Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics) is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of ‘secondary’ importance.
While this has been described as a contemporary problem, there is a possibility that it has long been a part of political life, but was less notable before the advent of the Internet. In the novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ George Orwell cast a world in which the state is daily changing historic records to fit its propaganda goals of the day. Orwell is said to have based much of his criticism of this on Soviet Russian practices.
The contemporary origin of the term is attributed to blogger David Roberts who used the term in 2010 in a column for ‘Grist,’ where he defined it as ‘a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation).’ Political commentators have identified post-truth politics as ascendant in Russian, Chinese, American, Australian, British, Indian, Japanese, and Turkish politics, as well as in other areas of debate, driven by a combination of the 24-hour news cycle, false balance in news reporting, and the increasing ubiquity of social media. In 2016, ‘post-truth’ was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year due to its prevalence in the context of that year’s Brexit referendum and US presidential election.
The term was first used in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in ‘The Nation.’ Tesich writes that following painful events of Watergate, the Iran–Contra scandal, and the Persian Gulf War ‘we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.’ In 2004, author Ralph Keyes used the term ‘post-truth era’ in his book by that title. The same year American journalist Eric Alterman spoke of a ‘post-truth political environment’ and coined the term ‘post-truth presidency’ in his analysis of the misleading statements made by the Bush administration after 9/11.
In his 2004 book ‘Post-democracy,’ English political scientist Colin Crouch used the phrase ‘post-democracy’ to mean a model of politics where ‘elections certainly exist and can change governments,’ but ‘public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams.’ Crouch directly attributes the ‘advertising industry model’ of political communication to the crisis of trust and accusations of dishonesty that a few years later others have associated with post-truth politics.
Jennifer Hochschild, H.L. Jayne Professor of Government at Harvard University, has described the rise of post-truth as a return to 18th and 19th century political and media practices in the United States, following a period in the 20th century where the media was more balanced and rhetoric was toned down. The pamphlet wars that arose with the growth of printing and literacy beginning in the 1600s have been described as an early form of post-truth politics. Slanderous and vitriolic pamphlets were cheaply printed and widely disseminated, and the dissent that they fomented led to wars and revolutions such as the English Civil War and the American War of Independence.
In 2005, comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term ‘truthiness,’ a similar concept, which he defined as a quality characterizing a ‘truth’ that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.
A defining trait of post-truth politics is that campaigners continue to repeat their talking points, even if these are found to be untrue by the media or independent experts. For example, during campaigning for the British EU referendum campaign, ‘Vote Leave’ made repeated use of the claim that EU membership cost £350 million a week, although later began to use the figure as a net amount of money sent directly to the EU. This figure, which ignored the UK rebate and other factors, was described as ‘potentially misleading”‘ by the UK Statistics Authority, as ‘not sensible’ by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and was rejected in fact-checks by ‘BBC News’ and ‘Channel 4 News.’
‘Vote Leave’ nevertheless continued to use the figure as a centerpiece of their campaign until the day of the referendum, after which point they downplayed the pledge as having been an ‘example,’ pointing out that it was only ever suggested as a possible alternative use of the net funds sent to the EU. Tory MP and Leave campaigner Sarah Wollaston, who left the group in protest during its campaign, criticised its ‘post-truth politics.’
Faisal Islam, political editor for ‘Sky News,’ said that conservative politician Michael Gove used ‘post-fact politics’ that were imported from the Trump campaign; in particular, Gove’s comment in an interview that ‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts’ was singled out as illustrative of a post-truth trend. Similarly, Arron Banks, the founder of the unofficial ‘Leave.EU’ campaign, said that ‘facts don’t work […] You’ve got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.’
Michael Deacon, parliamentary sketchwriter for ‘The Daily Telegraph,’ summarized the core message of post-truth politics as ‘Facts are negative. Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic.’ He added that post-truth politics can also include a claimed rejection of partisanship and negative campaigning. In this context, campaigners can push a utopian ‘positive campaign’ to which rebuttals can be dismissed as smears and scaremongering and opposition as partisan.
In its most extreme mode, post-truth politics can make use of conspiracism. Fact-based criticism of a campaign is attributed to a powerful enemy – such as the Establishment, New World Order, Zionists, or the mainstream media – which is supposedly seeking to discredit it, and this in turn drives voters away from these information sources. In this form of post-truth politics, false rumors (such as the ‘birther’ conspiracy theories about President Obama) become major news topics.
In a review for the ‘Harvard Gazette,’ Christopher Robichaud, lecturer in ethics and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School described conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of elections and politicians as one side-effect of post-truth politics, and contrasted the behavior of the candidates with that following the contested result of the 2000 election, in which Al Gore conceded and encouraged his supporters to accept the result of ‘Bush v. Gore.’ Similarly, ‘Rob Boston’ writing for ‘The Humanist’ saw a rise in conspiracy theories across American public life, including Birtherism, the 9/11 Truth movement, the edited Planned Parenthood videos, and movements denying climate change and rejecting evolution, which he identified as a result of post-truth politics, noting that the existence of extensive and widely available evidence against these conspiracy theories had not slowed their growth.
