Our New Post-Truth World

Politics dictated by feelings have been a long time coming.

Illustrator: Weiying Zhu

Illustrator: Weiying Zhu

This year saw a number of new and potentially frightening expressions emerge in the national dialogue. Among them is the Oxford Dictionaries 2016 International Word of the Year, “post-truth,” which is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In the year of Donald Trump and Brexit, it’s clear why this word was chosen.

Oxford reported use of the word “post-truth” had increased by 2000 percent in the past year. Looking at that figure alone, it’s easy to assume “post-truth” and its auxiliaries emerged this year as an unforeseen and unpredictable force in the political system. In reality, however, this post-truth climate has been a long time coming.

The origins of post-truth date back to the late 20th-century philosophy of postmodernism that emerged from the social revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Postmodernism is defined by an attitude of skepticism of objective reality and distrust in absolute truth. Postmodernists vehemently denied objectivity and instead prescribed each individual with their own subjective reality and set of truths. The advent of the internet and especially social media later on allowed this reactionary philosophical movement to become reality.

Oxford reported use of the word “post-truth” had increased by 2000 percent in the past year.

We have never enjoyed an era without misinformation, however, the filters through which information had to pass before reaching the public were far more rigorous than today. Newspapers and television news stations were beholden to journalistic standards that today’s Facebook and Twitter users never have to consider. The walls that separate facts from opinions, advertisements, pseudoscience, and propaganda don’t exist online. The internet was once heralded as the emancipator of information, however, it also allowed for the rampant propagation of misinformation.

Two quirks of human psychology have been driving us towards a “post-truth” era; reinforcement theory, which describes the tendency for people to seek out information that confirms their beliefs, and confirmation bias, which describes our tendency to interpret new information in a way that confirms our beliefs. As people demand news that they want to hear, outlets that cater to those particular audiences thrive, especially on social media where the regulation of “facts” is virtually nonexistent. Due to the way websites like Facebook and YouTube present content catered to the tastes of their users, individuals become increasingly surrounded by information they will agree with, even if it is entirely false. Information they will disagree with is filtered out – this is what’s known as a “filter bubble” and it can happen to anyone.  Considering 40 percent of American adults get their news from Facebook, the scale of this problem is un-ignorable. It has become possible for two people to consume entirely different “facts” about the same topic and this has incredibly dangerous implications for democracy as well as society as a whole.

We’ve seemingly entered a dystopian-esque era of “post-truth politics.” Misinformation runs rampant all over the political spectrum, from climate change denial to the anti-vaccine movement, both are two sides of the same coin. Without the foundation of objective facts with which to argue upon, there can be no discussion or compromise. The hyper-partisanship that has paralyzed our legislature is both a cause and the result of this new post-truth world. When basic facts become partisan, there can be no grounds for discussion and no way to move forward.

We’ve seemingly entered a dystopian-esque era of “post-truth politics.”

The past year showcased the ability of feelings to overpower facts in political discourse. There was a consensus among economic and political experts that the United Kingdom leaving the European Union would have a negative effect on the economy and on the country’s diplomatic standing. Still, feelings of exploitation by the EU and xenophobia towards immigrants motivated enough Britons to vote “leave” regardless of what experts said. That same disregard for facts is largely what allowed Donald Trump to secure the presidency of the United States. Trump was and still is unprecedented in his ability to get away with spreading blatant falsehoods, his campaign relied on assertions that “feel true,” but in reality have no factual basis. Politifact has rated Trump’s statements as “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire,” 70 percent of the time and yet he won the election due to feelings of exploitation by the establishment and fear of non-white antagonism. The leaders of the post-truth world are those who know to best stoke the fears and feelings of their constituents.

Who is to blame for all this? Many blame Facebook for allowing fake news to run amok this election cycle. Others have blamed the mainstream media for not adequately fact-checking Trump and affording him relentless free coverage from which to broadcast his falsehoods. Others still are being blamed; liberals, conservatives, baby boomers, and of course, millennials. It’s fair to say that the blame belongs to everyone and the sooner we can find common ground, the sooner we can begin to work towards “post-post-truth.”