We’re in a new age, it’s called the “Post-Truth” age. There is truth, there are facts, there are realities – and then, there are perceptions, emotions, and down-right lies. We have reached a point in the West, were lies have overtaken the truth. And Donald Trump, more than anyone else or anything else, represents this situation. Brexit too, by the way, is another representation of this reality. Unscrupulous politicians manipulate the public with lies, that pull on their emotions to win at the ballot box. Its cunning, but tragic – because facts are lost in public debates and no one thinks critically.
Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics and post-reality politics) is now our political culture. Debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of “secondary” importance. While this has been described as a contemporary problem, there is a possibility that it has long been a part of political life but was less notable before the advent of the internet and related social changes.
Political commentators have identified post-truth politics as ascendant in American, Australian, Bavarian, British, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Turkish politics, as with other areas of debate, driven by a combination of the 24-hour news cycle, false balance in news reporting, and the increasing ubiquity of social media. In 2016, “post-truth” was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year, due to its prevalence in the context of that year’s Brexit referendum and media coverage of the U.S. presidential election.
Following the shameful truth of Watergate, more assuaging coverage of the Iran–Contra scandal and Persian Gulf War demonstrate that “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.” In 2004, Ralph Keyes used the term “post-truth era” in his book by that title. The same year American journalist Eric Alterman spoke of a “post-truth political environment” and coined the term “the post-truth presidency” in his analysis of the misleading statements made by the Bush administration after 9/11. In his 2004 book Post-democracy, Colin Crouch used the phrase “post-democracy” to mean a model of politics where “elections certainly exist and can change governments,” but “public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals’ expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams.” Crouch directly attributes the “advertising industry model” of political communication to the crisis of trust and accusations of dishonesty that a few years later others have associated with post-truth politics.
The term “post-truth politics” was coined by the blogger David Roberts in a blog post for Grist on 1 April 2010, where it was defined as “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation)”.The term became widespread during the campaigns for the 2016 presidential election in the United States and the 2016 referendum on membership in the European Union in the United Kingdom. Oxford Dictionaries declared that its international word of the year in 2016 is “post-truth”, citing a 2,000% increase in usage compared to 2015. This follows a period in the 20th century where the media was relatively balanced, and rhetoric was toned down.
For sure, this is not new. There have been pamphlet wars in the past, where with the growth of printing and literacy beginning in the 1600s have been described as an early form of post-truth politics. Slanderous and vitriolic pamphlets were cheaply printed and widely disseminated, and the dissent that they fomented led to wars and revolutions such as the English Civil War and the American War of Independence.
The digital culture allows anybody with a computer and access to the internet to post their opinions online and mark them as fact which may become legitimized through echo-chambers and other users validating one another. Content may be judged based on how many views a post gets, creating an atmosphere based on click bait that appeals to emotion instead of researched fact. Content which gets more views is continually filtered around different internet circles, regardless of its legitimacy. Some also argue that the abundance of fact available at any time on the internet leads to an attitude focused on knowing basic claims to information instead of an underlying truth or formulating carefully thought-out opinions. The internet allows people to choose where they get their information, allowing them to reinforce their own opinions.
“When the facts met the myths, they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel. When Michael Gove said ‘the British people are sick of experts’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has led to anything other than bigotry?”
The post-factual world is created by attention deficit, unwillingness to pay for news, rise of social media and with it a desire to live within a filter bubble.
A 2015 Microsoft report shows that people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds. This highlights the effects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.
Attention spans have dwindled this century falling 4 seconds from 12 seconds in 2000. This means we’re led by soundbites, and taglines.
“Make America Great” pulls at our emotional heart strings “Stronger Together” fails to resonate.
We all remember Brexit’s Leave campaign red bus with the slogan: “We send the EU £350m a week let’s fund our NHS instead.” A powerful message, a colossal, round number married to the NHS our sacred national treasure.
Yet within hours of the Leave campaign’s victory Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, told viewers of ITV’s Good Morning Britain he could not guarantee the money would be spent on the health service as promised by Leave campaigners in the fierce battle to convince the British people to opt out of the EU.
Loss of journalism
Throughout last century and for the first decade of the 21st Century, we received our news from one of only a few channels. In the UK we watched one of five free-to-air telly channels. We read a handful of national newspapers – browsed through the classified ads in regional newspapers and listened to the radio.
Journalists held politicians accountable. They competed to ask questions and raced to report on facts to us their readership.
At the bedrock of true journalism lie facts and the truth about the facts.
Journalism is a discipline of verification. It relies upon core concepts – transparency, humility, and originality.
The main editorial principle of AAP, Australia’s associated press news agency remains “accuracy and speed, but accuracy above speed.”
But effective and thorough journalism costs money. And we don’t like paying for our news. The Reuters Institute for the study of journalism Digital news report 2016 says : “Most consumers are still reluctant to pay for general news online, particularly in the highly competitive English-speaking world” where just 9% of consumers say they are prepared to pay anything to receive news online.
We prefer to get out news for free from our social media newsfeeds.
Rise of social media
According to the Pew Research Center report in the U.S. Facebook is the number one source for political news. Six-out-of-ten American Millennials use the social media platform for their political news every week. Generation Xers use it only slightly less; half turning to Facebook for weekly political news.
I wrote about this in a Facebook Instant Articles explainer article in 2015.
It’s not only for politics or in the US where consumers turn to Facebook for news content. A report on the world digital news from Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows 41% of respondents, representing 12 countries including the U.S., use Facebook to read and share news during any given week. And traffic from Facebook to publishers has also increased: the report found a 42% growth in Facebook shares of news content in January 2015 from a year earlier.
Digital echo chamber
We’re now living in the social age. And there is a revolution. It’s a revolution enabled by social media. But it’s not a technological revolution so much as it’s a social revolution.
We’ve always had opinions and shared those with family around the kitchen table and friends at work or afterwards in bars.
This has changed. Social media is an amplifier. It allows us to coalesce around ideas and seek out like-minded people on a global scale.
The issue with this is twofold:
(1) We seek out people like us. Those who reinforce our beliefs rather than those who challenge them. We, therefore, talk in an echo chamber.
(2) This is exacerbated by the second issue: It’s the algorithms of Google, Twitter and Facebook et alia who ultimately decide what we see in our newsfeeds. This perpetuates the idea that everyone is thinking the same as us.
The Wall Street Journal recently built a tool that illustrates just how radically this has allowed for us to self-select the bubbles of our facts. Red Feed Blue Feed creates two custom news feeds based on the exact same topic from conservative and liberal news sites on Facebook and displays them side by side.
The Red Feed Blue Feed “shows how easily one can become insulated inside a stream of news that confirm our assumptions and suspicions about the world, just by algorithmically tailoring the people and pages we follow” writes Tobias Rose-Stockwell.
Beyond the post-factual era
To move past this post-factual era we need to listen more, meet people with different mindsets to us and be prepared to pay for effective verification of facts.
The Dalai Lama says “when you talk you are only repeating what you already know. But when you listen you may learn something new.” So listen more and listen widely.
C.G Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist said: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Learn from this. Mix with people you wouldn’t ordinarily mix with. Talk and listen to those with different and difficult points of view.
Understand that quality journalism based on verification is a skill and skills need to be paid for.