The term “post-truth politics” was coined by journalist David Roberts in an article in Grist in 2010. The use of the term is convenient shorthand to indicate disagreement with some current political circumstance. The term also comes into play as a way of accounting for the strange unregulated world of social media.
The term also helps mainstream media outlets account for their declining role as gatekeepers to truth, in light of falling revenues and competition from a proliferation of news sources, including crowd-sourced news. The term has surfaced again in light of the UK referendum on leaving the EU, and the US Presidential campaign.
According to the post-truth narrative, we citizens used at least to pay lip service to a process where voters sifted evidence, drew conclusions, made up their minds over issues and then voted for policies and political parties. If you were inclined to attach yourself to a political party then you chose one that shared your reasoning.
Roberts argued that in the light of post-truth politics the reverse now occurs. People choose their group based on shared values, adopt the issues circulating within the group, develop arguments and choose facts that support those arguments.
Other commentators have since elaborated on the formula for post-truth politics. Now people who wish to persuade us do not just select facts to prove their cause; they may even make up their facts.
Politicians now also deliver assertions (as facts) in spite of the evidence, even if there’s no evidence, or the evidence contradicts the assertions.
False assertions can also gain momentum. Once they are out, in spite of refutations, they circulate and do their work as memes. Post-truth politicians make use of this propensity for falsehoods to grow, circulate and advance their cause.
In the final stages of the post-truth trajectory any audience on the side of the politician, or his/her party, stops caring whether or not the assertions are true. Even some of those who object strongly to the politician’s stance stop caring about truth. There’s no point in arguing against falsehoods, as if to say, it wasn’t facts that would have kept Britain in the EU, but addressing the discontents behind people’s willingness to accept or gloss over untruths.
In an Economist article this weekend entitled “The post-truth world” Derek Bacon says, “the post-truth strategy works because it allows people to forgo critical thinking in favour of having their feelings reinforced by soundbite truthiness.”
The reference to “truthiness” rather than “truthfulness” is interesting. It comes from a monologue by USA Late Show satirist Stephen Colbert: “Truthiness is something that feels true, even if not backed up by facts.” Then there’s “Trumpiness.” Trump keeps exciting supporters by asserting he’ll build a wall between Mexico and the USA to keep out illegal immigrants. Apparently even some of Trump’s supporters don’t believe he’ll do it. According to a report in the Washington Post one Trump supporter said: “I think if he strengthens the borders … it will be the same as building the wall … the wall can be built even without having to be built.”
How to be a post-truther
Here’s my summary of how to deliver post-truths garnered from several weeks of watching USA Presidential campaign highlights, commentary, critique and satire on Fox, NBC, CNN, CBSN via YouTube.
- Be sure of your audience. (An alt-right rally audience will do, especially if you can draw on the halo effect for credibility; think Donald Trump rally, The Apprentice, media celebrity, wealth, gambling empire, Miss World pageants.)
- Only deliver assertions that are to your advantage. (Trump said, “Obama and Clinton founded Isis.”)
- Charge your accusers with whatever they are charging you, and even get in first. (“Hillary Clinton is a bigot,” said Trump.)
- Keep delivering conspicuously controversial assertions to keep you in the media spotlight (See Variety news item For Donald Trump, Hogging the Media Spotlight Equals Victory.)
- Keep the assertion simple. (According to Daniel Kahneman, when confronted with a really difficult question we convert it into something simpler. Q: How do we solve inner city crime? A: Stop illegal immigration.)
- Stick to the wording of your assertion. (When challenged on an earlier statement, Trump asserted that Obama is ‘absolutely’ the founder of ISIS — NBC)
- You need an “echo chamber” of supporters who are prepared to believe the cause is more important than the facts (e.g. crowds who will chant “lock her up” about Clinton at the mention of any of her apparent misdemeanours).
- Conflate sarcasm with truth claims. (Trump tweets: Ratings challenged @CNN reports so seriously that I call President Obama (and Clinton) “the founder” of ISIS, & MVP. THEY DON’T GET SARCASM?)
The identification of post-truths is powerful, and probably needed, and indignation and concern over blatant post-truthisms has prompted many fact-check websites, e.g. www.factcheck.org, fullfact.org, www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker. As I look through the lists of facts to be checked, evidence and reader comments, fact checking is not as simple as truth seekers might hope.
The refutation of a fact can be complicated, involving dates, assertions, counter assertions, arguments, evidence. Some readers also accuse the fact-checker of bias. It’s also difficult to judge the importance of any fact and its refutation. Identification of an apparent untruth can direct public attention away from other aspects of the politician’s message, case or argument. In other words, fact-checking is a journalistic exercise like any other.
People may use post-truth as a “thing” to counteract positions with which they disagree, as if a fact check provides grounds for their opposition. It deprecates considered argument, assessing stakeholder opinion, compromise, ideology and all the other paraphernalia of politics. Already “the post-truth” charge has been levelled against projects such as increasing the number of grammar schools in the UK.
The post-truth narrative tends to conflate assertion, truth, fact, prediction and promise. I’m inclined to say that facts matter less now than they used to as we can look things up online. By that I probably mean that cataloguing or memorising certain facts is unimportant. But I’m less inclined to ever say that truth doesn’t matter. Also, are promises the same as truths? Is it an untruth when you don’t deliver on a promise?
Facts and the evidence that supports them do not always settle the matter. Not least, evidence often conflicts. That’s one of the reasons we have discussion, argument, adjudication, and courts. A New Scientist leader article proposes that artificial intelligence will help keep us truthful, assuming perhaps that truth is algorithmic. That’s a scary prospect.
A helpful article in the Washington Post by Sam Kriss challenges the objectivism with which the post-truth narrative begins. With any judgement we inevitably start with communities, tribes and preconditions. After all, you really do need an audience primed for your assertions, otherwise they fall on deaf ears. From epistemology, the philosophy of science and hermeneutics, we learn that evidence gathering, truth statements, and values are born, refined and developed in communities. See posts: Audience disengagement and interpretive communities.
The post-truth idea points to a zeitgeist, as if everything has changed, and for everyone. It’s a great put down, as if to say of your opponent that they too are just victims of these post-truth times. I’ll admit my bias, which leans away from the idea of the zeitgeist, especially when you are in the thick of it. See post: Zeitgeist busters.
- Bacon, Derek. 2016. The post-truth world: Yes, I’d lie to you. The Economist, (10 September) Online.
- Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin
- Kriss, Sam. 2016. The biggest political lie of 2016. Slate, (31 August) Online.
- Roberts, David. 2010. Post-truth politics. Grist, (1 April) Online.
- When is a thing? Stephen Colbert assessed “facts” by and about Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump on a low tech “thing-o-meter.” See Youtube clip.