Are facts becoming the preserve of the liberal elite?

Fake news machine gears up for 2020
Fake news machine gears up for 2020

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Fake news machine gears up for 2020 13:17

Nic Robertson is CNN's international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)Are facts fast becoming the preserve of the liberal elite?

It is a loaded question with weighty implications.
In their insightful article, "The End of the Democratic Century" in this month's Foreign Affairs magazine, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa theorize that the appeal -- and therefore the growth -- of democracies last century was the allure of their economies. It made them a model worth striving toward.
    Fast forward to today, and look at how some of the world's autocracies have seen their revenues rise. As they do, the value of democracy is called into question.
    Mounk and Foa write that for the first time in a hundred years, the GDP of liberal democracies has fallen below half the global total and that the International Monetary Fund predicts "it will slump to a third in the next decade."
    The moment is approaching, the authors write, when "the share of global income by countries considered not free, such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, will surpass that held by liberal democracies."
    So, for those us that value the "fourth estate" and believe it is fundamental to democracies and good governance, a new future maybe looms into view -- a future in which fewer may care for facts.
    What props up the autocracies of Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia and others is state-controlled media. And not just one outlet but multiple on many platforms. Add to this armies of bots and trolls, all manipulating and lying to keep their masters in power.
    All this we know. But if incomes and lifestyles in China, for example, begin to look rosy in the eyes of the underprivileged in emerging economies, then facts and the power they hold over leaders may be sacrificed in a race to riches.
    As Mounk and Foa note, at the United Nations, emerging economies in Brazil and India have "tended to side with autocratic regimes in seeking a greater role for states in regulating the internet."
    If this is a harbinger of what's to come, then democracies, while they still can, need to step up and validate the role of reporters or risk emasculating the fourth estate.
    On Thursday, World Press Freedom Day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- the day after he was sworn in to office -- did just that. "The United States values freedom of the press as a key component of democratic governance. By fostering a free press, citizens are more informed, active and engaged in political decision-making, and can better hold their governments accountable," he said in a statement.
    How he deals with his boss, US President Donald Trump, on that may be key in stemming democracy's downward slide.
    Trump already tilts towards the authoritarian types. He has praised President Putin and President Xi and rarely lets an opportunity go by to berate journalists, dolling out his "fake news" slur with an abandon that defies its national security implications and probably puts smiles on Putin's and Xi's faces.
    And it's not just Trump. The underbelly of the internet -- trolls -- use similar tactics.
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    Every so often, even this lowly hack gets a lathering in their slime as they seek to smother healthy discourse, using democracies' brightest tools to shade the world to an autocratic twilight.
    Some of the more surprising findings by Mounk and Foa came from citizens of Europe, whose forefathers bore the brunt of brutal wars. They discovered that "from 1995 to 2017 the share of French, Germans, and Italian's who favored military rule have more than tripled."
    If a future where autocracies are more attractive than democracies seems hard to imagine, look around a little harder.
    Poland and Hungary are slipping that way, succumbing to a nationalist populism. Far-right groups like Marine Le Pen's rebranded Front National in France and Italy's far right-leaning Northern League are growing. Austria's new government was formed from right and far-right parties.
    In Britain, many voters bought a bold-faced lie painted on the side of Vote Leave campaign buses, promising hundreds of millions of pounds a week pouring back from Brussels into the United Kingdom's beleaguered health service before voting for Brexit.
    The slide has been going on slowly for a while.
    TV viewers don't devour hard news the way they used to, and it's far from clear the slack is picked up by people who consume information online. Newspapers have scaled back reporting staff, leaving the Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and a few others among the last sentinels of regular broad and substantive content.
    Much of this may be because there is simply so much entertainment to choose from. But distraction from the totems of news is the essence of an autocrat's survival.
    If facts are only for the liberal elite, the end of the democratic century Mounk and Foa predict may be headed for an even sharper precipice than they warn.
    It is clear the fourth estate has a battle on its hands, and I personally am warmed and encouraged by the quality of talent we still attract.
    Another generation is coming. This fight is far from done.