Fake truths and real mistakes

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Mr Burt said last night: “Information has come to us, as is often the case in Bermuda’s small community, that indicates that the Premier and some ministers knew in advance of the deployment of police support units (PSUs).”

This newspaper asked the Opposition leader for evidence to support his claim. He provided none, but said the information which had come to the PLP was “one of the primary reasons behind our insistence for a full and independent public inquiry” into the events of December 2.

— The Royal Gazette, December 23, 2016

Perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon in world politics over the past five years is the increasing power of propaganda and disinformation. Neither propaganda nor disinformation are new. However, the rapid expansion of electronic media has allowed the spread of it at unprecedented levels.

In the case of social media and talk radio, false information has been allowed to spread largely unregulated. Facebook, in particular, came in for severe public criticism after the US elections last November. And long before Facebook got into trouble over the publication of fake news, you had the proliferation of shock jockeys on the radio who had no reservation about promoting false, divisive content.

Bermuda is no exception. Over the past five years we have seen lots of “news” that sits somewhere between unsubstantiated rumour and mind-numbing conspiracy theory.

According to some, multimillion-dollar bribes were at play during both Jetgate and the airport public-private partnership contract.

Another false allegation was that a hotel was allegedly given work permits for 50 per cent of its staff without having to advertise locally, as the work-permit policy requires.

My favourite false allegation is that opposition MPs’ telephones are being bugged.

As was the case with David Burt’s statement on December 22, no evidence has been presented to support these claims. Nevertheless, as was the case in both the United States and Britain last year, evidence is not necessarily required for false information to have a powerful effect on a community. And in the case of conspiracy theories, a lack of evidence may sometimes be taken as confirmation.

The presence of false information does not at all mean that nothing wrong is going on. The One Bermuda Alliance is far from perfect, and it has made some colossal errors. Five key failures of the OBA’s term in power come to mind:

1, It has failed to bring about any meaningful change in public education. This is hard to fathom considering how much public education featured in its 2012 platform.

2, It has failed to directly address discrimination in a constructive and proactive manner. Bermuda’s economic struggles have disproportionately affected black people and the poor. Although a strengthening economy greatly helps those who need help most, when it comes to race, the OBA has not lived up to its 2012 platform.

3, It has failed to use available employment data to educate and inform the public of Bermuda’s employment challenges. Further, it has failed to use available data to complete part two of the National Training Plan.

4, It has failed to carry out meaningful Civil Service reforms as recommended by the Sage Report. The Efficiency and Reform Authority, along with the Public Bodies Reform Act, were innovative ideas that stalled because they were rejected by the Bermuda Trade Union Congress. While it is highly commendable that the OBA has reduced the Civil Service without layoffs, reform of the Civil Service should have remained high on the OBA’s agenda.

5, It has failed to communicate effectively. I am quite sympathetic to the notion that the OBA would have to demonstrate what kind of government it is instead of talking about it. But this does not excuse what appears to be a complete lack of a communications strategy.

When I began to prepare for this column, I sought the opinions of others. At least for those willing to respond to my query, the failure to communicate came up the most. For many, it was the OBA’s biggest fault. One person even suggested that every quarter the OBA should have been sharing success stories, policy changes, etc, with the public in a relatable and understandable way. Statements about what the public do and do not understand were also recommended.

Especially when it comes to highly contentious issues such as immigration reform and the airport contract, the OBA did itself no favours by having incredibly poor communications. I do not mean to discount the OBA’s broader mistakes and failures. But it must be recognised that a failure to communicate effectively makes it that much harder for the public to separate fact from fiction.

To reach out to Bryant Trew, e-mail: bryanttrew@mac.com

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