The so-called ‘post-truth’ era has become a fundamental element in shaping the international landscape of relations in recent years. Brexit and the polemical US Presidential Elections set the course for post-truth to be selected as 2016’s international word of the year. Once upon a time, ‘true’ or ‘false’ were the two options so as to deliver a judgment over statements about the way the world actually is. Nowadays, we have lies, truths, and assertions that may feel true but have no basis in fact. New ways to define the blurred borders between truth and lie abound, as people talk about “the economy of truth” or “the improvement of truth”, while more literary expressions “sweeten the truth” or “stretch the truth.” The post-modern disdain for truth, as a product of belief, and the reservation of judgment encouraging deception have brought admissions of “misjudging,” “misspeaking,” or “exercising poor judgment,” instead of dishonesty, deceit or fraud.
Although it is not real, it could seemingly be. Post-truth never lies shamelessly, it is always founded on a modest core of appealing the truth. For instance, it is common to find headlines with quotes taken out of context and from invaluable or inconspicuous scientific research. This tiny portion of truth confers credibility to the false statements conveyed. The falsehood effectively appeals to feelings as a replacement for critical thinking. Accordingly, post-truth is a mainstay in political commentary and, as the word of the year, is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This cocktail of emotions coupled with biased information forms the post-truth politics era, a time where individuals are not influenced by evidence or statistics, but rather what confirms a person’s own world view.
Dishonesty in politics, however, is nothing new. Politicians have often played with the boundaries of truth. In the political struggle, information has historically been used or hidden for ideological conflict in accordance with specific agendas. At the same time, human cognition seems to have a natural tendency towards confirmation bias, as Hegel wittily expressed “to read the newspaper is the modern man’s morning-prayer,” hence individuals search for an ideologically aligned media outlet that suits one’s perspectives. Therefore, the ingredients of post-truth discourse have always been present. Apart from the evident manipulation of propaganda in totalitarian regimes, there are forms of tolerated lies in our daily activity. For instance, advertising or marketing involves a clear intention to use emotions to embellish information for specific purposes. Consequentially, there is no discursive problem in a post-truth era, but rather the confusion between information, propaganda, advertising and opinion when their limits are blurred and distinction challenging.
Yet, post-truth seems to combine novel elements in relation with technology. On the one hand, the Internet has made it possible to spread fake news and lies easily, transforming the information consumed through filter bubbles that offer a reduced vision of the world, isolating the user from opposing viewpoints and on the other, the explosion of social media has brought accompanied the viral phenomenon of ‘click bait’. The viral phenomenon dominates the Internet culture as a way to move, through the human population, thoughts, and information designed to be widely shared. It additionally uses the need to outlet emotions by sharing content, which builds up a social self-image and boosts self-esteem through positive or desired peer feedback. Besides the media’s excessive ideological maneuvering, the basic component of the post-truth era, click bait, is the economic benefit that advertising returns. Therefore the journalistic rigour, accuracy, and veracity are the victims of a quest for cheap clicks and money.
The advent of post-truth comes as the result of a public arena in decay. Traditionally, the public sphere has determined relevant facts and general interest for the society through traditional institutions. Post-truth politics may be a consequence of the decline of agent-structure institutions as valued and recurring patterns of behaviour, authority and moral conduct. Political parties, media, journalism, church, family values, corporations or labour unions have suffered a profound lack of credibility throughout the last decades. These traditional institutions have contributed to the abuse of truth, giving rise to recent political earthquakes: Trump, Brexit or the ascent of Marine Le Pen in France. Those institutions have often helped to fragment the public sphere in a series of small private groups, mistaking the general interest for the special interest of groups. Politicians, mainstream journalists, experts and economists have ignored people’s legitimate feelings of grievance for decades, putting political problems ahead of factual problems. Inevitably, people who feel excluded and deceived, canalise discontent and general unrest as a political instrument against the establishment. For instance, despite more than 500 (a vast majority) media outlets openly supporting Hillary Clinton, anger as a political commodity has made possible the victory of Donald Trump, regardless of show business politics and controversial remarks as “I could shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
The idea that it is possible to build up truth is only an illusion about human poetic abilities. Thus, post-truth has become the Sophism of the 21st century. The advance of social media and information technology has created a sort of fool’s paradise where emotions are validated by the information users receive. Although fact checkers contest those falsehoods, people keep asserting it because no fact checker can change how they feel, as if truth were of secondary importance. In periods of conflict, whether social or violent, truth may often become the first casualty. However, in times when values and principles are a disadvantage and ends justifies the means, lies never take a toll. People lie over and over again, yet there are no consequences and people of influence keep dismissing honesty as the best policy.