This is how author Ralph Keyes defines a key aspect of contemporary society: “In the post-truth era, borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction. Deceiving others becomes a challenge, a game, and ultimately a habit.” Coining this term in 2004, Keyes argued that post-truth can ultimately lead to an erosion of social trust, which is a key foundation of a healthy society.
In 2010, blogger David Roberts applied this term to politics, saying that this takes place when public opinion and media narratives – irrespective of their factual grounding – become almost totally disconnected from the substance of policy and legislation.
Keyes and Roberts echo what social theorist Jean Baudrillard hypothesised in the 1980s, when he believed that we are living in an age of simulation. Here we are seduced by what we see in themedia, irrespective of whether it is true or false. In a hyperreal context, therefore, Pikachiu and the Kardashians can cause more excitement and concern than climate change.
Populisms of the right and left excel in creating narratives which excite voters, yet which can ultimately result in a political hangover
The concept of post-truth politics is being used as a tool of analysis of various political campaigns today. For example, some argue that the pro-Brexit campaign successfully depicted a post-EU and post-migration Britain while ignoring the complexities, opportunities and risks of today’s global political economy.
In the heat of the pro-Brexit campaign, one of its chief architects Michael Gove, famously asked: “Who needs experts?”
Well, perhaps experts are needed as they can engage with vague promises, unfounded claims and sensational statements thrown out to the public by populists. And perhaps this is why post-truthers feel so queasy about evidence-based research and recommendations.
Indeed, populisms of the right and left excel in creating narratives which excite voters, yet which can ultimately result in a political hangover once the populists are in power. Venezuela knows something about this.
Needless to say, a vociferous exponent of post-truth politics today is Donald Trump. An excellent communicator, Trump frequently gets away with narratives which are hardly based on a shred of accuracy. He often makes explosive claims which immediately gain media attention.
For example, he had once said that Barack Obama founded Islamic State and that he was not born in the US. Trump believes that climate change is a hoax, and that Hillary Clinton actually founded the anti-Obama ‘Birther’ movement. Not to mention the numbers he splashes out irrespective of their truthfulness.
I notice that Trump also frequently gets away with a tactic that is also used by populists of our times. He refers to ‘reports’ that he read without substantiating. If he really read these ‘reports’, who wrote them? Are they scientific?
Of course, there are various media outlets which are putting Trump to task. Fact-checkers, truthometers and other tools are being used to verify his claims and count his false statements. Yet, the social media and the public sphere is not only made up of readers of credible newspapers.
Indeed, today’s media ecology has two sides. On the one hand, the social media is enabling decentralisation and the flourishing of different voices. On the other hand, however, one also encounters media narratives which are dubious to say the least. For every newspaper which ensures that reporting is grounded in research and credible evidence, one finds all sorts of outlets which put forward seductive claims devoid of systematic analysis.
In such a context, the mediasphere is pushed towards competing through sensationalism. Yet, credible press agencies which systematically engage with what they are reporting on are vital for self-respecting democracies. Here, statements are taken to task, and not simply reproduced.
In this regard, I want to emphasise that post-truth statements are not only the prerogative of certain politicians. This populist strategy may also be used by ‘big’ and ‘small’ crusaders of different stripes and colours. And Malta is no exception.
Politicians, policymakers, journalists, academics and activists who simply brush away the influence of post-truth tactics are doing so at their own peril. The unintended consequence of a lack of engagement may well be stronger post-truth politics.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.