Is Post-Truth the only truth left in public life?

The likes of Trump and Farage have not invented the politics of make-believe and half-truths

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

News that Oxford Dictionaries has declared “Post-Truth” to be its international word of the year should worry all of us, but not surprise anyone in the slightest. Enduring an overdose of Brexit and the US election campaigns leaves one wondering if truth matters anymore.

This new adjective is defined by the dictionary as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The likes of Trump and Farage have not invented the politics of make-believe and half-truths, but they and their campaign strategists brought it to a completely new level. Recognizing that we live in a post-truth world also coincided with both Facebook and Twitter announcing that they would fight fake news, and will counter extremist and harassing language.

The Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland best exemplifies the feelings of many in response to contemporary public debate, when it says, “Well, I never heard it before, but it sounds uncommon nonsense.” History is replete with despicable examples of leaders in search of power who dispose with the truth, or at least exercise it economically. They exploit raw emotions such as fear, misplaced hope and even vanity.

However, it is not only the political world that is tainted with a made-up world to serve vested interests, the commercial world and part of the media sector are not far behind. Social media is a world of its own in the spreading of information, which varies from the thoughtful and well substantiated to complete falsehoods.

From the Renaissance period through the Scientific Revolution and up until today a worldview evolved that perceives fact-based reasoning and argumentation as sacrosanct. This approach has now been turned on its head into selling people what they either would like hear or to lead them to behave in a certain way. As in any type of communication those who choose to believe the message need to take at least some of responsibility too.

The frequency and the intensity of the discourse which appeals to emotions rather rational thinking sheds a new light on the issue of freedom of speech, which is a cornerstone of liberal democracies. Limiting it is interfering with the free market of ideas and information which in return undermines the essence of these societies, their values, and their ability to progress and improve through introspection.

The frequency and the intensity of the discourse which appeals to emotions rather rational thinking sheds a new light on the issue of freedom of speech, which is a cornerstone of liberal democracies

Yossi Mekelberg

Freedom of speech

Nevertheless, when unmitigated freedom of speech achieves the opposite, society is required to defend itself from spreading hatred and extremism without harming open and honest debate. In the age of immediate communication through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which enable the dissemination of untrustworthy information in a matter of a few nanoseconds to around the world, containment of such uncorroborated “knowledge”, partial truths or even sheer lies is a major challenge.

On the other hand, the very same technology at our fingertips provides us with an instant and easy way to verify the truthfulness of any piece of information as much as to spread it. Many are failing to do so, not necessarily out of gullibility, or laziness, but as a choice not to confront inconvenient truths.

When the Leave campaign in the UK falsely claimed that the British membership in the European Union costs the country £350 million a week that otherwise could be channelled to the ailing National Health Service, many opted to believe it. Those who failed to look for hard-core evidence did so probably because they wanted Brexit anyway. They were enjoying the short term satisfaction of false hope, like buying a lottery ticket, knowing full well how slim the chances to win are.

Trump’s special relations with reality did not start or stop with The Apprentice. PolitiFact, a Florida based fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics, found out that 85 percent of Trump’s claims during the election campaign ranged from half-truths to pure ‘pants on fire’ categories.

Regrettably, this did not change once the campaign turned into unexpected victory. A Donald Trump tweet in the category of “pants on fire” asserted that “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!

Another in this category alleged that Hillary Clinton, “… wants to let people just pour in. You could have 650 million people pour in, and we do nothing about it. Think of it. That’s what could happen. You triple the size of our country in one week.” It beggars belief that anyone could take these kind of arguments seriously, let alone that this post-truth surreal reality is about to enter the White House jargon.

Opportunistic worldview

It is not, however, only the Trumps, the Farages and La-Pens of this world that infect the public debate with their baseless opportunistic view of the world. Nothing is more misleading than calling a genre of TV programmes Reality Shows, in which nothing in them is real and consequently gives an entire generation a distorted view about various aspects of life. Post-truth is far from stopping there.

What about the language which protects failed business people and bankers from paying the price for their colossal mistakes, or enables them in avoiding paying tax like the rest of us? With no shred of evidence, we are expected to believe that for the good of the world the very rich should retain their precious little tax havens, or that making bankers accountable for their incompetence will bring about the collapse of the global economy.

In a post-truth world, it is hard not to welcome Twitter’s decision to introduce improved tools for its users to counter abuse, and in addition to temporarily ban accounts associated with ultra-right individuals and groups. Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Facebook is working on the problem of fake news, that some argued affected the outcome of US elections, is also a step in the right direction.

Nevertheless, this must come with a caveat that any interference with freedom of speech has its perils as well. Honouring freedom of speech, one of the fundamental tenets of democratic societies, and the need to conduct debate which is truthful and free of hate and incitement, seem presently to clash. Getting the balance wrong between the two harbours great dangers.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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