The Era of Post-Truth Politics Is the Failure to Adapt to the Digital Age

Facts are the foundation of democracy. Without a clear handle on them, we can’t possibly hope to make the informed decisions on which representative government inherently rests. They’re the life blood of any healthy democratic system, yet according to an increasing number of opinions, we’re now inhabiting an age of post-factual or post-truth democracy. According to organs ranging from the Los Angeles Times to The Washington Post, we now have for company not principled people who rely on well-supported arguments for their political legitimacy, but liars such as Donald Trump and Fox News. These are political actors who won’t let the truth get in the way of selling the most immediately stirring narrative, and who in their quest for influence have allegedly entered us into a post-truth democracy, from which there’s no apparent exit.

Yet the question is, if we now live in a post-truth democracy, then what does this say about the very idea that we live in such a democracy? Assuming that truth really has broken down and that the habitual untruths of politicians and the media have made it nigh-on impossible to distinguish fact from fiction, this would be a hard question to answer. Nonetheless, it would most likely imply either one of two things: that this idea has proliferated mainly because it agrees with our emotions rather than agrees with the facts, or because it represents an island of truth in an expanding sea of misinformation and lies.

These two possibilities present a problem. The first would be self-contradictory, since if we accept that the idea of a post-truth era has more of an emotional appeal than a factual one, then we’d essentially be forced to accept that the idea is largely false, at which point it would collapse. However, if we accept that it’s an example of truth in the midst of a growing welter of untruth, then it undercuts the notion that our age is decidedly post-factual. It would, instead, suggest not only that enough value is still being placed on truth for us to recognize the lies that surround us, but that there’s a sizable enough audience for it to continue to exist.

In other words, it would remind us that our age and our politics are fundamentally the same truth-wise as those that preceded them. While there’s no doubt a greater quantity of error and deceit around today by virtue of the sheer number of opinions hooked up to the internet, there’s also little doubt that standards of epistemological integrity still exist to the same degree, and that at least the same proportion of people aim to respect them. Indeed, there’s nothing particularly anomalous about our current era at all, and if it is a post-factual one simply because it witnesses demagogues appealing to passions that haven’t been fact-checked, then so too is every decade in the modern age that came before it.

Just look at the history of modern US politics. Take President Richard Nixon, for instance. Not only did he famously tell one of the biggest lies of the 20th century with his “I am not a crook” defense during the Watergate scandal, but his victory in the 1968 election was based on “post-factual politics as well. In the midst of the unpopular Vietnam War, he fought his campaign on the back of the promise “to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.” The thing is, in order to continue appealing to the national mood regarding this war, he actually went to the drastic step of derailing bilateral peace talks in Paris that were likely to reach an agreement. His campaign adviser, Anna Chennault, liaised secretly with the South Vietnamese ambassador, urging him to pull out of the negotiations because an incoming Nixon administration would secure an apparently superior deal. Believing these assurances, the South Vietnamese dutifully withdraw from the talks, only to have to wait five years for that “superior” deal.

Neither was Nixon the only 20th-century US politician to appeal to popular sentiments under false pretenses. There was also Lyndon B. Johnson, who effectively dragged the US into the Vietnam War when he went on TV on August 4, 1964, to “inform” the American people that the USS Maddox and Turner Joy had been victims of an “unprovoked” attack by North Vietnamese ships. Then there was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who capitalized on Cold War insecurity by spreading grossly inflated claims as to the prevalence of communists in the US. He may have been perhaps the most egregious example of 20th-century demagoguery, but he was also joined in his flagrant disregard for facts by the likes of Ronald Reagan — who once claimed that apartheid had somehow ended segregation in South Africa — and by Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose campaign in the 1952 election involved striking up fear of communist infiltrators, and even sharing a platform in Wisconsin with Senator McCarthy himself.

And even if it could be argued that the likes of Eisenhower and Reagan didn’t methodically use untruths to inflame the public, modern history has produced no shortage of “lay” demagogues who repeatedly leaned on fictions to gain massive followings. A prime example of such a figure was Father Charles Coughlin, who, in the wake of the Great Depression, used his radio show to enlighten his “tens of millions” of listeners with, among others, the brazenly post-factual claims that Jewish bankers had orchestrated the Russian Revolution, and that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was proof that people of the Jewish faith were plotting to take over the world. Via these kinds of hateful slurs, he managed to drum up enough support among the American people to form his own National Union for Social Justice, which boasted 1 million members by the time of the1936 presidential election.

Speaking of Coughlin, as a Roman Catholic, he was a fervent opponent of the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, who were also able to convert millions to their cause using a mixture of hate and falsehood. In the 1920s, they claimed to have amassed as many as 4 million members, who they won over and manipulated on the basis of probably the most objectionable post-truth claim of them all: that a white person is superior to any other kind of person. Their membership may have waned considerably following the 1920s, yet they maintained enough of a following through subsequent decades to continue to exist today, with some 8,000 members spread among 190 active groups.

These examples could continue, yet the point is that a persistent disregard for the truth is something that has always existed among certain kinds of political actor and among certain kinds of demographic. It’s not exclusive to our age, since it’s liable to arise in almost any climate where mainstream, seemingly fact-oriented politics leave sizeable segments of the population feeling underrepresented and/or threatened. This is what’s happening today with Donald Trump and with Brexit, yet it’s also what happened with Father Coughlin, with Senator McCarthy and with the Ku Klux Klan. Such actors furnish marginalized people with counter-narratives that, because they’re expressly designed to oppose the dominant political orthodoxy, often take a very cavalier attitude to the facts on which that orthodoxy bases itself.

