“Post-truth” is the word of the year 2016 according to the Oxford dictionaries. After the dynamics of the U.K. Brexit, the Colombian Referendum, and the U.S. Elections in 2016, this word has acquired major relevance. It has entered popular imagination in a global scale. Although the word was coined in 2010 by David Roberts, a blogger of Grist magazine, it has not been until this year that it has become a keyterm for describing our current political climate and media culture.
“Post-truth” (“posverdad” in Spanish) is the ethos of an era marked by the systematic undermining of facts and the intense stimulation of people’s emotions and fears. Passion drives post-truth communication and it creates a fertile ground for spreading rumors, myths, and misinformation. More important, it creates a pervasive atmosphere of doubt.
According to Oxford, post-truth is an adjective that signifies “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The prefix “post-” in this word, therefore, emphasizes the undermining of facts, and is a reference to a reality where truth is no longer relevant.
Often accompanied by the term “politics,” “post-truth” describes the communication strategies of politicians such as Donald Trump in the U.S, Alvaro Uribe Velez in Colombia, and Boris Johnson in the U.K. In post-truth politics, exalting people’s emotions and passions through lies is more effective than debating with facts. From believing that president Obama was born in Kenia, to assuming that the peace deal between FARC and the Colombian government was an agreement to make a communist country, no matter how big were the lies, many people were ready to assume them, feel them, click them, and spread them using all means they have at their disposal.
It is not a coincidence that the Spanish word of the year 2016 selected by the Fundación del Español Urgente is “populismo” (“populism” in English), a term that is associated with the rhetoric strategies that appeal to the emotions of the citizens and to the simplification of complex social problems. Populism and post-truth come together. Both are words that describe political and communication phenomena that are pervasive in our times. Although they have existed before (politicians have always lied and distorted reality), in 2016, the outcomes of deploying post-truth politics and populism, however, have surprised many of us.
Below are some visual examples of how blatant lies and half-truths became fake news and spread both on the networked communication space and in the physical space (both have become closely intertwined). Despite the outrageous and hard to believe myths, these untruths became part of an alternate reality that many citizens chose to believe (perhaps as a way to send a clear message to politicians, governments, and the establishment).
The Colombian Referendum and the Peace Process
During the four years that lasted the peace process with the FARC guerrillas, and particularly during the months previous to the plebiscite, Colombian opposition, led by former president Alvaro Uribe Velez (with 4.62 million followers in Twitter), helped to create a misinformation campaign that nurtured mistrust and doubt over the negotiation process and the peace deal. The list of lies is long and has been documented by several journalists and researchers (e.g. Las 5 mentiras del plebiscito que circularon en WhatshApp; Revelaciones del director de la campaña del No; Video resumen de mentiras de cristianos y politicos contra los acuerdos; Desmintiendo rumores contra la paz).
Misinformation included myths such as that Timochenko would be the president of Colombia (billboards with the FARC leader face appeared around the country replicating many visual memes that circulated in social media), that the government wanted to transform the country into a new version of Venezuela and Cuba (see billboard image below), that the cost of the reintegration process would leave middle and working class Colombians without pensions, that the FARC guerrillas would not comply with the cease of fire, and even that president Santos had made a pact with Satan.
As one of the leaders of the Brexit movement, former London mayor Boris Johnson (278 thousand followers in Twitter) joined the Vote Leave campaign and contributed greatly to creating the narrative of Euroescepticism by spreading lies. Perhaps the most notorious of those false claims was the one printed on the Brexit battlebus in which Johnson toured the country: EU membership costs U.K £350m a week. This number is wrong and misleading as many pointed out, including the UK statistics authority and investigative journalists. Other lies (as reported here and there) included that the UK was always outvoted in the EU, that the country couldn’t control its borders in the EU, and that Turkey would become part of the EU .
The U.S. elections
Perhaps the most spectacular rendering of post-truth politics in 2016 was Donald Trump (18.4 million followers in Twitter) presidential campaign. He won the U.S. elections using post-truth politics as a strategy and was able to become immune to any fact-check done by media organizations and other institutions. His rhetorical tactics were based on the construction of simple and scandalous falsehoods that quickly spread through social media and became headlines for news. Moreover, his post-truth rhetoric relied on a language of coercion and threat that effectively created suspense. Such suspense became a powerful source of excitement and entertainment for the people and the media outlets that followed the U.S. 2016 election campaign.
The list of Trump’s lies is long and has been documented by many (e.g. Washington Post; NYmagazine; and PoliticusUS). Some of the most absurd false statements are that the Mexican government is sending criminals and rapists to the U.S.; that the ‘real’ unemployment rate is 42 percent; that Obama is accepting 200,000 Syrian refugees; and that the Obama administration actively ‘supported’ terror groups.
Deploying Networked Technologies for Spreading and Cultivating Post-Truths
Although the use of falsehoods and myths by politicians is not new (Plato reflected on that long time ago using his infamous allegory of the cave), the scale and outcome of such rhetorical strategy has never been as effective as it is in our current networked communication environment. Technologies such as personalized mobile devices and social media algorithms (e.g. Facebook and Twitter’s feeds) have allowed people to create filter bubbles and echo-chambers where one can easily isolate and listen to information customized to particular tastes, shaped according to one group’s biases. Voters can easily get information directly from politicians and other sources that match their beliefs and ideas, reinforcing their world-views, and creating homophilous clusters.
In a many to many communication environment that is participatory, networked, and decentralized, rumors and fake news spread easily. Information circulates fast and widely even if it is not based on facts because people can connect to it emotionally. People can click on it, like it, and re-circulate it, confirming our own biases, nurturing our own beliefs without the need to compare it to other perspectives. Fake news is clickbait and an effective way to mess and disrupt the media environment.
Many, from teenagers to marketers to political strategists, have learned how to manipulate the media ecosystem. Today, many are able to spread content widely across networks, without a clear distinction of what is morally and ethically correct. Misinformation spreads fast in the current network dynamics and the effect of that is the blurring of borders between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction. While people’s emotions and pleasures are overstimulated, critical thinking and rational debate are sidelined. Facts and truths are loosing their relevance in the political process.
At the moment of elections and making decisions, many of the people that feels moved by such kind of misinformation, is the one that feels more encouraged to go out and vote in democratic elections. Anger, rage, and hate caused by post-truth politics have been decisive for the UK, US, and Colombian elections in 2016. There is no single way in which we can fight and counteract post-truth politics. We need a combination of technologies and humans that help us to create a more healthy ecosystem, a sustainable information environment. The next year would be crucial for learning how to live and survive in such post-truth era. Educators, technologists, humanists, and citizens of democratic societies have one of the greatest challenges to overcome. Happy new year!