Friday, November 09, 2018

Post-Truth: Useful Concept or Revenge of the Establishment?

This week I have been researching and writing an essay on truth and journalism. On of the things I have reflected on is the concept of Post-Truth. In the last two years alone over 25 books have been published with "Post-Truth" in the title. I should add I have only read three of these. The concept of post-truth really came to prominence following the Brexit referendum and the Trump election.

There were a few hundred articles written in the months after Brexit about "post-truth" but interest in the concept exploded after Trump's election. There were 1,400 articles written with "post-truth in the title in November 2016 alone, as shown below (data from BuzzSumo).

At the end of 2016 the Oxford English Dictionary named "post-truth" as its word of the year and defined post-truth as when ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’

Steve Fuller in his book "Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game" makes clear the Oxford English Dictionary definition “is clearly pejorative’ and he sees the concept as being used by the establishment to delegitimise the Brexit and Trump results. In his view those supporting the status quo are “trying to create moral and epistemic distance so that the other side are seen to be distorting facts and appealing to emotion” (2017, p2). Trump may have a particular disregard for facts but it seems to me there was no golden age pre-2016.  Politicians have always played fast and loose with facts from straightforward lies (Iraq can deploy weapons of mass destruction against the UK in 45 mins) to being economical with the truth.

One of the things that has changed is the advent of social media which has opened the floodgates to mass information flows from a myriad of sources. This information is not checked for accuracy, indeed the major platforms facilitating information publishing abdicate any responsibility for accuracy. Matthew D'Ancona in his book on "Post-Truth" argues that digital platforms are the infrastructure of post-truth.

From my perspective information in the public sphere is now more contested with multiple truths and biases. The role of journalistic gate keepers has been undermined by digital publishing and they are increasingly challenged by many populists as being supporters of the status quo, part of an establishment that includes journalism, universities, bankers and lawyers.

There are now more contested pubic spaces and multiple truths which depend upon your perspective. The myth of a single, objective truth or accepted view of the world established by a rational process of investigation and fact checking is no longer accepted. I am not sure "post-truth' is helpful as a concept but something has changed, digital platforms have opened the gates and allow potentially millions of voices to be heard, such as the opinions in this blog. In writing this something made me think of W B Yeats:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

(From Easter Rising 1916)

Whatever your perspective we now live in a world where information and truth is increasingly contested.