Summer 2017

Society and Culture

Bursting the Post-Truth Bubbles

Daniel Tompsett

Are people more likely to be persuaded by objective facts or by emotional opinions? Do they respond more positively to a hard truth or to a palatable lie? Welcome to the Post-Truth Age.

In his farewell speech to America after eight years in the White House, Barack Obama remarked, “Increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information—whether it’s true or not—that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.” Speaking of the threat of an increasingly fragmented society, the outgoing president suggested that “for too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.”

Obama’s observation and warning form an interesting juxtaposition with the inaugural address of another US president, John F. Kennedy, who famously said in 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” His words reflected a sense that politicians’ role was to encourage citizens to altruistic service and away from an insular attitude of expectation from the state. Can we even imagine our leaders making such an appeal to the electorate today?

What has changed so radically that people are increasingly sliding into self-serving, self-affirming bubbles? As they acquiesce to the post-truth echo inside those bubbles, it seems clear that any sense of indomitable truth, or a duty to pursue it, is under perilous threat.

The New Enlightenment

In the 18th-century Enlightenment model, reason was the supreme foundation of authority and legitimacy. From it a fountain of ideas erupted: liberty, tolerance, progress, constitutional government, the separation of church and state. Under the old idea of divinely appointed rulers, to disagree with the monarch was to disagree with God. With the Enlightenment, the all-powerful monarchies were swept aside (sometimes via bloody revolution) in favor of governments by and for the people. But these governments too, said English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), should be limited: according to the principle of the social contract, an individual’s conscience must remain beyond the power of government to control.

Obama’s comments point to the advent of what may be termed a new “Enlightenment,” or at least an emendation to old Enlightenment principles. The new version forgoes the idea of rational truth and instead is willing to accept a palatable post-truth.

But isn’t post-truth just a synonym for lying? Well, yes and no. Lying certainly has a long and sad history going all the way back to the Garden of Eden. People throughout time and in all spheres of life have lied; the difference is in our increased willingness to accept those lies today. It’s about a change in us and our withdrawal into comforting, fragmented spheres of appealing ideas and opinions, irrespective of their basis in truth. The new Enlightenment stems from people who are more likely to connect with an emotionally charged statement that suits their preexisting opinions than to have their views shaped by facts.

Post-truth: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Oxford Dictionaries (2016)

Recent examples are plentiful, with mounting evidence that people are increasingly unresponsive to emotionless facts. In the United Kingdom, there’s a sense that the Remain campaign leading up to the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union sank under its own weight of facts, ceding victory to the simple and emotional rhetoric of the “Leavers.” Similarly, the expected Conservative party landslide in the 2017 general election failed to materialize. A particular BBC television interview is often cited as a critical moment in the campaign: incumbent prime minister Theresa May was asked about nurses having to resort to food banks to make ends meet. Because she responded in terms of “many complex reasons” rather than with any apparent empathy or compassion, some branded her as emotionally detached, and this clearly worked against her.

In the leadup to the 2016 US presidential election, commentators wondered how electable the controversial Donald Trump would be. But his populist, no-nonsense tone and brassy brand of empathy apparently resonated with voters. Plain speaking, not necessarily truth-speaking, took on a new significance as voters on both sides appeared to weigh emotional rhetoric over empirical facts. The model for this post-truth approach crystallized when one of Trump’s senior aides spoke of “alternative facts,” as though carefully selected opposing sets of “facts” are equally truthful. In the climate of the new Enlightenment, individuals are free to select from a sweet shop of treats that will satisfy their own personal, emotional needs without having to first evaluate the quality of what they’re consuming. Those who seek power are increasingly aware of this and seemingly willing to mold the facts to suit the electorate. The transition amounts to a new epistemology, or new ways in which people determine what truth is. In many respects the new Enlightenment is the logical conclusion of the postmodern reduction of truth so that it became just part of the script—the apparent evaporation of truth in a nexus of relativism.

But why do people no longer seem to value truth?

The Collapse of Trust

Trust in the political sphere has always been tenuous and prone to collapse. However, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a new chasm appears to have opened into which the last vestiges of trust disappeared. When the debt-driven bubble finally burst, gigantic financial institutions were propped up with taxpayers’ money to allow the system to continue to turn a profit. In the United Kingdom the collapse was followed by the 2009 MP-expenses scandal, the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal, a litany of celebrity sex-abuse scandals, and the calling to account of the media in the hacking scandal. Across the globe, disillusionment with politicians and political ideology and the fall of so-called stars are common phenomena. When the words of previously trusted members of society prove time and again to be lies, how can anyone possibly put any stock in anything that is said in the name of truth?

Inevitably perhaps, the collapse of trust creates a vacuum in which any opinion can dress up in the robes of truth and parade itself freely. In the era of fake news and resurgent conspiracy theories, lies are having a field day. They are also more likely to find an open ear to latch on to. The discrediting of the media, politicians, the machinery of government, commerce, and high-profile celebrities and entertainers has left democracy itself open to threat. If facts upheld by any kind of authority are now beyond credit, then what shapes public opinion?

Digital Echo Chambers

There is no doubt that the digital revolution promotes the bubbles that Obama signaled as a threat to society. Addressing the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in London in June 2017, journalist Matthew d’Ancona, author of Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, acknowledged that post-truth is flourishing; it is “as if the firewalls and antibodies . . . of our system have weakened.” The digital environment is driving this change, he said, by providing “echo chambers” into which each individual can retreat, facilitated by the ease and anonymity that characterize our now-ubiquitous technology. Complex algorithms are “meant to connect us with the things we like, or might like,” and then, with just a few clicks, we’re able to propel our opinions to the four corners of the globe. The reason? The new Enlightenment is built on commerce, not on any value for truth, despite the noble objectives that some originally set for the fledgling technology.

