Do we live in a ‘post-truth’ society?

Thursday 28 September, 18:0019:30, Państwo-Miasto, Andersa 29, 00-001 WarszawaBattle of Ideas Europe

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In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary declared ‘post-truth’ was its ‘Word of the Year’, 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’. That definition certainly fits the way many commentators viewed Donald Trump’s election as US president and the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.

Many of Trump’s supporters seem to have believed wildly inaccurate ‘fake news’ stories, many generated as ‘clickbait’ by individuals and companies in Europe, and shared them widely. In office, Trump has continued to behave as if arguing from the point of view of objective reality is unnecessary. For example, the then White House spokesman Sean Spicer claimed in January that Trump had garnered ‘the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period’. But when this appeared at odds with images comparing Trump’s inauguration with Barack Obama’s in 2008, a senior aide claimed Spicer was calling on ‘alternative facts’. Those who argue that the UK should have voted to remain in the EU repeatedly point to the misleading, if not outright dishonest, claim made in the campaign that an extra £350 million per week could be spent on healthcare if the UK voted to leave as a major factor in deciding the outcome.

But post-truth is by no means solely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. Poland’s Law and Justice  (PiS) government has been accused of distorting the truth and promoting conspiracy theories. For example, PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has claimed repeatedly that the death of his brother, former president Lech Kaczynski, in a plane crash in 2010 was the result of a plot by the Kremlin and the former Polish government rather than a mere accident – despite the absence of evidence to support his claims. Over the years right-wing politicians and media outlets produced a number of theories of how the alleged assassination took place. One theory came after another, but the previous ones were never renounced. As a result, they are all somehow present in the public discourse in parallel. As the national media in Poland has come under ever-greater political influence, discerning what’s true and what’s not on this and many other issues has become even more difficult.

Voters are also accused of being ill-informed or rejecting expert advice, a feeling summarised in a claim by a leading Brexit campaigner, Michael Gove, that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. Despite almost universal support for the Remain side from politicians, institutions, academics and celebrities, both domestically and internationally, UK voters chose to leave the EU. For many commentators, this suggested that voters had chosen to ‘vote with their hearts’ rather than making a rational assessment of the facts.

But how new is this ‘post-truth’ society? As author Ralph Keyes told Kultura Liberalna earlier this year: ‘Donald Trump illustrates, rather than he is an aberration from, a post-truth type of society that has been developing for decades.’ Politicians have never been averse to telling lies in order to win office or justify policies. The war against Iraq in 2003, for example, was justified by the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that proved to be non-existent. In a speech in 2004, Tony Blair dodged the issue, saying: ‘I only know what I believe.’

Do we really live in a ‘post-truth’ society? If so, what does that mean for politics and democracy? Are we doomed to an era in which demagogues win elections by appealing to emotions rather than facts? Or are voters given too little credit for working out the difference between truth and lies? Is the demand that we should follow the views of experts actually a more serious attack on democracy, leaving us with no choice about the future direction of society?