In defence of reality

In defence of reality

The Z Factor

Mohamed Zeeshan.

I don’t know if reality is stranger than fiction, but reality sure is confused with fiction in many parts of the world.

In America, the epitome of political spoof, President Donald Trump, has been running the proof-less ‘election fraud’ buggy for weeks now. In India, many people seem convinced that there is a ‘global conspiracy’ by Muslim men to lure and convert millions of Hindu girls to Islam. Elsewhere, folks believe that Covid-19 is just part of an elaborate plan to implant microchips in people, with Bill Gates spearheading the whole operation.

Global political discourse is now filled with a long and ever-expanding menu of lies. But why do lies spread so quickly? Most people would want to point fingers at social media: In order to increase audience engagement, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms run sneaky algorithms that study people’s biases and then feed them with ‘news’ that confirms those biases – whether true or false.

But this still doesn’t explain why so many people are so quick to believe fantastical stories, or why they refuse to open their mind to fact-checking. I’ve had countless exhausting conversations, both online and offline, with people who refuse to believe intelligence reports, scientific journals and even video footage that dispel their beliefs. There are people who refuse to read a certain newspaper because it doesn’t confirm their biases. There was one person who refused to read a book that would have busted many of his false beliefs because it was “too time-consuming.”

The problem is not with the internet; it’s with what the modern human being has become – impatient, with short attention span, and an unquenchable thirst for drama. Let’s face it: reality is boring. It’s nuanced, complicated, and comes with multiple sides to every coin. It’s simply not as satisfying as bite-sized conspiracy theories. We want to believe that there are aliens locked up in the American desert, that Nehru secretly owed allegiance to the British, or that Virat Kohli only opposed Diwali crackers because he wants to ‘destroy Hinduism’.

During my time both in the policy consulting world and the international media space, I have been made painfully aware of all this. If you don’t engage people’s attention with something spicy, they will not listen to you. Memos and presentations must be colourful and graphic, articles should be shorter and more dramatic, and videos about news events can’t be too long.

At some point, everybody in the media has had to sacrifice at least some nuance in their productive output, so as to not ‘bore’ the audience – even if one needs a few more minutes or many more words to tell the whole story.

What’s worse is that many people have made short attention spans a virtue, as if the public somehow doesn’t owe it to its own interest to be better informed, rather than acting on a bunch of sensational lies! Writers are often panned for being “too boring,” regardless of the comprehensiveness of their work.

The problem with this drama-obsessed approach to public affairs and politics is that it hurts society in very real ways. Information is a public good; what you believe – and how you act on it – matters to everybody else, because democracy is ultimately a contract among voters to take enlightened decisions that would uplift everybody, not just oneself. Being an informed citizen is, therefore, not just courtesy; it’s an essential duty.

So, the next time you come across a long article or a heavy book, don’t pass on it because you “don’t have time”. Be a good citizen – give it a read.