This is nothing new, yet for some reason, commentators are repeating the claim that we’ve entered an era of post-truth politics, as if millions of people had never supported politicians on the basis of lies before.

To be fair, most of these commentators are making a distinction between post-factual politics of yesteryears and the post-factual politics of today. For example, in a September article printed in The Economist, it was held that “some politicians are getting away with a new depth and pervasiveness of falsehood.” The article’s author put this depth and pervasiveness down to two currents supposedly unique to the 21st century: “a loss of trust in institutions […] and deep changes in the way knowledge of the world reaches the public.”

To begin with, the fact that falsehood is deeper and more pervasive among “some politicians” doesn’t necessarily mean that our era is the first and only post-factual era in history. Yet more importantly, the two factors identified as making our age “more” post-factual than others don’t necessarily even prove that it is more post-factual.

Take trust. It may have been declining in recent years, yet 2016’s Edelman Trust Barometer found that “trust in all four institutions [NGOs, business, media and government] has reached its highest level since the Great Recession.” This is instructive, since the mention of the Great Recession reveals that the public aren’t given to mistrust simply because they have misinformed beliefs that don’t agree with what businesses and governments tell them. Instead, it reveals that people mistrust institutions largely because their economic circumstances indicate that these institutions haven’t been working particularly well for them.

Added to this, it’s likely that trust in government has declined precisely because people are more informed today than they were in the past. This is essentially what the Pew Research Center implies when, in its survey of trust in government between 1958 and 2015, it accounts for the massive dip in public trust that happened in the 10 years following 1964. The Center writes, “Within a decade — a period that included the Vietnam War, civil unrest and the Watergate scandal — trust had fallen by more than half, to 36%. By the end of the 1970s, only about a quarter of Americans felt that they could trust the government at least most of the time.”

In referring to political crises and the public’s factual knowledge of them, this survey shows that, once again, slumps in trust aren’t inherently bound up with post-factual misinformation. In fact, it shows that low levels of trust can be a sign that people are more concerned about the truth than they had been previously.

And as for the “deep changes in the way the knowledge of the world reaches the public,” our migration to social media is no more a cause of a distinctly post-factual zeitgeist than our fragile trust in public institutions. That said, the internet age does make it much easier for anyone with a half-baked ideology or conspiracy theory to connect with similarly inclined souls, and it does make it easier for untested truth-claims to spread. However, social media and digital technology in themselves are no more conducive to the spread of fictions than they are to the spread of bona fide, consensually verified facts. In fact, The Economist article itself mentions a study in which researchers at Indiana University used data from the rumor-tracking website Emergent to show that truths and untruths were shared at more or less the same rate on Facebook.

The Economist piece used this result to argue that social media and the market do little to “sort the wheat from the chaff,” yet it has to be said that neither did (non-virtual) social networks and markets from past generations. While this may be a controversial example, there’s detailed historical data from Gallup polls displaying how views on the Kennedy assassination changed over time. In 1976, roughly 81 percent of Americans believed that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t the only person involved in the killing, while some 11 percent believed that Oswald himself was the sole perpetrator. By contrast, the figures for 2014 suggest that people have become less attracted to unproven conspiracy theories, with only 61 percent believing in a second gunman and 30 percent believing in a solitary Oswald.

Whether or not Oswald was the sole gunman is beyond the scope of this article, yet the point is that social networks and markets in 1976 were at least as able to spread information deviating from official accounts (e.g. the Warren and Rockefeller Commissions) as their 2014 counterparts. As such, there isn’t much substance or weight to the view that social media is significantly accelerating our propensity to believe things that haven’t been confirmed by the highest sources. It isn’t particularly well supported itself, and from several angles it seems as though “post-factual politics” is largely a new, pseudo-academic tag certain people use to discredit the beliefs of their opponents.

On the contrary, the real wellspring of the suspicion we inhabit a post-factual era is not that the quantity of untruths in today’s society is unprecedentedly high. Rather, the wellspring is that we’re surprised the unprecedented accessibility of knowledge hasn’t done what some of us had hoped it would do: eradicate bunk. As a society, we’re awash in data and information, with the results of scientific research becoming more accessible with every new open-science journal that hits the market. Yet this democratization of knowledge hasn’t led to a commensurate downturn in ignorance and deception. As a result, it casts a new, negative light on the society that harbors this ignorance and deception, making it seem “post-factual” when in fact its relationship with the truths pretty much as it’s always been.

At most, our current era is nominally post-factual only in the sense that the internet has allowed so many competing voices into the mix — with so many seemingly plausible claims to truth — that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the public to separate fact from fiction. Other journalists and writers have already noticed this development when discussing “post-truth politics,” yet really it makes our era no more post-truth than the existence of competing theories and hypotheses makes science post-truth. In science, conflicting accounts of what’s going on in nature or in the cosmos are proposed all the time, yet scientists avoid confusion by using the scientific method. They test these accounts and subject them to peer review, thereby falsifying the false ones and corroborating those that are most likely true.

Unfortunately, no such shared culture has yet arisen within wider society for testing truth claims made by politicians and other public figures. This, if nothing else, is what our so-called post-factual era is all about, even if it’s the counterintuitive result of more statements of fact being produced than ever before. It’s our failure to adapt to the overload of data and information that inevitably comes with the information age, rather than a particular Dark-Age style disinterest or distaste for the truth itself. Because of this failure, because we lack any agreed-upon method for resolving factual disputes, we’re left to rely too much on our intuitions as rival versions of the truth proliferate around us. In the face of this novel dilemma, in the face of this super-factual age, the only hope is that we invest more in secondary and higher education and learn to become scientists ourselves.