The Post-Truth World

The most interesting and for me the most appropriate response to the candidacy of Donald Trump that I’ve read up until now just has to be this briefing, The Post-Truth World, from the Economist Magazine of September 10, parts of which I’ve taken without permission and posted here below.

It’s probably significant that my very first memorable contact with the Donald was not the Trump Tower, the Casinos, Trump University, those and/or other items bearing his name, but it was what happened during the election of 2012 when Trump suddenly appeared as the lead spokesman for the so-called birther movement, speaking out for those who questioned the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate. Why did he do this? Why does he continue to give us un-truths in our “post-truth” world? Well that’s the answer. This is the un-truth world and it’s par excellence his world, certainly where he’s most comfortable uttering his un-truths. Why, as the poet says, truth’s a dog and must to kennel.

At that time during the Romney campaign (Trump supported Romney for President, and now probably the best thing I can say about Romney is that Romney is not supporting Trump) anyway, during the Trump-led birther movement I put Trump aside as an idiot, a “bloviating ignoramus” as in the always well chosen words of George Will.

Yet now, some four years later, in our “post-truth” world Donald Trump couldn’t be more at home. He’s relaxed, and will say just anything that comes to mind to arouse his dear followers. He clearly doesn’t at all care about what his words mean, even less does he care about what they may have meant at an earlier time, let alone whether there be any connection between his words and the truth.

During Trump’s birther period there was some crazy stuff. For example there occurred this exchange between Trump and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer

Wolf Blitzer presented Trump with newspaper announcements of Obama’s birth.

Trump interrupted, “Can you stop defending Obama?”

“Donald, you’re beginning to sound a little ridiculous, I have to tell you,” Blitzer replied.

“You are, Wolf,” Trump fired back. “Let me tell you something, I think you sound ridiculous.”

Trump then alleged that the practice of filing US birth announcements for an overseas birth was commonplace, though he offered no evidence.

Doesn’t this kind of ring like  a “post truth,” or un-truth time? Also, isn’t it clear, alas! that we still have at the present time the same Donald Trump as then, no longer a Romney supporter, but a candidate himself. Now as he tells us there’s “lying Hillary,” but there’s also a lying Donald (not to mention “lying Ted”). And given that the two realistic candidates for President are lying Hillary and lying Donald, we will be electing a liar as President of the United States, making us the land par excellence of post- or un-truth.

So here’s the Economist briefing I mention above, considerably abridged. While the lack of truth telling is a great problem among our leaders the author doesn’t say we should despair, even when the lying mosquito is infecting millions of us, and thereby eventually perhaps bringing it about that the truth- tellers in the land of un-truth are no more.

 The Post-Truth World, from the Economist Magazine of September 10

Yes, I’d lie to you. Dishonesty in politics is nothing new; but the manner in which some politicians now lie, and the havoc they may wreak by doing so, are worrying.

WHEN Donald Trump, the Republican presidential hopeful, claimed recently that President Barack Obama “is the founder” of Islamic State and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, the “co-founder”, even some of his supporters were perplexed. Surely he did not mean that literally? Perhaps, suggested Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, he meant that the Obama administration’s rapid pull-out from Iraq “created the vacuum” that the terrorists then filled?

“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” replied Mr Trump. “He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.”

Mr Hewitt, who detests Mr Obama and has written a book denouncing Mrs Clinton’s “epic ambition”, was not convinced. “But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them,” he pushed back.

Again, Mr Trump did not give an inch: “I don’t care. He was the founder. The way he got out of Iraq was, that, that was the founding of ISIS, OK?”

For many observers, the exchange was yet more proof that the world has entered an era of “post-truth politics”. Mr Trump appears not to care whether his words bear any relation to reality, so long as they fire up voters. PolitiFact, a fact-checking website, has rated more of his statements “pants-on-fire” lies than of any other candidate—for instance his assertion that “inner city crime is reaching record levels”, which plays on unfounded fears that crime rates are rising….

Paul Krugman — Donald Trump’s ‘Big Liar’ Technique
Charles Blow — Donald Trump is Lying in Plain Sight
Michael Tomasky — …Call Out Donald Trump’s Many Lies
Lee Siegel — The Selling of Donald Trump


Post-truth politics is advancing in many parts of the world. In Europe the best example is Poland’s ultranationalist ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS). Among other strange stories, it peddles lurid tales about Poland’s post-communist leaders plotting with the communist regime to rule the country together. In Turkey the protests at Gezi Park in 2013 and a recent attempted coup have given rise to all kinds of conspiracy theories, some touted by government officials: the first was financed by Lufthansa, a German airline (to stop Turkey from building a new airport which would divert flights from Germany), the second was orchestrated by the CIA.

