Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

My fellow Americans, as you well know the 2018 midterm elections are almost upon us. No matter who you support, I recommend sparing yourself additional heartburn by not letting the process tie your stomach in a knot (I know, that’s much easier said than done).

It helps to keep in mind something Winston Churchill is credited with saying: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Democracy also just might be government at its most confusing. Making it far tougher is the enormous amount of misinformation — often just out-and-out lies — purposefully disseminated via the web these days. It’s enough to dissuade me from the notion that that all technical progress correlates with genuine human progress.

No place today seems immune from the havoc that this illiberal nastiness can cause on the left and the right.

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Not even once isolated Bhutan, the small Himalayan nation I was fortunate to visit about six years ago, can catch a break. This recent Washington Post story underscores this sad truth. It ran the day of Bhutan’s national election last Thursday.

A small Himalayan nation wedged between India and China, Bhutan is famed for its isolated location, stunning scenery and devotion to the principle of “Gross National Happiness,” which seeks to balance economic growth with other forms of contentment.

But Bhutan’s young democracy, only a decade old, just received a heady dose of the unhappiness that comes with electoral politics. In the months leading up to Thursday’s national elections, the first in five years, politicians traded insults and made extravagant promises. Social media networks lit up with unproved allegations and fear mongering about Bhutan’s role in the world.

It is enough to make some voters express a longing for the previous system — absolute monarchy under a beloved king. “I would love to go back,” said Karma Tenzin, 58, sitting in his apartment in the picturesque capital, Thimphu. “We would be more than happy.”

Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist nation (more precisely, it adheres to Vajrayana Buddhism, the branch of the faith also found in Tibet). So given the far more deadly social media lies propagated in Myanmar, also a strong Buddhist state, should we assume that there’s something about Buddhism itself that lends itself to this sort of twisted media manipulation?

Of course not. The problem is far more about human limitations than any particular religious constellation.

Frankly, I think the Bhutan story bolsters the argument that the vast majority of humans — no matter where we live or what we think about right and wrong and the rest of what scriptural religion, as opposed to popular religion, instructs  — compromise on a daily basis their professed faith.

How different, after all, are Muslim Saudi Arabian online media trolls from the mischievous Bhutanese Buddhist trolls, other than, perhaps, their level of devious technical sophistication? Or Brazilian Christian trolls?

Or, for the sake of argument, presumed atheist alt-right and presumed atheist alt-left social media manipulators working the Republican-Democrat divide here in the U.S.?

(GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly also addressed the Saudi situation this past weekend, focusing on the absence of press freedoms as they relate to the apparent murder of the self-exiled Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.)

(Just so you know, press freedoms, rather than government efforts to control politically twisted misinformation, is the preferred position of nearly 60 percent of Americans, according to one Pew poll.)

My examples above lead me to wonder about the superficiality of professed religious ideals among the majority of humans. How much of religious belief is simply a cornerstone of tribal cultural identity, providing comfort and camaraderie but little more.

Call it weaponized faith.

So, religion scribes, perhaps it’s time to probe the authenticity of beliefs held by flesh-and-blood actors in the material world?

I realize that’s a near-impossible task. For one, how do you define authentic, spiritually grounded and consistent faith when everyone has their own internal compass? What fair-minded reporter can realistically determine the truth of what he or she is told by an interview subject speaking about their inner religious experience?

You can start with basic questions about worship attendance, donations to religious charities, volunteer hours, etc. As the old journalism saying goes: When in doubt, follow the money. Still, these metrics only distill religion's exterior shell -- just because you show up for group worship regularly or contribute large amounts does not inoculate against shadow hypocrisies.

Moreover, in today’s media environment — with its lack of experienced religion writers still on the job and the preponderance of shrinking editorial budgets — how many editors will allow skilled reporters the time needed to pursue this sort of open-ended inquiry?

My questions lead me to conclude that what I’m suggesting here is beyond journalism’s limited scope; meaning that traditional journalistic religion coverage is ill-equipped to probe as deeply as I’d like it to.

Perhaps. But I still think it's worth pondering deeply why just about every religious culture I’m aware of fails to persuade the bulk of its professed adherents — using media manipulation as a depressingly low-bar example — to not engage in or blindly accept politically purposed information.

Plus, it’s only likely to get worse, as Nebraska  Republican Senator Ben Sasse wrote in this essay that appeared in The Washington Post. His concern is the next generation of online manipulation.

Deepfakes — seemingly authentic video or audio recordings that can spread like wildfire online — are likely to send American politics into a tailspin, and Washington isn’t paying nearly enough attention to the very real danger that’s right around the corner.

Consider: In December 2017, an amateur coder named “DeepFakes” was altering porn videos by digitally substituting the faces of female celebrities for the porn stars’. Not much of a hobby, but it was effective enough to prompt news coverage. Since then, the technology has improved and is readily available. The word deepfake has become a generic noun for the use of machine-learning algorithms and facial-mapping technology to digitally manipulate people’s voices, bodies and faces. And the technology is increasingly so realistic that the deepfakes are almost impossible to detect.

Creepy, right? Now imagine what will happen when America’s enemies use this technology for less sleazy but more strategically sinister purposes.

I agree that press freedom is preferred over government picking what information is off-kilter and needs to be shutdown; that just reeks of authoritarian self-preservation. I have to admit, though, that there are times when I feel that press freedom is one of those democratic norms that are just too easy to abuse.

Anyone have an idea of how we might handle this going forward? If so, please post it to the comments section below.

Journalism’s — and democracy’s — future could depend upon the outcome of this critical debate.

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