In the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” to be its international word of the year.
Defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.
According to Oxford Dictionaries, the first time the term post-truth was used in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in the Nation magazine. Tesich, writing about the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf war, said that “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world”.
“There is evidence of the phrase post-truth being used before Tesich’s article, but apparently with the transparent meaning ‘after the truth was known’, and not with the new implication that truth itself has become irrelevant,” said Oxford Dictionaries. The publisher pointed to the recent expansion in meaning of the prefix “post-”, saying that “rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match”, in post-truth it had taken on the meaning of “belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant”.
As his army blatantly annexed Crimea, Vladimir Putin went on TV and, with a smirk, told the world there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. He wasn’t lying so much as saying the truth doesn’t matter. And when Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully sends ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate – then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free. When the Brexit campaign announces ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week’ and, on winning the referendum, the claim is shrugged off as a ‘mistake’ by one Brexit leader while another explains it as ‘an aspiration’, then it’s clear we are living in a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world. Not merely a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not.
How did we get here? Is it due to technology? Economic globalisation? The culmination of the history of philosophy? There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations – but why is this rebellion happening right now?
Many blame technology. Instead of ushering a new era of truth-telling, the information age allows lies to spread in what techies call ‘digital wildfires’. By the time a fact-checker has caught a lie, thousands more have been created, and the sheer volume of ‘disinformation cascades’ make unreality unstoppable.
These are strange times — times in which facts have less influence on political realities than mood and emotion. Numbers hardly count anymore, not as much, at least, as fear and hate, rumors and mutterings of conspiracy. That’s why the German right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) was able to do so well in the September 4 state election in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The vote was essentially a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies, yet there are hardly any foreigners living in the state. We have more data and facts available to us than ever before, and yet we have entered a post-fact era. Why?
Just as American demagogue Donald Trump is able to keep up with Hillary Clinton, AfD leader Frauke Petry nips at the chancellor’s heels with emotion. But that’s not the whole story.
Many politicians, companies and institutions fail because they miss decisive shifts or deceive themselves. Former German Chancellors Adenauer and Kohl thought they were irreplaceable and became sluggish — and didn’t notice when they began losing ground. Kodak saw digitalization coming, but didn’t want to see it. In the 1970s, Ford built a car, the Pinto, that everyone in top management knew would explode if it was rear-ended, but they all convinced each other that the problem didn’t exist. Psychologists refer to such self-deception as the “normalization of deviance,” and it works great — until it doesn’t.
No leader can cede control of essential state responsibilities in times of upheaval yet Merkel, in claiming that the borders could not be controlled, did exactly that. Today, the Chancellery has come to accept the following facts: For eight weeks, the state lost control and was powerless. That control was soon regained, but in the post-fact era, a nucleus is all that is needed. The attacks in Paris and Brussels, the sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, the attacks in Nice and Ansbach and the shooting spree in Munich: None of them had much to do with refugees, but they have prevented a return to calm and have kept alive the perception of loss of control that Merkel triggered in the summer of 2015. It has become simple to fan the flames of xenophobia.
In the wake of the US election, critics have blamed Facebook for bringing about—at least in part—Trump’s surprise win. A BuzzFeed report showed that Facebook users interacted far more with “fake news” stories about both candidates than they did with mainstream news outlets before the election. This wouldn’t seem like such a big deal if it weren’t for a Pew Research Center survey showing that 44% of Americans rely on Facebook to get all their news.
When you log into your Facebook account, your default page is dominated by a cascading “news feed,” automatically selected for your pleasure, which consists of whatever your friends have shared. The company uses a mix of secret-sauce algorithms to choose which pieces of news you see. Some items are displayed based on what you’ve responded to before. For example, if you always like or reply to news from Trevor but ignore news from Mike, you’re going to see more Trevor and less Mike.
Other news that Facebook thinks you probably want to see is fed to you based on your profile. The Wall Street Journal has an incredible infographic on this, showing how Democrats on Facebook see liberal-leaning stories and Republicans see conservative-leaning ones.
Paul Horner, the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire, has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years. He has twice convinced the Internet that he’s British graffiti artist Banksy; he also published the very viral, very fake news of a Yelp vs. “South Park” lawsuit last year.
But in recent months, Horner has found the fake-news ecosystem growing more crowded, more political and vastly more influential: In March, Donald Trump’s son Eric and his then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, even tweeted links to one of Horner’s faux-articles. His stories have also appeared as news on Google.
“That’s how this always works: Someone posts something I write, then they find out it’s false, then they look like idiots. But Trump supporters — they just keep running with it! They never fact-check anything! Now he’s in the White House. Looking back, instead of hurting the campaign, I think I helped it. And that feels [bad].”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted tonight about what his company is doing. According to Zuckerberg, “We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.”
Germany’s Justice Minister says he believes Facebook Inc. (FB.O) should be treated like a media company rather than a technology platform, suggesting he favors moves to make social media groups criminally liable for failing to remove hate speech.
Under a program that runs until March, German authorities are monitoring how many racist posts reported by Facebook users are deleted within 24 hours. Justice Minister Heiko Maas has pledged to take legislative measures if the results are still unsatisfactory by then.
Maas has said the European Union needs to decide whether platform companies should be treated like radio or television stations, which can be held accountable for the content they publish.
“In my view they should be treated as media even if they do not correspond to the media concept of television or radio,” he said following a meeting of state justice ministers in Berlin.
Under current EU guidelines Facebook and other social media networks are not liable for any criminal content or hate posts hosted on their platform.
Teaching philosophy in schools, and promoting it in society, is urgently needed to enable citizens “to discriminate between truthful language and illusory rhetoric”, President of Ireland Michael D Higgins has said.
“The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected and uncertain world,” Mr Higgins said.
“A new politics of fear, resentment and prejudice against those who are not ‘like us’ requires the capacity to critique, which an early exposure to the themes and methods of philosophy can bring.”
The encrypted messaging app Signal has seen a 400 percent increase in growth since the election of Donald Trump last week.
“We’ve never really seen any single event in the past that’s resulted in this kind of sustained, day-over-day, interest,” said Moxie Marlinspike, co-founder of Open Whisper Systems, which produces Signal.
Signal uses end-to-end encryption, so that no one — not even the people at Signal — can read the messages you send to others.