The Truth, Nothing but the Truth: Do We Live in a Post-Truth World?
America is in a political uprising of sorts where facts take back seat to unsubstantiated claims, for example, 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.” Spicer received almost no repercussions for his unsupported claims and many people, without doing their own research, believed the claims as fact. Social media may be a cause of this, Sinan Aral of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in the journal Science, “falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information,” and he continued with, “It took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people.” Claims about things like the Boston Bombing, terrorists, and global warming could be made and spread with little to no support backing them and they still spread like viral diseases. The most powerful spread of information was in the political sphere, as many people believe that the only reason Trump made it into office was that of a flash flood of unsubstantiated claims.
The phenomenon of unsupported claims is not exclusively American. The recent separation of Britain from the European Union is largely believed to have originated from the claim that, that an extra £350 million per week could be spent on health care if the UK voted to leave,” as noted in battleofideas.org.
What is post-truth exactly though? It was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016 and the word of the year in 2018 by the German Language Society or the Gesellschaft für Deutsche Sprache, and they define it as political and social discussion dominated by emotion instead of facts. Claims can be made, stories shared, and entire belief systems can be formed with little to no actual reliable support, for example, the prominence of the flat-Earth movement, which grew in strength after celebrities like rapper B.o.B. and NBA basketball player Kyrie Irving shared their views that the Earth is not round but instead flat. B.o.B. even started a GoFundMe in order to help prove that the Earth is flat based on his theory that has no expert support, as reported on by Time Magazine.
This is a scathing reality check for much of the modern media. What does this mean really? According to a reporter for the Toronto Star, Daniel Dale, Donald Trump told an average 20 lies a day between September 15th and election day. And according to Harvard University’s Nieman Lab around 360 US newspapers urged readers toward voting for Hillary Clinton while only around 11 newspapers urged citizens to vote for Donald Trump and yet he stood among the pack. Does the media not have the same power that it has had in the past? If so why? Has social media platforms like Twitter changed the public reliance and perception of media? Samidh Chakrabarti, product manager for Facebook Newsroom weighs in on the topic, “around the world, social media is making it easier for people to have a voice in government — to discuss issues, organize around causes, and hold leaders accountable. As recently as 2011, when social media played a critical role in the Arab Spring in places like Tunisia, it was heralded as a technology for liberation,” and continued, “a lot has changed since then. The 2016 US presidential election brought to the fore the risks of foreign meddling, ‘fake news’ and political polarization. The effect of social media on politics has never been so crucial to examine.” As someone so close to the topic of social media, Chakrabarti, holds a personal connection to the topic, “as the product manager in charge of civic engagement on Facebook, I live and breathe these issues. And while I’m an optimist at heart, I’m not blind to the damage that the internet can do to even a well-functioning democracy.”
The prominence of social media is believed to be the springboard for much of this conflict. BBC reported that 40% of the world uses social media which means around 3 billion people use social media daily. Social media “has made things much worse,” because it “offers an easy route for non-journalists to bypass journalism’s gatekeepers, so that anyone can ‘publish’ anything, however biased, inaccurate or fabricated,” says John Huxford, an Illinois State University journalism professor, “journalism’s role as the ‘gatekeeper’ of what is and isn’t news has always been controversial, of course. But we’re now seeing just how bad things can get when that function breaks down.” Journalists have played the “gatekeeper” role and that role is being subverted by things like Twitter and Facebook where anyone can be a public figure of sorts. More companies are becoming the curators of news even after some reluctance, “Technology companies including Apple, Google, Snapchat, Twitter, and, above all, Facebook have taken on most of the functions of news organizations, becoming key players in the news ecosystem, whether they wanted that role or not,” said a March 2018 report by Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. It is believed that traditional news firms are losing their voice when compared to new media giants like Facebook now. With no traditional gatekeepers in place, a lot of falsehoods are slipping through the cracks, as the MIT study referenced earlier explained, that false, more sensationalized news spread much quicker much farther than the truth. Oxford Internet Scholars came to a pointedly similar conclusion, that news on the internet is “prioritized by complex algorithms that have been coded to sort, filter, and deliver content in a manner that is designed to maximize users’ engagement.” According to Oxford researchers Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard, “the speed and scale at which content ‘goes viral’ grows exponentially, regardless of whether or not the information it contains is true.”
And here is Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama speaking on the subject.
And then a Vice documentary on Trump’s America