Post-truth (adjective): relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion thyan appeals to emotion and personal belief.
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries made post-truth its word of the year, citing increased use during the UK’s referendum on EU membership and the American presidential election campaign.
Since then, awareness of the problem has grown, at least in certain circles.
And this year, the stakes have been particularly high. When voters are about to vote, if they cannot distinguish the truth, they cannot be confident of voting wisely. If falsehoods dominate truth, democracy is at risk. In her powerful TED talk, exposing the role of social media in spreading misinformation, Carole Cadwalladr ended by asking “…whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again?”
Although it would be dangerous to be complacent – we do have a serious problem – and although some of the most obvious approaches (at least on their own) do not seem to solve the problem, there is real evidence that the post-fact phenomenon can be tackled both on a small scale and at the level of a country. It is not impossible to win the war against misinformation.
The UK has a serious problem of post-fact ‘news’
The problem is most obvious is in the lead-up to an election, for the reasons mentioned above. But elections do not happen in a vacuum: the narratives built up over the previous four or five years served to shape what is politically credible during the campaign. The UK has an issue over both timeframes.
The Economist recently wrote, “This  election has been marinated in mendacity: big lies and small lies; quarter truths and pseudo-facts; distortion, dissembling and disinformation; and digital skulduggery on an industrial scale. The public is so disillusioned with the political process that, when a member of the public asked Boris Johnson during a televised debate whether he valued truth, the audience burst into laughter. Mr Johnson is the favourite by a substantial margin.”
The journalist Peter Oborne compiled an extensive list of Boris Johnson’s ‘lies, falsehoods and misrepresentations’ during the 2019 election campaign and before. In one of these, he described how the Conservative party went so far as to create a false fact-checking site during the televised debate with Jeremy Corbyn which branded Corbyn’s statements as false and Johnson’s as true.
To a lesser extent, the other parties are also guilty.
Despite this evidence, it seems that the issue is not taken seriously by many voters. The lies are dismissed as merely “Boris being Boris” or as Dominic Raab put it when asked about the Conservative party’s faked fact-check site, “No-one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust.”
The framing of an election can happen over many years. In the UK, many people believe that while the Conservatives may be the ‘nasty party,’ they are a safe pair of hands as regards the economy. Labour by contrast always over-spends and creates a financial mess from which the country has to be rescued – painfully – by the next Conservative government. Or so the story goes.
In fact, as 99% points out, as late as 2007, the Conservative party, then in opposition, pledged to follow the spending plans of the then Labour government in order to allay fears that they would simply cut, on taking power.
The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8 was caused by losses estimated at approximately $1 trillion in the sub-prime mortgage lending market in the US and transmitted through the global financial system. It caused a major recession and the global banking system had to be bailed out. Nevertheless, it was fertile ground for resurrection of the myth of Labour profligacy.
Austerity was justified on the grounds of needing to clear up “the mess the last lot left.” Constant repetition has left an impression that austerity was an inevitable response to the ‘huge’ levels of Government debt caused by Labour’s ‘profligate’ spending. Even today this story both undermines the credibility of any Labour campaign and helps the Tory party to absolve itself of any responsibility for problems since 2010. The data show that austerity was not an inevitable response to the debt built up after the Global Financial Crisis; it was a serious economic error. And of course, the UK Labour Party was not responsible for the crisis in the first place. But the data are not widely reported.
Similarly, the Labour Party is routinely referred to in the press as “far left” whereas, even though many former Tories have made it clear that they believe their party has been taken over by the extreme right, the press almost never refer to the Conservative party as “far right.”
Before an election campaign even begins, Labour starts from a position where it is branded as extremist and economically incompetent, while the Conservative party is presented as hard-nosed but sensible.
This is not a trivial problem to solve
There are both structural and psychological reasons why solving this problem is extremely difficult. Structurally, UK media ownership is highly concentrated, principally in the hands of extremely wealthy individuals, whose wealth is kept offshore and who are noted for their skill in tax avoidance. Psychologically, the challenge is that simply presenting the facts can sometimes do more harm than good.
Much of the media contributes to the problem
We have extremely polarised ownership of the media. Almost three quarters of national newspapers sold in the UK are produced by companies controlled by Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, or the Barclay brothers.
All three of these groups have tended to provide partisan coverage of political issues – almost always supporting the Conservative party. By contrast, the daily Mirror and the Guardian tend to be left-leaning (but even then, not always) and have a much smaller aggregate circulation.
To the extent that the British population is influenced by newspapers, it is strongly encouraged to vote Tory.
And facts alone do not solve the problem
Despite increased awareness of these problems, and increasing availability of fact-checking, it seems that the problem remains as entrenched as ever.
In fact, as the Scientific American put it, “Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them.” This is the so-called ‘backfire effect.’
In other words, what might in principle be expected to provide countervailing force – the availability of fact-checking sites or broad academic consensus on issues like austerity, for example – has in general limited, or possibly even counter-intuitive, effects. As Michael Gove put it, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.”
But there is good evidence that it can be solved
Whether at the level of conversations between individuals call, or at the level of entire countries, there is evidence that we can hope to move beyond post-truth.
It can be tackled 1:1
Mediators know that that emotional engagement is more important than rational reasoning in influencing people. They have developed methods for dealing with highly charged situations and deeply entrenched views. These approaches typically begin with a far greater emphasis on listening and establishing trust than on speaking and establishing facts.
That even the deepest of beliefs can be shifted is shown by the inspiring story of Daryl Davis, a black musician who successfully befriended senior members of the Ku Klux Klan and, through force of personality rather than by logical argument, was able to free them of their prejudices.
It can be tackled en masse
At the other end of the spectrum, CNN reports on a 2014 initiative by the Finnish government to protect its population against manipulation by the “Russian troll army.” As they report,
“Finland has faced down Kremlin-backed propaganda campaigns ever since it declared independence from Russia 101 years ago. But in 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, it became obvious that the battlefield had shifted: information warfare was moving online.
Jussi Toivanen, the chief communications specialist for the prime minister’s office, said it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of misinformation operations to have targeted the country in recent years, but most play on issues like immigration, the European Union, or whether Finland should become a full member of NATO (Russia is not a fan).
As the trolling ramped up in 2015, President Sauli Niinisto called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against false information. A year later, Finland brought in American experts to advise officials on how to recognize fake news, understand why it goes viral and develop strategies to fight it. The education system was also reformed to emphasize critical thinking.”
Finland has recently been assessed as being the most resilient country to fake news.
What does this mean for the 99% Organisation?
In the short term, the key challenge for the 99% Organisation is to spread the word: to help people to understand that mass impoverishment is not inevitable, and that there are relatively simple steps the country needs to take to reverse the process. What the discussion above shows is that for us, there are two kinds of people we may be talking to:
- those who will be persuaded by the facts;
- those who will not.
The first group is relatively straightforward: between them, the book, 99%, and the website contain a great deal of factual material, and many people who are prepared to engage with that material will find it convincing.
Far more challenging is the second group. Personally, I do not have the courage and openness of Daryl Davis, but I can try to remind myself that:
- people who hold views I disagree with always have some reason for holding those views – and sometimes I can empathise with that reason;
- they may have personal experiences, or their families may, which will lead them to change their minds;
- at that point, I need to welcome them without judgement.
If this matters to you, please do sign up and join the 99% Organisation.
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Worst chart colour-scheme I’ve ever seen