Post-truth: its meaning and implications for democracyon 17 July 2017
By Elena Afromeeva, Mirjam Liefbroer and Darren Lilleker
Post truth, the Oxford Dictionaries word of 2016, defines a phenomenon where beliefs, formed through exposure to media or campaigns’ use of cherry-picked data, seem more important than informed expert testimony. Its emergence has led it to occupy the minds of scholars, political journalists, politicians, policy makers and others who shape the world in which we live. In particular we have seen political campaigns exploit, manipulate and reinforce strongly held beliefs, distorting reality to encourage the disavowal of contrasting facts to shape attitudes and undermine support for the arguments of opponents. Such manifestations of post truth politics are a brutal reminder that we find ourselves in a time when politics, politicians and institutions are being undermined, which in turn poses a threat to the fundamental principles of democracy.
Our workshop, Politics in a post-truth era, held at Bournemouth University 10-11 July 2017, posed a number of questions which reflect the political developments of the past twelve months. How can we understand post truth, is it really new and what does a post-truth politics look like? What does post-truth tell us about the current and future state of democratic engagement and of democracy itself and what are the consequences of decisions taken based on misinformation or disinformation?
The initial focus was on the psychological and theoretical underpinnings of the post truth phenomenon, its emergence and development, as well as its practical realization and impact on social inequality and public marginalisation. The first panel involved Darren Lilleker, Barry Richards and Richard Scullion. In suggesting that belief systems shape an individual’s perception of society, Lilleker noted how data-driven campaigns can be designed to manipulate public understanding of how things are and how they ought to be. Citizens then seek confirmation bias as opposed to interrogating the claims and counter-claims of campaigns. Richards developed these ideas situating them in appeals made to narcissism and paranoia whereby “departures from truth are lies, delusions and phantasy”. On a similar theme, Scullion argued the “contemporary self, characterised by more narcissistic tendencies, desensitises our democratic rights but not responsibilities.” Relating this phenomena to recent political events he argued “Populist political outpourings are marked by vulgarity and personal truths that result from the cultural shift in our conception of ‘self’ that is both corroding the core pillars of our civilizing process and altering the nature of our engagement with democratic politics which has led to the destabilization of the contemporary notions of democracy”.
Putting these concepts into a more practical frame, Ruth Garland explored how political communication processes have challenged traditional notions of truth. In charting changes in the approach to news management, she noted these redefined truth to suit the governing ideology. This limited construction of truth in society, is according to Anastasia Deligiaouri, due to a prevalence of post truth narratives in contemporary politics with little recourse to referencing or cross-checking facts when reporting political communication.
Such issues have profound implications, not only for democracy but only for social equality. Melanie Klinkner and Alina Theimann argued that the absence of a single truth and misleading ways of presenting information stimulated people to trust arguments which draw on selective data, blindly relying on their emotions irrespective of the facts. Arguably, this can go beyond the demonization of opponents and leads to multiple distorted perceptions of reality that can lead to increased marginalisation through stereotyping and othering.
The phenomena of the post-truth, fake news social media environment was explored during the second day, noting post-truth entails more than fabrication but also actively seeking confirmation bias. Describing “post-truth as a symptom rather than a cause,” Susana Salgado argued that although post-truth is not a new phenomenon and lies by politicians are nothing new, people are bombarded by fake information online leading the distinction between facts and fiction to become increasingly blurred as blogs, social media, citizen journalism, etc are awarded similar credibility to other information sources.
Stamatis Poulakidakos and Anastasia Veneti reinforced this argument showing how fake news and post truth are “two interwoven phenomena that serve specific financial or ideological interests.” They suggest this to represent a re-invention of propaganda, showing propaganda and post-truth to be means of shaping public opinion. Daniel Jackson contributed to the discussion underlining the “heavy burden of journalists in determining truth claims.” He argued that in addition to fake news there are four other troubling aspects of political journalism that need to be taken into consideration: “an obsession with the spectacle of politics, an underlying cynicism towards politicians, an inadequate model for dealing with issues where the balance of evidence is not equal and a deepening distrust of the mainstream media encouraged by populist outsiders.” The debate led directly into a roundtable discussion on elections and referenda in a post-truth era, particularly referencing the UK Brexit referendum and US presidential campaign of 2016. Post-truth was here contextualised as contributing to atmospheres of irrational fears and hopes leading to citizens feeling disempowered and disillusioned and so fertile for manipulation by the next populist outsider’s post-truth campaign. Media literacy in education was highlighted as one panacea, as well as tighter regulation over media and political uses of language and rhetoric. Post-truth, participants agreed, was not knew, and the term if not inherently useful, however its emergence has brought renewed focus on dishonesty in democracy. The event reaffirmed the need for citizens to be better equipped to judge veracity within the complex 21st Century communication environment.
Elena Afromeeva is PhD Researcher at the University of Jena and Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University. Mirjam Liefbroer is an MA student at the University of Bournemouth. Darren Lilleker is Associate Professor in Political Communication at the University of Bournemouth.
Image: David Mulder CC BY-NC-ND