Screen shot of Andrew Tyrie, chair of the UK's Treasury Cttee. grilling Dominic Cummings on the NHS VoteLeave poster and 'the economic and financial costs and benefits of UK's EU membership.'But surely this is nothing new? So say many people when confronted with the phenomenon of Post Truth. Haven’t human beings been lying to each other since they could communicate? What about Watergate, Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the Iraq dossiers, “spin” and – to go back a little further – Machiavelli’s advice to the prince to be “a great pretender and dissembler”?
To all of which I say: yes, mendacity is as old as language. Falsehood has always been a feature of the human condition. You can tell a politician is lying because… well, you know the joke.
But Post Truth is something else, and something new. The novelty is to be found not in the lies but in our response to them. It is about us, not them.
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries selected ‘Post-Truth’ as its word of the year, defining it as shorthand for “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. And this gets right to the heart of the matter.
Take last year’s Brexit referendum. Arron Banks, the sharp-witted businessman who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign, was correct in his analysis of the referendum outcome: “The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You’ve got to connect with people emotionally.”
Those pressing for Britain’s continued EU membership bombarded the public with statistics: leaving would cost 950,000 UK jobs, the average wage would fall by £38 a week, each family would pay an average of £350 a year more on basic goods, £66 million invested by EU countries in the UK would be at risk, the cost of leaving would be £4,300 per household…and so on, and so on. It became easy to caricature this torrent of indigestible data as no more than a series of arbitrary claims.
What the Brexiteers understood was the need for simplicity and emotional resonance: a narrative that would give visceral meaning to a decision that might otherwise appear technical and abstract. As Dominic Cummings, campaign director of Vote Leave, argued at the time, the case for departure had to be clear and cleave to the specific grievances of the public. As Dominic Cummings, campaign director of Vote Leave, argued at the time, the case for departure had to be clear and cleave to the specific grievances of the public.
A message based upon the trade opportunities of Brexit – “Go Global” – might be intellectually defensible but it would not win votes. Earlier research by Cummings on Britain’s membership of the euro had revealed the potential traction of a pledge to “take back control”. And he was proved right.
After considering a run at the presidency for decades, Donald Trump intuited the same shift in popular behaviour. Let’s face it: he was never a sympathetic candidate. The opinion polls showed that the American people were perfectly aware of his character flaws. But he communicated a brutal empathy to them, rooted not in statistics, empiricism or meticulously-acquired information, but an uninhibited talent for rage, impatience and the attribution of blame. The assertion that he was “plain-speaking” did not mean – as it might have in the past – “he is speaking the truth”. In 2016, it meant: “this candidate is different and might just address my anxieties and hopes.”
When Kellyanne Conway, senior aide to the President, spoke of “alternative facts”, she captured perfectly this new epistemology. In the Post Truth era, what used to be called reality is absolutely fungible. The point is not to determine the truth by a process of rational evaluation, assessment and conclusion. You choose your own reality, as if from a buffet.
How has this happened? The social basis of Post Truth is the collapse of trust in traditional institutions: all else flows from this single, poisonous source. The financial crisis of 2008 took the global economy to the brink of meltdown, averted only by eye-wateringly huge state bailouts for the very banks that were responsible for the disastrous collapse.
The financial crisis of 2008 took the global economy to the brink of meltdown, averted only by eye-wateringly huge state bailouts for the very banks that were responsible for the disastrous collapse. In Britain, this was followed by the humiliation of the political class in the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal. In a series of remarkable articles, the Daily Telegraph exposed the sharp practices that enabled MPs to supplement their official salary by charging the taxpayer for everything from moat-clearing and a £1600 duck house to a bath-plug and pornographic films.
Meanwhile, scandals in showbusiness – especially the monstrous sexual crimes of Jimmy Savile – dragged the BBC and other institutions through the mire. For print journalism, the hacking controversy was no less a disaster, forcing the closure of the News of the World, the resignation of its former editor, Andy Coulson, as Number Ten’s director of communications, and Lord Leveson’s sweeping inquiry of 2011-12 into the conduct of the press.
In other words: we live in an age of institutional fragility. A society’s institutions act as guard-rails, the bodies that incarnate its values and continuities. To shine a bright light on their failures, decadence and outright collapse is intrinsically unsettling. But that is not all. Post-Truth has flourished in this context, as the firewalls and antibodies (to mix metaphors) have weakened. When the putative guarantors of honesty falter, so does truth itself.
Second, digital technology has become the all-important, primary, indispensable engine of this change. In the early years of the online revolution, it was optimistically assumed by many that the Internet would inevitably smooth the path to sustainable cooperation and pluralism. In practice, the new technology has done at least as much to foster balkanisation and a general retreat into echo chambers.
As Barack Obama put it in his farewell address: “We become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.” For all its wonders, the web tends to amplify the shrill and to dismiss complexity. For many – perhaps most – it encourages confirmation bias rather than a quest for accurate disclosure. As Eric S. Raymond famously predicted, the Cathedral is yielding place to the Bazaar.
As Eric S. Raymond famously predicted, the Cathedral is yielding place to the Bazaar. And there are profits to be made from the production line of clickbait hoaxes – unscientific medical claims, crackpot theories, fictional sightings of UFOs or Jesus. The disincentives to publication are (to date) marginal, and the ease of production enticing. For those on social media, anonymity dramatically reduces accountability. The buzz of the hive sends the falsehood fizzing into cyberspace to do its work. Never has the old adage – that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes – seemed so timely.
In the consequent cacophony, the flow of information is increasingly dominated by peer-to-peer interaction rather than the imprimatur of the traditional press. We consume what we already like, and shy away from the unfamiliar. The ultimate generator of novelty has also become the curator of hearsay, folklore, and prejudice.
This, it should be emphasised, is not a design flaw. It is what the algorithms are meant to do: to connect us with the things we like, or might like. They are fantastically responsive to personal taste and – to date – fantastically blind to veracity. The web is the definitive vector of Post-Truth precisely because it is indifferent to falsehood, honesty and the difference between the two. It is what the algorithms are meant to do: to connect us with the things we like, or might like.
This is why “fake news” has become such an issue, especially on Facebook. Among the most-read hoax stories of 2016 were the following: the claim that Obama had banned the Pledge of Allegiance in schools; “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement”; a report that Trump was “Offering Free One-Way Tickets to Africa & Mexico for Those Who Wanna Leave America”; and “ISIS Leader Calls for American Muslim Voters to Support Hillary Clinton.” As ludicrous as these stories may seem, they command belief: in December 2016, an Ipsos poll for BuzzFeed of more than 3,000 Americans found that 75 per cent of those who saw fake news headlines judged them to be accurate.
If digital technology is the hardware, Post Truth has proven to be a mighty software. It reduces political discourse to a video game in which endless play, on multiple levels, is the sole point of the exercise. Conspiracy theories, pseudo-science, Holocaust denial: all are enjoying a new lease of life and unprecedented circulation.
Depressed? Don’t be. There is much that can be done to address this crisis in the information environment – in education, in fact-checking, in a new social contract with the tech giants, through civic collaboration.
But things will not get better until we face up to the scale of the problem. Nothing nourishes Post Truth so much as self-deception.