What is 'post-truth'?

By Campaign Agent Karl Dudman

Post-truth is a term that exploded into public dialogue in 2016, becoming the backdrop for major political changes such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. It has remained in common parlance ever since. But the term - like its usage, and the the political landscape it describes - is often weaponised and open to debate. It describes a situation in which what counts as ‘truth’ to people is based less on facts, evidence, and expertise, than emotion, values, and personal experiences. How do we begin to make sense of such a counter-intuitive concept then, and perhaps more importantly, how did it even come about in the first place?

The term ‘post-truth’ shot up in usage by a staggering 2000% in 2016 from the year before, and was dubbed the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’ as a result. However, whilst the phrase may be relatively new, the sentiment behind it is not. As early as the 1980s, comedian Stephen Colbert popularised the term ‘truthiness’, meaning ‘the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true’ (1). ‘Truthiness’ was of course intended to be satirical, but it reflects a continuing and ever-relevant conversation about how we choose to understand the world around us.

Scholars in communications studies and social psychology argue for the importance of pre-existing values and ideals in determining how people interpret information (2). During an experiment in which participants watch a video of an altercation between a civilian and a police officer, psychologists at New York University found that people with more favourable opinions of authority figures like the police would generally say he was just doing his job (3). On the other hand, viewers with more anarchist leanings would assume the officer was in the wrong. This makes intuitive sense: imagine your best friend gets into a fight with a stranger, whose side of the story are you more likely to believe? (4) You watch a TV debate about fox hunting, and both sides are throwing out contradictory statistics. As an avid supporter of fox-hunting, who are you more likely to think has fiddled the facts? These biases that we carry around with us change how we see the world, and they run deep. Years later, Stephen Colbert was quoted saying ‘Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the President [George Bush] because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist.’ (2) While this statement could easily have been pulled  from today’s news, it actually comes from an interview back in 2006.

The fact is - whether we believe it or not - people have long put their faith in what feels recognisably true, according to their own biases, over what evidence might tell them. However, with politicians keen to reduce their own vulnerability in a time of increasing mistrust for elites, soundbites like Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’, or Michael Gove’s assessment that the public ‘have had enough of experts’ serve to legitimise the peddling of personal realities as the accepted way to run a democracy. It matters what politicians say, because the values we put our trust in act as filters for how we choose what to believe, and so the political, moral, religious and social leaders whose opinions we trust - whether that’s the pope or your grandma - have a huge influence on our interpretations of ‘truth’. Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communications studies, suggests that issues of scientific concern such as climate change have ‘joined a short list of issues such as gun control or taxes that define what it means to be a Republican or Democrat’ (5). Climate change’s divisiveness doesn’t come from people’s opinions on how credible the ‘facts’ are, but their allegiance to the political parties that, for very political reasons, do or don’t endorse it. It’s a matter of trust rather than truth.

It seems to be a timelessly human habit to shop for our opinions in this way, and long before satirists like Colbert started quipping about ‘truthiness’, the 17th century philosopher Francis Bacon penned out some Latin describing something all too similar. ‘Everyone’, he claimed, ‘ […] has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolours the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or […] to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires’. If then, as Bacon suggests, we have always been a bit post-truth in our thinking, what made Trump’s election and Brexit different, and why was 2016 the year ‘post-truth’ came crashing to a dictionary near you? Public belief may well be about trust, but what Bacon was actually proposing in his essay was an objective science that could make up for this unreliable aspect of human psychology. The ‘scientific revolution’, which took place around the 17th century, marked a shift in European thinking towards this more evidence-based, ‘rational’ ways of understanding the world. Then, with Europe’s unprecedented expansion in the age of colonialism, modern science became a worldwide export, travelling on the shoulders of imperial forces (6) and becoming an established  and legitimate method of enquiry in many parts of the world. So entrenched are the principles of empiricism, that for most of these societies, especially in the west, science has usually been on the right side of public trust since the Enlightenment (7)… until now

There are many deeply complex reasons why this crisis of communication between public and expert has emerged - from an increasingly ‘hands-off’ approach of mainstream news sources towards objectivity and defence of facts (8), to the massive growth of digital media that allow us to be more selective about where we get our news from in the first place (9). What is important is that the globalised world has ironically enabled us, more than ever, to avoid contact with difference inside our own societies, allowing rifts to emerge between swathes of the country and the political and economic centres that govern them. When a shared idea of reality is dependent on mutual trust, this will always prove disastrous for democracy, and has led to a polarisation of society within even small countries like the UK. In this environment, understanding the conditions that inform your own views are crucial. Take, for example, the EU referendum. Whether you voted to remain in or leave the European Union, the complexity and uncertainty that surrounded the likely implications of Brexit were so great that making a decision based on rational projections and fact was simply off the table for the  vast majority of voters. In such a case where the facts do not speak for themselves, the influence of networks of trust and shared values plays a very strong role in our interpretation of what truth is. We are all deeply post-truth in our decision-making, yet this concept continues to be brandished on both sides of a vitriolic debate across Western society, either as ‘post-truth’ or ‘fake news’, to discredit the other. It is arguably only in understanding this fact that we can get to thinking about the underlying causes of polarisation within society. Until we do, we are stoking the flames of a crisis of communication.

Sources and Further Reading:

Image: Jeso Carneiro @Flickr


TalkPolitics is proud to be supported by Audible. For 50% off your new membership, click here.