Several trends in the media landscape have been blamed for the perceived rise of post-truth politics. While there are many drivers of this process, one contributing factor has been the proliferation of state-funded news agencies like ‘CCTV News’ and the ‘BBC’ which allow states to influence Western audiences. According to Peter Pomerantsev, a British-Russian journalist who worked for ‘TNT’ in Moscow, one of their prime objectives has been to de-legitimize Western institutions, including the structures of government, democracy, and human rights.
Trust in the mainstream media in the US has reached historical lows. It has been suggested that under these conditions fact-checking by news outlets struggles to gain traction among the wider public, and politicians resort to increasingly drastic messaging. Social media adds an additional dimension, as the networks that users create can become echo chambers (possibly emphasised by the filter bubble) where one political viewpoint dominates and scrutiny of claims fails, allowing a parallel media ecosystem of websites, publishers and news channels to develop which can repeat post-truth claims without rebuttal. In this environment, post-truth campaigns can ignore fact checks or dismiss them as being motivated by bias.
‘The Guardian’ editor-in-chief Katherine Viner laid some of the blame on the rise of clickbait – articles of dubious factual content with a misleading headline, designed to be widely shared – saying that ‘chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity’ undermines the value of journalism and truth. David Mikkelson, co-founder of the fact checking and debunking site Snopes.com, described the introduction of social media and fake news sites as a turning point, saying ‘I’m not sure I’d call it a post-truth age but … there’s been an opening of the sluice-gate and everything is pouring through. The bilge keeps coming faster than you can pump.’
Many news outlets are bound by rules to ensure impartiality. In some cases, this leads to false balance where minority viewpoints are given undue emphasis and exaggerations or lies told during political campaigns are not adequately challenged. The 24-hour news cycle, which requires constant reporting and analysis, also means that news channels repeatedly draw on the same public figures, which benefits PR-savvy politicians and means that presentation and personality can have a larger impact on the audience than facts, while the process of claim and counterclaim can provide grist for days of news coverage at the expense of deeper analysis of the case.
Media and Politics scholar Jayson Harsin in 2015 coined the term ‘regime of post-truth’ that encompasses many aspects of post-truth politics. He argues that a convergent set of developments have created the conditions of post-truth society: the development of professional political communication informed by cognitive science, which aims at managing perception and belief of segmented populations through techniques like microtargeting (which includes the strategic use of rumors and falsehoods); and the fragmentation of modern more centralized mass news media gatekeepers that largely repeated one another’s scoops and their reports.
He also points to the fierce attention economy marked by information overload and acceleration, prolific user-generated content and fewer society-wide common trusted authorities to distinguish between truth and lies, accurate and inaccurate; the algorithms that govern what appears in social media and search engine rankings, sometimes based on what the algorithm thinks users want and not on what is necessarily factual; and news media that has itself been marred by scandals of plagiarism, hoaxes, propaganda, and changing news values, all of which some scholars say issue from economic crises resulting in downsizing and favoring trends toward more traditionally tabloid stories and styles of reporting, known as tabloidization and infotainment.
While some of these phenomena (such as a more tabloidesque press) may suggest a return to the past, the whole effect of the convergences creates a socio-political phenomenon that is novel. It is not that truth and facts have disappeared but that they are the object of deliberate distortion and struggle. Fact-checking and rumor-busting sites abound, but they are unable to reunite a fragmented set of audiences (attention-wise) and their respective trustful-/distrustfulness. Since the condition is manipulated competitively by professional pan-partisan political communication, Harsin calls it a ‘regime of post-truth’ instead of merely post-truth politics.
The rise of post-truth politics coincides with polarized political beliefs. A 2016 Pew Research Center study of American adults found that ‘those with the most consistent ideological views on the left and right have information streams that are distinct from those of individuals with more mixed political views – and very distinct from each other.’
In an editorial, ‘New Scientist’ suggested ‘a cynic might wonder if politicians are actually any more dishonest than they used to be,’ and hypothesized that ‘fibs once whispered into select ears are now overheard by everyone.’ Similarly, Katherine Viner suggested that while social media has helped some untruths to spread, it has also restrained others; as an example, she said the The Sun’s false ‘The Truth’ story following the Hillsborough disaster, and the associated police cover-up, would be hard to imagine in the social media age.
British journalist Toby Young writing for ‘The Spectator,’ called the term a ‘cliché’ used selectively primarily by left-wing commentators to attack what are actually universal ideological biases, saying ‘We are all post-truthers and probably always have been.’ However, ‘The Economist’ has called this argument ‘complacent,’ identifying a qualitative difference between political scandals of previous generations, such as those surrounding the Suez Crisis and the Iran–Contra affair, which involved attempting to cover-up the truth, and contemporary ones in which public facts are simply ignored.
Similarly, Alexios Mantzarlis for the Poynter Institute said that political lies were not new and identified several historical political campaigns which would now be described as ‘post-truth’ and that the label was in part a ‘coping mechanism for commentators reacting to attacks on not just any facts, but on those central to their belief system,’ but also noted that 2016 had been ‘an acrimonious year for politics on both sides of the Atlantic.’ Mantzarlis also noted that interest in fact-checking had never been higher, suggesting that at least part of the electorate rejects ‘post-truth’ politics.
Journalist Sam Kriss said about post-truth: ‘I’m not advocating the practice of lying to people, but the power that politics offers is to think of something that doesn’t exist, something that under any kind of very strict definition would be considered untrue and, and decide that you would like it to become true. […] So I think the question is what kind of untruth we want.’