One of the greatest threats facing peace and cohesion in the world today is disinformation. In recent years, the world has seen what havoc a sophisticated disinformation campaign can wreak – from enabling wholly unqualified persons to lead powerful countries to fueling continued discrimination against minorities.
Disinformation spreads quickest on the Internet and social media where alternate “facts” are peddled by “truth” merchants who have access to empirical data that the established media, relevant experts, principle actors and the universal laws of mathematics do not. Thanks to confirmation bias, persons are likely to only listen to the “facts” that support their already held views. This is catastrophic for highly partisan communities, particularly during moments of crisis during which all hands are needed.
In a closely-knit society like Guyana’s, one of the most popular methods of sharing information is “He say, she say” – hearsay. This is problematic even for innocuous purposes. When I was a student at Sacred Heart Primary, a teacher once led my class in a game of what she called “Chinese Whispers.” We formed a large circle and a message was whispered to one student who then turned to her neighbour and repeated it in her ear. This series of whispers continued along the circle until the last child was prompted to report the message out loud. To great laughter and amusement, we heard words that were so transformed, they no longer resembled what many of us had heard. The lesson was powerful in its simplicity.
When I was considerably older, I observed Guyana’s 2020 General and Regional Elections. I visited dozens of polling stations, from East to West Bank. At all but two stations, everything was running smoothly.
The first controversial incident occurred late in the day at Goed Intent. Shouting persons lined both sides of the road. We stopped briefly to make queries and were told that fake IDs were being handed out. What was the evidence? A man was seen in a bus, checking a list and talking to persons. When confronted, he drove away. “Why would he leave if he wasn’t doing anything wrong?” we were asked. Some claimed a woman was seen with said bus driver. She was duly produced and her handbag rifled through in front of us. Nothing out of the ordinary was found. The scene was so turbulent that extra police had to be called in to calm the crowds. Other independent observers and party officials also turned up to verify with station agents if there had been reported cases of ID fraud. There was none.
We continued to Wales Primary School. There we were met by a young woman who told us, unprompted, that there was a woman in the vicinity who had tried to vote more than once. Did she see it? No, but she had heard from someone else who saw it. Another young woman approached us with the same story and produced photos on her phone of the alleged attempted multiple voter. Then she pointed the woman out to us. She was wearing a different top in person than in the photos. Why would she have changed her clothes unless she had wanted to attempt some act of deceit? The photographs and story were very compelling. We spoke with the Information Clerk to clarify the matter. She told us that she had turned away three persons who did not have IDs, including the woman in question, because they did not match their photographs in her folio. A small crowd of persons gathered nearby and began repeating en masse that the woman had voted multiple times – even though they too had heard the IC say that she had not been allowed to vote even once.
During this time, a passerby told us that she had just come from a station where someone had attempted to vote for the second time. Her evidence? “The man behind me in line said he saw that man before.” When we went to the identified station, the man in question was being scrutinized by the observers and GECOM. The Presiding Officer stated that this was the first time the man had appeared at his station and his name was unchecked on the list. This was not enough for one of the observers. His finger was checked for ink. Out of six observers, including myself, and the entire GECOM team, one person, an APNU/AFC observer, said she could see a trace of ink on his finger. She wanted her objection recorded. The man happened to be Indo-Guyanese. Just like the woman turned away by the IC. And the woman at Goed Intent whose handbag had been searched by strangers.
We returned to the case of the multiple voter to find the woman who had shown us photographic ‘evidence’ sitting with the IC. We spoke with the alleged fraudster. It turns out that she tried three times to vote, once with her brother who had vouched for her. She was turned away thrice. And the change of clothes? After the second failed attempt, she reportedly took a shower because it was late in the hot day. By this time, the P.O. of her station was alerted to the incident and invited her inside. The proper procedures were followed, requisite questions asked, photograph confirmed, and no objections were raised. She was allowed to vote.
One of our greatest strengths as a country is how interconnected we are. This facilitates rallying support in a moment’s notice, the pursuit of collective goals, and, often, personally knowing many of the leaders that govern us. We are not a community of strangers.
Unfortunately, strength of relationship is not sufficient evidence of fact. When we hear stories about friends or neighbours, we should always be aware that our informant might be on the tail end of a long line of Chinese whispers. Before we believe what we hear, we must think for ourselves. Is our source credible? Where did they get their information? Does this information support a cause of theirs? What observable evidence is there to support their story? Are there other persons, not tied to our source, who can confirm the story? When it comes to politics, doubt must be doubled or tripled – especially, when listening to someone from our own party. While it’s difficult to be absolutely certain about anything, we can still determine when we have enough evidence to hold certain beliefs or take particular courses of action.
We must not settle for evidence that we only hear of but never see. We must not allow political agendas to turn us into people who “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing [is] true” (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism). Guyana will not benefit from a population divorced from reality.
We cannot build a lasting peace on deception. It may be tempting to think of it as a short cut, but our ends will not be sustainable, as the last 50 years has shown us.
Human beings are capable of remarkable feats of reasoning when we put our minds to it. In the end, we all want what is best for our families and communities. We must use our trademark social ties for good. We must put the community – the entire community – first. We must demonstrate respect for the truth, whether it serves our purposes or meets our preferences or not, and act upon it.
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