Then there is Russia, [Perhaps this is what accounts for Trump’s being attracted to his “friend” Putin]  Arguably Russia is the country (apart from North Korea) that has moved furthest past truth, both in its foreign policy and internal politics. The Ukraine crisis offers examples aplenty: state-controlled Russian media faked interviews with “witnesses” of alleged atrocities, such as a child being crucified by Ukrainian forces; Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, did not hesitate to say on television that there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, despite abundant proof to the contrary.

Such dezinformatsiya may seem like a mere reversion to Soviet form. But at least the Soviets’ lies were meant to be coherent, argues Peter Pomerantsev, a journalist whose memoir of Mr Putin’s Russia is titled “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible”. In a study in 2014 for the Institute of Modern Russia, a think-tank, he quotes a political consultant for the president saying that in Soviet times, “if they were lying they took care to prove what they were doing was ‘the truth’. Now no one even tries proving ‘the truth’. You can just say anything. Create realities.”

In such creation it helps to keep in mind—as Mr Putin surely does—that humans do not naturally seek truth. In fact, as plenty of research shows, they tend to avoid it. People instinctively accept information to which they are exposed and must work actively to resist believing falsehoods; they tend to think that familiar information is true; and they cherry-pick data to support their existing views. At the root of all these biases seems to be what Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-prizewinning psychologist and author of a bestselling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, calls “cognitive ease”: humans have a tendency to steer clear of facts that would force their brains to work harder….

Given the biases of most peoples, it is somewhat surprising that people can ever agree on facts, particularly in politics. But many societies have developed institutions which allow some level of consensus over what is true: schools, science, the legal system, the media. This truth-producing infrastructure, though, is never close to perfect: it can establish as truth things for which there is little or no evidence; it is constantly prey to abuse by those to whom it grants privileges; and, crucially, it is slow to build but may be quick to break.

Post-truth politics is made possible by two threats to this public sphere: a loss of trust in institutions that support its infrastructure and deep changes in the way knowledge of the world reaches the public. Take trust first. Across the Western world it is at an all-time low, which helps explain why many prefer so-called “authentic” politicians, who “tell it how it is” (ie, say what people feel), to the wonkish type. Britons think that hairdressers and the “man in the street” are twice as trustworthy as business leaders, journalists and government ministers, according to a recent poll by Ipsos MORI. When Michael Gove, a leading Brexiteer, said before the referendum that “people in this country have had enough of experts” he may have had a point.

This loss of trust has many roots. In some areas—dietary advice, for example—experts seem to contradict each other more than they used to; governments get things spectacularly wrong, as with their assurances about the wisdom of invading Iraq, trusting in the world financial system and setting up the euro. But it would be a mistake to see the erosion of trust simply as a response to the travails of the world. In some places trust in institutions has been systematically undermined.

Mr Roberts first used the term “post-truth politics” in the context of American climate-change policy. In the 1990s many conservatives became alarmed by the likely economic cost of a serious effort to reduce carbon emissions. Some of the less scrupulous decided to cast doubt on the need for a climate policy by stressing to the point of distortion uncertainties in the underlying science. In a memo Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, argued: “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” Challenging—and denigrating—scientists in order to make the truth seem distant and unknowable worked pretty well. One poll found that 43% of Republicans believe climate change is not happening at all, compared to 10% of Democrats.

Some conservative politicians, talk-show hosts and websites, have since included the scientific establishment in their list of institutions to bash, alongside the government itself, the courts of activist judges and the mainstream media. The populist wing of the conservative movement thus did much to create the conditions for the trust-only-your-prejudices world of Mr Trump’s campaign. Some are now having second thoughts. “We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers…There is nobody: you can’t go to anybody and say: ‘Look, here are the facts’” said Charlie Sykes, an influential conservative radio-show host, in a recent interview, adding that “When this is all over, we have to go back. There’s got to be a reckoning on all this.”

Yet gatekeepers would be in much less trouble without the second big factor in post-truth politics: the internet and the services it has spawned. Nearly two-thirds of adults in America now get news on social media and a fifth do so often, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre, a polling outfit; the numbers continue to grow fast.

On Facebook, Reddit, Twitter or WhatsApp, anybody can be a publisher. Content no longer comes in fixed formats and in bundles, such as articles in a newspaper, that help establish provenance and set expectations; it can take any shape—a video, a chart, an animation. A single idea, or “meme”, can replicate shorn of all context, like DNA in a test tube. Data about the spread of a meme has become more important than whether it is based on facts.

The mechanisms of these new media are only now beginning to be understood. One crucial process is “homophilous sorting”: like-minded people forming clusters. The rise of cable and satellite television channels in the 1980s and 1990s made it possible to serve news tailored to specific types of consumer; the internet makes it much easier. According to Yochai Benkler of Harvard University in his book “The Wealth of Networks”, individuals with shared interests are far more likely to find each other or converge around a source of information online than offline. Social media enable members of such groups to strengthen each other’s beliefs, by shutting out contradictory information, and to take collective action.

