- Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Oxford Dictionaries named ‘post-truth’ the Word of the Year in 2016.
Although the word was first used in 1992 to reference the exposure of truth after the fact, Oxford Dictionaries claims that the term has evolved to suggest that the truth is irrelevant. Use of the term increased 2,000% from the previous year.
In large part, this is due to an overabundance of facts from various sources, resulting in a lack of popular confidence in ‘the experts’ and in the facts themselves. Today, facts are produced with ease by researchers, think tanks, governments, media, and a number of other sources that all have their own bias influencing data collection, analysis, and presentation of facts. The overwhelming amount of information that people are exposed to today is an issue because the information varies or is presented in a manner that manipulates the data to fit a story line. Increasingly, people feel that facts presented to them do not reflect their daily realities or are attacked for being false, leading to a distrust of traditional sources.
The way people access information has also changed and with it comes a transformation of how this information is interpreted. Traditional newsprint or television news media are no longer the sole sources of facts as people can access information at the tip of their fingers on their phones, computers, and other devices from various sources. Social media apps also shape the information we are exposed to with trending stories on Twitter and tailored news stories on Facebook. Additionally, the distrust of traditional news media pushes people online to independent or illegitimate sources, which are not held to journalistic ethics or standards – meaning they are free to misrepresent information or present personal biases as facts without accountability. Online anyone can be a publisher to a global audience.
Furthermore, the rise of post-truths may be attributed to the timing, type of lies and who’s telling them.
Take the case of the recent US election. It was widely believed that US President-Elect Donald Trump became so popular due to the fact that he was not a career politician and had a ‘tell it like it is’ attitude, all the while representing the American Dream. His celebrity and bluntness came off as familiar and trustworthy as he promised to “Make America Great Again”. Trump tapped into American fears of ISIS, illegal immigration and ongoing economic difficulty. Voters sought change and believed Trump was the most likely candidate to achieve this change (despite not offering much of a platform on a number of issues). Yet, the political fact checker, PolitiFact, found that 70% of Trump’s statements were ‘Mostly False’, ‘False’, or ‘Pants on Fire’. And despite Hilary Clinton’s attempts to clarify her positions or call out Trump on his lies, it largely fell on deaf ears. Why is this?
In part, this is due to the fact that people believe what they feel is true, rather than what is actually the truth. People favour familiar information that seemingly fits personal experiences or ideals and generally accept information that they are first exposed to. In fact, people reject the truth because it requires our brains to work harder – which is most likely why Hilary Clinton’s attempts at disproving Trump’s falsehoods failed.
So how does all this add up?
The reliance on non-traditional sources in combination with the lack of critical analysis of information and the inherent rejection of the truth, enables readers to make decisions or draw conclusions based on personal feelings and unsupported facts. Undoubtedly, a misinformed population could have disastrous impacts.
The reason we have institutions like traditional news media is to provide a standard of consistency in providing accurate and truthful information. While it is true that no reporting is free of bias, it is held to a higher level of accountability than the most recent meme circulating on Facebook or storyline on Reddit.
Ultimately, in the age of post-truths, the onus is on readers to find truthful facts, to challenge our brains, seek out diverse sources, and to question others and ourselves. Let us not shape facts on personal opinion and instead appreciate the importance of the truth.
*If you are interested in learning more about how to think critically when reading information, check out these books:
- A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age by David Levitin
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
Photo: If you repeat a lie often enough it becomes politics./ Mogul, “Kolsyrefabriken” (2011), by Pelle Sten via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.