GUEST BLOG: Is post-truth politics a thing?

As part of the SGSAHTheories of Knowledge series, Professor Richard Coyne gave an illuminating talk on knowledge and ignorance in our digital age. He has kindly shared with us a post originally published on his own blog, discussing post-truth politics. 

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. It also comes into play as a way of accounting for the strange unregulated world of social media.

Post-truth politics help 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 recently in light of the UK referendum on leaving the EU, and the US Presidential campaign.

According to the post-truth narrative, we citizens used to at least 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.

post-truth-1Roberts 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 deliver assertions as facts even if there’s no evidence, or the evidence contradicts the assertions.

And these false assertions can gain momentum. Once they’re out, in spite of refutations, they circulate and do their work as memes. Post-truth politicians make use of this propensity for falsehoods as a way 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 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.” This 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 really do it if he wins the presidency. 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

So 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?)

References

  • 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.

Note

  • 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.

(This is an abbreviated version of a post originally shared on Reflections on Technology, Media & Culture on 10/09/2016. You can find the full article by clicking the link. For more information and access to the Theories of Knowledge online lecture series, click here.)

Richard Coyne is Academic Director of the MSc in Design and Digital Media, and Programme Director of the MSc by Research in Digital Media and Culture at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of several books on the implications of information technology and design with MIT Press and Routledge. His research has been supported by AHRC, EPSRC and SCRAN.

Richard is animated by the cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media. He enjoys architecture, writing, blogging, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.

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