advertising or marketing. Advertising still makes outrageous claims. But where cases come to court, legal processes have turned out to be effective at judging evidence and determining blatantly dishonest claims. Similar principles should be extended first to all political communications, and in time to all communications that reaches substantial audiences. Knowingly spreading lies should carry consequences — primarily financial, but also extending to potential bans from holding public offices, directorships and involvement in media.


The defamation court case between Dominion and Fox over voting systems in the US election - culminating in a huge pay-out from Fox of nearly $800m - was a rare example which showed that the law can occasionally penalise deliberate lying by media organisations, though it only happened because Dominion had very deep pockets.


But law also provides many other building blocks which could be useful in strengthening the position of truth: the many different rights to information, rights to data, and increasingly rights to see algorithmic decision-processes. And as already indicated, in the economy there are already many rights to truth which underpin laws around accounts, audits, communication to investors and more. Anyone who knowingly misleads others risks severe punishment.


Strengthen truth-seeking institutions


Second, we need to strengthen institutions committed to truth and beyond the direct control of governments. One measure of the level of development of a civilisation is how many institutions it has which are committed to the discovery of truth. These exist in science — seeking new knowledge and eliminating false beliefs. They exist in the media, particularly in public service broadcasting. They exist in fields ranging from audit to inspectorates. In all cases the key to their success is insulation from the immediate pressures of politics or markets; a strong ethos of truth seeking; powerful methods for distinguishing truths from falsehoods; and strong processes for policing themselves, to punish everything from unreliable research methods to false accounting. In all cases too there is an economic basis for this work: it has to be funded, usually recycling money from one part of the system to pay for processes of assurance and validation. The digital economy did the opposite: that the social media platforms were able to suck money out of content generation, including those contents generators who had strong methods for verification, now looks to have been a huge mistake.


Yet technology could be a help. The first generation of generative AI, large language models like ChatGPT were taught using the contents of the Internet, which meant that they reflected its errors and illusions. But others are being trained on validated research, and some more recent ones are good at fact checking. All are reminders that there are always choices to be made about technology, and that the problems of social media platforms were not inevitable but rather the result of poor decisions.


Mobilise regulation


Third, we need to mobilise regulation to nudge powerful information providers to become allies of truth. The particular priority now is to require the major platforms to further strengthen their mechanisms for policing dangerous and false information. Some already spend heavily on content moderation. A few heavy fines would quickly focus minds and help them do more.


EU Commissioner Thierry Breton’s warning to Elon Musk’s X that he might face fines potentially rising to 6% of global revenue, prompted by misinformation over Gaza, showed a rare willingness to contemplate robust action. Germany’s ‘Network Enforcement Law’ already requires platforms with over 2 million users to remove “clearly illegal” content within 24 hours and all illegal content within 7 days of it being posted, or face a maximum fine of 50 million Euros, and points to how laws could evolve.


That platforms could take truth and accuracy much more seriously is shown by experiments like Twitter X’s ‘community notes’, which attempts to mobilise users to spot misinformation, with a design that is weighted towards agreement between contributors who have disagreed in the past so as to avoid bias.


Protect democracy


Fourth, we need to shore up truth in relation to democracy. We need independent Electoral Commissions with stronger powers to intervene, enforce corrections and bans during the run up to elections which is when democracy is at most risk from interference and disruption, and when truth is most vulnerable and the stakes are highest.


Australia may be moving in this direction, with reports that the Albanese government is planning a ‘truth in advertising’ law to outlaw political lies from the main parties. The Electoral Commission will be charged with adjudicating.


That would be a start. But before long, however, further powers will be needed that go beyond communications from the parties themselves: specifically, powers to freeze misinformation very quickly; to instigate rapid judgement processes to assess whether communications are dishonest; and then to either unfreeze or to suspend and advise all previous recipients of that disinformation that it was wrong. Such powers are vital during elections but could be extended to other periods.


Educate to immunise people from deception


Fifth, we need to ensure the next generation are better prepared to distinguish truth from lies. A fifth of Americans in their 20s believe that the holocaust didn’t happen, with the heaviest users of video content most likely to believe this. Schools can’t solve all the problems of society. But they should prepare young people to spot lies and falsehoods of all kinds and in many countries do little or nothing. Finland is a trailblazer here and has for several years ensured that young people learn about disinformation. Denmark has done the same. In the UK, by contrast, a recent survey (by the News Literacy Trust) reported that only 2 per cent of children have the skills to identity misinformation.


They could be helped if visible institutions adjusted their processes to better support rights to truth, for example through real time fact checking. Organisations with strong internal research capacities, like the BBC, could quickly check claims made by experts or politicians and show a neutral factual position or correction on the screen. The same could be done in parliaments, which likewise sometimes have strong research capabilities that are not mobilised at all during debates.


Enshrine new rights


To underpin these changes we need to enshrine an over-arching new right to truth, in documents such as the European Convention for Human Rights. I will leave to lawyers the best formulation, but suggest this should be a right to be provided with the most accurate available information and a right not to be knowingly lied to or misled by organisations with significant power or influence over our lives. . The bar should be set high, so that this is not an easy right to invoke where there are genuine differences of opinion, and genuine reasons why an organisation has provided misleading information. But such rights should be seen to underpin the many other rights already mentioned, whether in finance or education, politics or the media, and they should be shaped to complement other moves in this direction, like the UN’s proposal for an ‘information integrity’ code of conduct.


