The present post-truth era is a manifestation of the fluid state of global affairs, and will require the renegotiation of existing norms and values to generate a new set of truths.
The recently released Netflix satire ‘Don’t Look Up’ does an impressive job highlighting transgressions of a system that has failed to develop consensus on existing global issues. Depicting society’s response to an impending apocalyptic comet collision, the film is an analogy for contemporary political discourse surrounding scientifically-verified challenges like climate change.
Beyond its visible climate activism, the film remains successful in capturing the zeitgeist of a time when opinions are formed based on emotional appeal as opposed to objective facts: a period frequently referred to as the “post-truth” age.
While the term post-truth has been around for a few decades, its introduction into mainstream political discourse can be traced back to the events of 2016.
In the wake of the UK Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, political pundits started looking for reasons to explain the upsets that had just unfolded before them. Cometh the time cometh the word, post-truth emerged on the scene. The term became a constant feature in news articles and opinion pieces, even going as far as being declared Word of the Year 2016 by the Oxford English Dictionary.
Yet, as with other buzzwords, the attention given to post-truth – primarily, its political rendition – has faded over time, perhaps due to the existence of more urgent concerns like the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.
However, even in the context of mentioned concerns, the idea of post-truth remains an intrinsic element that shapes public perception. Be they anti-maskers, climate change deniers, or other fringe groups, their worldviews can be linked directly to their individual and collective experiences in the post-truth age.
The post-truth age, as conventionally believed, did not begin in 2016 with the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s electoral victory. These events merely served as manifestations of a trend that can be traced back to the late 20th century – a trend that has only evolved in the 21st century with the emergence of new technologies.
The phenomenon first began in the intellectual domain with philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault deconstructing the foundations of conventional beliefs. The rise of postmodern thought put ideals of modernism on trial, raising questions on the very nature of truth and objectivity themselves: if one’s understanding of truth and knowledge emerged from subjective experiences, nothing remained objective.
This shift from objectivity to subjectivity was further facilitated by the emergence of globalisation. Societies that previously remained isolated became exposed to divergent cultures, values, and belief systems. While this exposure to foreign elements created certain common values and shared truths, it also enabled societies to differentiate themselves from others: a person living in a foreign land felt greater awareness of one’s native identity than a person living in one’s native land.
On one hand, globalisation strengthened social identities, on the other, it raised awareness regarding the subjectivity of their own truths, thereby facilitating the transition of societies into the post-truth age.
The effects of connectivity brought forth by globalisation intensified with the appearance of social media. While globalisation enabled the transition from absolute truths to subjective societal truths, social media devolved it a step further by personalising truth: the truth became “your” truth.
The notion of truth did not remain as something that existed 'out there’, but was instead tailor-made based on an individual’s personal identity and experiences. Facilitated by rugged individualism of free-market capitalism, shaped by personalised online experiences, and encouraged by a revisionist popular culture looking to debunk historical myths, truth completed its evolution from an objective, fact-based, and shared reality to a subjective, opinionated, and individualised set of worldviews.
The post-truth age is, therefore, not just the triumph of emotions over facts; it also manifests a wider shift from objectivity to subjectivity and from shared truths to personalised truths. These subjective truths are further entrenched over time through filter bubbles and echo chambers created by social media algorithms designed to increase engagement.
Online platforms connect individuals whose truths overlap and isolate them from divergent truths, thereby facilitating political polarisation, conspiracy theories, and the rise of fringe groups.
In the post-truth age, it is accessibility to information – not its accuracy – that shapes public opinion. Given that credible information requires time to emerge, the first-come-first-believe nature of the post-truth age inherently favours the propagation of misinformation and fake news. Once an opinion is created, the stakes are against the truth which now has to un-opinionate a lie and re-opinionate it with the truth.
But access to information is not the only factor that shapes public opinion. In an era of abundant information, confirmation biases decide whether individuals perceive new information to be true or false. Information that conforms to an individual’s personalised truths is assimilated to update one’s worldview while opposing facts, no matter how accurate and reliable, are deemed as propaganda, misinformation, and fake news.
The belief in information in the post-truth age depends greatly on what many have called the Tolstoy Syndrome. According to Russian writer Leo Tolstoy: “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”
Propaganda and misinformation find fertile ground among groups that deem their truths to be under attack. The self-awareness regarding the subjectivity of one’s once-objective truths, coupled with demographic and cultural changes ushered in by globalisation, set up conditions where societies feel threatened and populist movements take root.
Traditional truths are replaced by newer, more polarising, truths. Facts are replaced by alternative facts, more accessible even if less accurate. Consensus on shared truths – which serves as the bedrock of every democratic system – is gradually eroded, eventually resulting in democratic backsliding currently reverberating around the world.
While the emergence of the post-truth age is perceived negatively in mainstream political discourse, some like historian Yuval Noah Harari have deemed this transition to be an essential part of humanity’s social evolution. Regardless of these divergent perceptions, there is a need to mitigate fallouts of the post-truth age manifested in rising political polarisation, emerging fringe groups, and increasing violent extremism.
The currently used fact-checking mechanisms inherently fall short of plugging the propagation of misinformation: by the time fake news is debunked, the damage is done. In a digital space where propaganda is furthered through ads while reliable information is locked behind pay-walls, the spread of misinformation can be overcome by improving public access to – and reducing commodification of – authentic sources. Such an approach would require the development of alternative financing mechanisms to enable credible media outlets to sustain their operations as gatekeepers of objective truth.
Social media companies also share responsibility for overcoming the ill effects of the post-truth age. While actions taken by social media giants during the US Capitol insurrection were momentarily effective, they fell short of addressing the root cause of the issue at hand.
Banning individuals and fact-checking fake news are merely a reactive approach to remedy issues exacerbated by social media itself. Instead, the gradual phase-out of filter-bubble algorithms could prove to be a more lasting remedial mechanism, nipping issues in the bud that would otherwise necessitate bans and fact-checking.
There is a need to rediscover shared truths, not just within democracies but also in the context of the changing world order. A consensus over unalienable foundational truths could help individuals and societies navigate the subjectivity of the post-truth age and mitigate the risks associated with its emergence.
The post-truth age is a manifestation of the fluid state of global affairs, requiring renegotiation of existing norms and values to generate a new set of truths. Stakeholders must ensure that these new truths are inclusive and just – not polarising and oppressive.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
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