This is not a design flaw; this is not an unintended consequence. It’s what the algorithms are meant to do. . . . They’re fantastically responsive to personal taste, and fantastically blind, so far, to veracity.”

Matthew d’Ancona, “The War on Truth” (RSA presentation, June 2017)

D’Ancona remarked, “Never has the old adage that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its boots seemed so timely or worrying.” The Internet, he said, represents “a kind of dream vector for post-truth,” where fake news and conspiracies on such diverse subjects as the Holocaust, US presidential politics and climate change find a new level of tolerance and credulity. In fact, a December 2016 Ipsos poll of more than 3,000 Americans found that about 75 percent of those who were familiar with a given fake news story believed it was at least somewhat accurate.

Speaking at the same London event, Eliane Glaser, a writer and producer and the author of Get Real: How to Tell It Like It Is in a World of Illusions, observed that “there’s a funny way in which the Internet sort of gets rid of history—that we just live in this permanent present and . . . can’t see the historical context of the moment we’re at.”

Commenting on the former US president’s “bubbles” remark, David Smith, Washington correspondent at The Guardian, noted that “Obama tackles one of the hot topics of the election post-mortem. There has been much commentary about how conservatives and liberals divided into mutually exclusive ‘bubbles’, reinforcing one another’s views on Facebook groups, consuming news that fitted their confirmation bias. The president has previously noted that, a generation ago, the dominant TV broadcasters served up a generally agreed set of facts. The current landscape is a recipe for ‘post-truth’ pick and mix and ever greater polarisation.”

Tech Empires

The digital advertising model increasingly seeks to shape-shift to our hearts’ desire. In fact, the algorithms that determine what advertisements we see online draw on a staggering number of variables. Martin Kelly, CEO of Infectious Media, offers a partial list: “language, time of day, weather conditions, location and even local pollen counts. The level of adaptability open to advertisers grows by the day.” Underlying the entire digital economy is the reality that revenue is generated by clicks, not by truth. Thus the extent to which finance and commerce determine what we see online is in the ascendency.

Five tech firms control a far higher percentage of the personal information that relates to us as individuals than any government or state has done before; they are therefore increasingly useful in the political sphere. Their primary commercial focus means it’s inevitable that a highly personalized degree of data about us as individuals is scraped off and sold to the highest bidder, at times for the purposes of political targeting. While using data to target has always been part of the political process, the scale, sophistication and closed-door nature of these tech giants means that it could be seen as undermining the democratic process.

In a May 2017 article, Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer suggested murky links between data company Cambridge Analytica LLC and its 90 percent owner and Trump supporter Robert Mercer, and Steve Bannon, a former vice president of Cambridge Analytica who became a Trump adviser. The story, which drew attention to data obtained legally from Facebook, is itself the subject of legal complaints on behalf of some of the parties named. It began with a December 2016 quote from Alex Younger, head of MI6: “The connectivity that is the heart of globalization can be exploited by states with hostile intent to further their aims. . . . The risks at stake are profound and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty.” The perceived threat to sovereignty may also turn out to be a threat to Locke’s ideal of preserving the sanctity of the individual conscience from government control.

Considering the Options

Commentators who recognize the post-truth threat to society agree on the need for action. That action, d’Ancona believes, should be manifold. A first step is to ensure that the fact-checking industry is adequately funded to combat false information. He also suggests that litigation may play a role in certain circumstances and that self-regulation would be appropriate for the large tech companies hosting the majority of information. D’Ancona further posited that teaching young children to discern fact from fiction in digital environments should become as important as teaching literacy.

There is a sense, however, that the promotion of facts alone will never be enough to halt the spread of the post-truth disease. People may already believe that power in the age of the new Enlightenment can shape any reality of its choosing. A level of emotional intelligence— combined with facts—will be increasingly necessary to reach people already experiencing the lulling resonance inside their echo chambers and bubbles.

D’Ancona believes that “political humility” and a political ideology that is simply sincere and honest are important antidotes to post-truth. These solutions are well known, yet how elusive they’ve proven to be! The old Enlightenment model sought such a moral code in the Bible, but only to a point; it rejected miracles, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and anything else that hinted at the supernatural. The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, went so far as to cut and paste together only those sections of the New Testament that he felt were sufficiently rational to be included in his Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Yet the Bible—in its entirety—is more than a moral discourse. It’s also a record of human beings and their self-will, beginning with the story of Adam and Eve, who wanted to determine for themselves what was true (good) and what was false (evil). The story continues by recounting ancient Israel’s history—the account of a people who rejected God’s wisdom at nearly every turn: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). They didn’t want to hear “right things” but rather “smooth things” and “deceits” (Isaiah 30:10). The Bible further speaks of “perilous times” that would yet come on the world, an era when authority would be maligned by default and people would be slanderers, despising what is good, and loving only themselves and money (2 Timothy 3:1–5). Have we reached that point today? A point where the infrastructure is sufficiently global to guarantee that the whole world succumbs to post-truth profiteers and retreats into echo chambers so that each individual hears only what he or she wants to hear?

Jesus Christ said He is “the way” and “the truth” (John 14:6). Likewise, He said that God’s Word, the Bible, is truth (John 17:17). But what does that mean in the shifting sands of a post-truth world, when the Bible is the last place most think to look for answers? Perhaps we should consider d’Ancona’s point that if only we had humble leaders who were sincere and honest, we would go a long way toward a solution to the problems that have led us to post-truth thinking. Even those who see Jesus as nothing more than an exemplary historical figure agree that those character traits—humility, sincerity and honesty—describe Him well. So maybe it’s worth taking a closer look at the Book that contains His teachings, all within the broader context of humanity’s longstanding resistance to truth.