Similar ideas have been proposed recently. In Germany, for example, the jurist Ferdinand von Schirach proposed in 2021 expanding the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights to include six new ones, including an Article 4, covering truth, which read: 'everyone has the right to trust that statements made by the holders of public office are true'.


The actions I've suggested are necessary steps. They would help to shift the environments we live in and the balance between truth and lies. But even they are not sufficient. Countering misinformation with correct information on its own has insufficient effect. People are adept at seeking out confirming information and ignoring facts which don’t fit their values. Progressives are as likely to do this as conservatives, and the highly educated are if anything more skilled at confirmation than the less educated.


The steps described above would help to improve the environment for truth, making it more costly to lie and deceive. But it will also be vital to build trust. Societies where people trust each other and trust their governments are much less prone to conspiracy theories and misinformation. This is why strategies to earn and build trust are so vital, including action on honesty and integrity, fighting against corruption of any kind, and instilling values of decency and empathy in public institutions. Many examples — from the Post Office Horizon scandal in the UK to Robodebt in Australia — show how easy it is for public institutions to lose sight of basic ethical principles.


We need, in other words, to embed the idea of a right to truth in our culture, as part of a broader ethical renewal: so that we get angry when lied to, whether by governments and corporations or influencers, social media platforms or political parties. Only when we believe that we have a right to truth and are willing to fight for it, and only when it becomes hard to lie with impunity, will we turn the tide against lies.


If you are in any doubt, try this thought experiment. Imagine a society that had some rights, but no rights to truth. What would be the meaning of a right to a fair trial by jury, unless judges were expected to ensure they are presented with the best possible information? What would be the value of a right to education, if there was no assurance that teachers were providing best available knowledge? What would be the value of a right to vote in a society where the media had no interest in distinguishing truths from lies? What would be the value of a right to healthcare without assurance that doctors were using the best available knowledge? Such a thought experiment quickly shows that almost every right turns out to depend, either implicitly or explicitly, on a right to truth and matching obligations to provide the truest possible information.


The same is true of freedom. Freedom depends on an environment of truth — whether it’s the freedom to eat what you want or the freedom to decide who to vote for. We cannot choose freely without access to reliable information. Indeed, this is a fundamental divide between authoritarian and democratic societies. In the former, it is enough to have material prosperity and security; in healthy democracies, we believe that these have to be combined with both freedom and truth.


Counter-arguments


The counter arguments to everything I have set out have two main forms. The first says that governments should have no role in deciding the truth. I agree. This is why I emphasise institutions which serve the public but are not directly controlled by politicians or the state. These work well for science, finance, the law and much else, even when they ultimately depend on government for funds. The BBC is a good example in the media. Governments will often try to influence or bully these institutions, but many countries have learned how to use a combination of constitutional rules and norms to protect them.


The second argument is that no-one, and no institution, can be trusted to determine truth. This I strongly disagree with. One of the great successes of the last century and more is the creation of institutions that are trusted and seen as legitimate in determining truth and falsehood. So anyone making the argument that no-one can be trusted with the truth should logically argue for dismantling existing institutions and processes in science; the role of the courts in judging dishonest advertising and much else; the many regulations governing truth in finance and accounting; or indeed the many institutions that govern, and keep safe, the machines we use everyday, from cars to mobile phones.


Several centuries ago, the French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal commented that ‘truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that unless we love the truth, we cannot know it’. We need to love the truth not just as a noun but also as a verb. Truth is not a single thing but rather a never-ending process of discovery. That process needs work, and help. It needs to be supported by laws and institutions. And it needs to be made a labour of love.


....


[I think the arguments here are not only on the right lines but also very important. But I am open to correction, on errors of logic, fact or interpretation, and to better ideas on what could be done!]

3 commentaires


Chris Haley
Chris Haley
25 mars

Geoff, a couple of thoughts: 


First, ‘post-truth’ narratives do not emerge only from one political direction, nor are scientific institutions immune. The past few years have provided numerous instances where ostensible defenders of truth have argued instead that the truth may be too dangerous to be spoken or even studied: for example, we saw this in claims that the origins of Covid shouldn’t be investigated, lest this harm international relations; in suppression of coverage of vaccine injury, lest this increase vaccine hesitancy; and in claims that some racial differences should not be studied, lest this harm race relations (e.g. NIH’s genetics data access policy). If a ‘right to truth’ is to be something other than a tool for enforcing the…


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Mark Hazelwood
Mark Hazelwood
24 mars

Great piece. Increasingly I fear that if we don't make progress in this area then humankind will die out - steps to address the climate emergency and/or the next more lethal pandemic can't survive the current post-truth environment. Mendacity plus credulousness = extinction.

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andrew
23 mars

Thank you for this, which resonates strongly with me after 30 years of working in the field of our right to information - often most practically and broadly encapsulated in freedom of information laws, such as the UK's Freedom of Information Act 2000. In relation to dis- and misinformation plaguing our societies, it's important that you touched on the issue of power, as 'cui bono' helps us interrogate the dissemination activities.


I'll possibly return with additional comments after reflecting further on your post, but there's one thing I did want to pick up on, which is that you write that "Nor does the European Convention on Human Rights, which supports freedom of thought and expression, but no rights to information…


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