The ‘Post-Truth’ world has produced fake news and demagoguery on an unprecedented level. What is it? Why is it important? What is the role of technology in this new climate? The article explores the nature of the problem and suggests that technology is a double-edged sword, which provides the solutions as well as creating the problems.
The Post-Truth phenomenon has been widely covered. It was voted as the word of the year in 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries. But what does it really mean? The term ‘Post-Truth’ was first coined by David Roberts, a blogger on an environmentalist website “Grist”. David Roberts claims we live in a world where emotions and feelings trump facts more easily than they used to. Although this is difficult to measure by tangible means, it is impossible to deny the success of slogans such as “Crooked Hilary”, or “Take back control”. Both are intended to stir the emotions of targetted audiences. In practical terms, politicians push for ideas that ‘feel right’ or ‘should be true’. Whenever there seems to be a gap in logic, they fill it with a relevant conspiracy theory—leaving the audience to their imaginary best or in this case, worst.
Wait, hasn’t this always been around?
McCarthy’s Communist Witch-hunt, Lyndon Johnson’s conduct over the Gulf of Tonkin, or the cry for £350 million to be freed for the NHS. Take your pick, but, clearly, deceit has and always will be an essential pillar of politics. As a result, the media inevitably plays a critical role. However, the political deception has changed in character, and it is now incredibly easy for all kinds of people to create alternative realities—the truth is of secondary importance. To put this into perspective, not many would associate the Soviet Union with values such as ‘honesty’, but the concept of truth remained fundamentally important. Peter Pomerantsev claims, “in Soviet times the concept of truth was important. Even if they were lying, they took care to prove what they were doing was ‘the truth’. In many parts of the world, truth is no longer important, and people are left to create realities.”
And ‘Post-Truth’ politics are here to stay. At this point, there appears to be no self-correction mechanism available for democratic systems. The very lies that make the political organisation weak feed into the public’s scepticism of institutions that allow ‘Post-Truth’ politics to take place in the first place. Furthermore, ‘Post-Truth’ politicians fuel a lack of trust by branding complexity and in-depth analysis as wizardry aimed at confusing the people. During Brexit, economic experts were criticised for over-complicating matters and were branded as nonsensical doomsayers. ‘Post-Truth’ phenomena is a self-sustaining one.
But if there were one thing that could explain why ‘Post-Truth Politics’ has the resilience it does, it would be human nature. We are not inclined to seek the truth. We look for views that are similar to ours and cherry pick them to support our existing biases. The media, whose primary agenda is to engage its audience has to cater to this or risk losing its customer base to other news providers. This, in turn, gives the ‘Post-Truth’ politician all the exposure he or she wants while shunning those whose views may be seen as more ‘truthful’. What is more, the politicians who go against these ‘Post-Truth’ demagogues and confront people’s views may see their efforts fall short due to the “backfire effect”—one in which “individuals who receive unwelcome information may not simply resist challenges to their views. Instead, they may come to support their original opinion even more strongly”.
The role technology has played in the development of this phenomena cannot be overstated. It has decentralised the inflow of information to our daily lives and created a world where rumours and gossip travel at an unprecedented speed. However, it appears that sources from the Internet are treated with much caution—news websites and blogs are the least trusted sources of information around the world. Unsurprisingly, many Internet users are more trusting of each other, giving themselves the power to create realities their network’s realities As such, they go on to take part in ‘Post-Truth’ politics or newsfeeds, with some intentionally creating false stories.
Technology may have given rise to this problem, but it is also the means to a solution. Any politician who makes a contradictory promise can be quickly called out on social media platforms such as Facebook or YouTube. Technology has allowed us to become the arbiters of truth. While efforts to tackle fake news such as Facebook’s are the most effective in the short term, the long-term solution is for all users of social media to regulate the kind of news that is being made accessible. It may be too idealistic, but technology can be a solution to the problem it created.