Fringe beliefs reinforced in these ways can establish themselves and persist long after outsiders deem them debunked: see, for example, online communities devoted to the idea that the government is spraying “chemtrails” from high-flying aircraft or that evidence suggesting that vaccines cause autism is being suppressed. As Eric Oliver of the University of Chicago points out in a forthcoming book, “Enchanted America: The Struggle between Reason and Intuition in US Politics”, this is the sort of thinking that comes naturally to Mr Trump: he was once devoted to the “birther” fantasy that Mr Obama was not born an American….

…ecosystems of political online publications have emerged on Facebook—both on the left and the right. Pages such as Occupy Democrats and Make America Great can have millions of fans. They pander mostly to the converted, but in these echo chambers narratives can form before they make it into the wider political world. They have helped build support for both Bernie Sanders and Mr Trump, but it is the latter’s campaign, friendly media outlets and political surrogates that are masters at exploiting social media and its mechanisms.

A case in point is the recent speculation about the health of Mrs Clinton. It started with videos purporting to show Mrs Clinton suffering from seizures, which garnered millions of views online.

Breitbart News, an “alt-right” web publisher that gleefully supports Mr Trump—Stephen Bannon, the site’s boss, took over as the Trump campaign’s “chief executive officer” last month—picked up the story. “I’m not saying that, you know, she had a stroke or anything like that, but this is not the woman we’re used to seeing,” Mr Bannon said. Mr Trump mentioned Mrs Clinton’s health in a campaign speech. Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor of New York, urged people to look for videos on the internet that support the speculation. The Clinton campaign slammed what it calls “deranged conspiracy theories”, but doubts are spreading and the backfire effect is in full swing.

Such tactics would make Dmitry Kiselyov proud. “The age of neutral journalism has passed,” the Kremlin’s propagandist-in-chief recently said in an interview. “It is impossible because what you select from the huge sea of information is already subjective.” The Russian government and its media, such as Rossiya Segodnya, an international news agency run by Mr Kiselyov, produce a steady stream of falsehoods, much like fake-news sites in the West. The Kremlin deploys armies of “trolls” to fight on its behalf in Western comment sections and Twitter feeds (see article). Its minions have set up thousands of social-media “bots” and other spamming weapons to drown out other content….

This plurality of voices is not in itself a bad thing. Vibrant social media are often a power for good, allowing information to spread that would otherwise be bottled up. In Brazil and Malaysia social media have been the conduit for truth about a corruption scandal involving Petrobras, the state oil company, and the looting of 1MDB, a state-owned investment fund. And there are ways to tell good information from bad. Fact-checking sites are multiplying, and not just in America: there are now nearly 100, according to the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University. Social media have started to police their platforms more heavily: Facebook recently changed the algorithm that decides what users see in their newsfeeds to filter out more clickbait. Technology will improve: Mr Menczer and his team at Indiana University are building tools that can, among other things, detect whether a bot is behind a Twitter account.

The effectiveness of such tools, the use of such filters and the impact of such sites depends on people making the effort to seek them out and use them. And the nature of the problem—that the post-truth strategy works because it allows people to forgo critical thinking in favour of having their feelings reinforced by soundbite truthiness—suggests that such effort may not be forthcoming. The alternative is to take the power out of users’ hands and recreate the gatekeepers of old. “We need to increase the reputational consequences and change the incentives for making false statements,” says Mr Nyhan of Dartmouth College. “Right now, it pays to be outrageous, but not to be truthful.”

But trying to do this would be a tall order for the cash-strapped remnants of old media. It is not always possible or appropriate for reporters to opine as to what is true or not, as opposed to reporting what is said by others. The courage to name and shame chronic liars—and stop giving them a stage—is hard to come by in a competitive marketplace the economic basis of which is crumbling. Gatekeeping power will always bring with it a temptation for abuse—and it will take a long time for people to come to believe that temptation can be resisted even if it is.

But if old media will be hard put to get a new grip on the gates, the new ones that have emerged so far do not inspire much confidence as an alternative. Facebook (which now has more than 1.7 billion monthly users worldwide) and other social networks do not see themselves as media companies, which implies a degree of journalistic responsibility, but as tech firms powered by algorithms. And putting artificial intelligence in charge may be a recipe for disaster: when Facebook recently moved to automate its “trending” news section, it promoted a fake news story which claimed that Fox News had fired an anchor, Megyn Kelly, for being a “traitor”.

And then there is Mr Trump, whose Twitter following of over 11m makes him a gatekeeper of a sort in his own right. His moment of truth may well come on election day; the odds are that he will lose. If he does so, however, he will probably claim that the election was rigged—thus undermining democracy yet further. And although his campaign denies it, reports have multiplied recently that he is thinking about creating a “mini-media conglomerate”, a cross of Fox and Breitbart News, to make money from the political base he has created. Whatever Mr Trump comes up with next, with or without him in the White House, post-truth politics will be with us for some time to come.

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