Welcome to the post-truth era

Post-truth (adjective):

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

 

 

We are now living in the post-truth era.  Reality has become subjective.  The internet was supposed to function as an information superhighway, bringing people together and culminating in a singularity, a global consciousness. Instead it has devolved into an echo-chamber of fake news and misinformation.  Quite simply, the truth no longer matters.  One's worldview influences their perception of news and events.  Everybody possesses a different narrative.  Objective reasoning is cast aside in favor of appeals to emotion and belief.  As a result, people can't agree on basic facts and truth.  Reality is what one believes it to be, regardless of evidence to the contrary.  The highest authority in the country, President-elect Donald Trump, is a hallmark of the post-truth era, avoiding facts and spreading lies and misinformation as standard operating procedure.  We have become untethered from the truth, and digital media spread through social networks and viewed through smartphones is the catalyst.  The truth has never been so irrelevant.  Welcome to the post-truth era.

In a post-truth world, we are guilty until proven innocent.

Fake news and conspiracy theories entering the mainstream are the trademarks of a post-truth society.  In a post-truth world traditional news outlets (CNN, MSNBC, ABC, etc.), and independent experts have been systematically discredited, delegitimized and tarnished.  People have been led astray, convinced they are completely corrupt and fraudulent.  Furthermore - according to conspiracy discourse - these entities are "controlled" by shadowy enemies such as "globalists", "Zionists" or "The Elite" who have concocted a vast global conspiracy aimed at destroying the common man, robbing him of his identity through multiculturalism.  People are wildly skeptical of these "corrupt" sources.  Facts are considered hostile when they don't agree with one's beliefs.  Legitimate, academic research articles which actually attempt to adhere to the truth are rendered worthless by virtue of their (falsely) discredited source.  And while mainstream news outlets have real faults, definitive problems, and legitimate critiques, they also have standards, integrity, and fact-checking.  They are much more reliable and trustworthy.  Having been convinced of the evil intentions of the global news conspiracy, average citizens turn to other platforms for their news.  Fake news stories enter our national discourse by virtue of the mass distrust of traditional news, academia, and intellectualism.  

Of great importance is the medium through which these stories are viewed: the smartphone.  Never before has there been such a quick and direct link into the brains of billions of people.  Is it not true that our phones are always in our pockets or purses, at arm's length?  Do we not compulsively remove them and thumb through our social media at the click of a square?  Have we never wasted vast periods of time mindlessly pouring over snippets of randomness online?  The smartphone itself makes it very difficult to tell the difference between real news and fake news, due in large part to information overload.  It encourages headline reading since the screen is so small, and relying on heuristics such as form to judge source credibility. Not even the most forward-thinking luminaries of the past could have imagined a glowing rectangle of such power; a handheld device which could send words, pictures, videos and more to the far corners of the globe instantaneously, a device which could connect us with anyone on the planet.  But with great power comes great responsibility, and unfortunately it has been weaponized.

Real person shares fake news, liked by 100s, seen by thousands.

Real person shares fake news, liked by 100s, seen by thousands.

The natural reaction to the vast distrust of traditional media and institutions is the rise of an online parallel media structure which parrots and originates post-truth claims sans fact-checking.  The nightly news on TV and the New York Times newspaper are becoming obsolete.  Misinformation news companies such as Breitbart, RT, and Drudge Report - transfused through social media and/or Reddit and predominately viewed through smartphones - have replaced them.   Facebook and Twitter are the main platforms for the parallel media structure to be disseminated without restraint.  The misinformation often appears exactly the same as verifiable sources in terms of format and optics.  However, there is no journalistic integrity, standards, or fact-checking in this realm and post-truth lies flourish.  In multiple instances blatantly false news pieces which originated on the fringes of the internet had been picked up by major TV shows on networks such as Fox News and broadcast during primetime.  The scam is victorious, it's a "real" story now.  There is virtually no way to curb the spread of post-truth media.

Be careful what you wish for, Mark...

Be careful what you wish for, Mark...

Everything is true and nothing is true, it just depends on your narrative.  The modern news-media apparatus enables fake stories to spread like wildfire directly into the minds of millions of viewers.  Unrestricted and free by nature, the internet can be used to subvert the truth.  Our Facebook "newsfeed" reinforces the illusion of news.  Stories of great integrity appear juxtaposed with those that might not actually contain real news, but the link appears nonetheless alongside other content.  Truthful pieces and hoaxes look exactly the same on your Facebook "newsfeed": a square picture with a white rectangle attached to the bottom, containing a title and, underneath, a caption.  The name of the website appears in small letters in the fine print.  Overloaded by information, it passes as legitimate to the consumer. It's hard to tell the difference between real and faux. Oftentimes misinformation and fake news cite one another and weave an intricate web of falsehoods.  Clickbait headlines and sensationalized titles meant for cheap ratings have undermined the news and the value of the truth.  Fake news gets more clicks than real news, thus driving traffic and allowing for a website to sell advertising and make more money.  It's simple economics from their perspective. There lies an inherent conflict of interest where factually-devoid information gets more clicks and is  more profitable than "real" news. Sensationalized stories become the norm.

Compounding the issue is an algorithm by Facebook that links the user to related content.  That means if you click a link on your "newsfeed", similar sites and stories and articles will be 'recommended' to you in a box that materializes underneath.  It works well for online shopping, and terribly for political articles.  This creates an echo-chamber in which the user only views material which confirms their already-biased worldview.  The user isn't exposed to contrary viewpoints and delves further into polarizing content.  People pull further away from one another.

Facts and evidence simply aren't important in the post-truth world.  Appeals to emotion and belief are now the norm.  What you feel and what you believe and your raw inner emotions are all that matter.  When an article triggers those emotions, one is likely to share and believe it. While there have always been fringe beliefs in society, never have they been normalized and entered the mainstream.  The ascension of Donald Trump to President of the USA is the harbinger of the post-truth era.  Never has a politician distorted the truth so flagrantly, so flippantly cast aside facts and logic.  He makes wild claims which are demonstrably untrue on a regular basis.  His rabid throngs of supporters gleefully regurgitate ridiculous claims in chants and angry yells.  With no moderator of content on a rapidly evolving internet, false information is proliferated with stunning ease.  

The normalization and mass acceptance of conspiracy theory is yet another marker of the post-truth era.  Americans especially believe and engage in conspiracy at an alarming rate.  A significant number of these conspiracies and untruths are new-age Russian propaganda, literally.  The election of Barack Obama ignited conspiracies from the fringe of the internet to the mainstream of political discourse, with the election of Donald Trump as the ultimate signal that truth no longer has value in the United States.  From the birther conspiracy to the 9/11 "truther" movement, to the idea that Sandy Hook was a so-called "false flag" orchestrated by the US Government to seize Americans' guns, institute martial law and send Americans to FEMA death camps, and even in the denial of climate change and evolution, conspiracy theory has infiltrated US culture and society and become widely accepted belief.  

The truth no longer matters.  Take Donald Trump's ludicrously false claims that President Barack Obama is a secret Kenyan Muslim, for example.  Trump claimed, without evidence, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.  He whipped millions of angry denizens into a fury, forcing the President to release his long-form birth certificate in a surreal press conference.  Here's the issue: Trump continued to repeat his lie, even after Obama released the proof.  Beyond a shadow of a doubt, what he was spreading was a lie. For years after the release, he continued to promulgate his post-truth claim.  Amazingly enough, a huge percentage of his supporters continue to believe this absolutely false notion.  A complete and total lie is now permanently implanted in many minds, regardless of all proof and evidence to the contrary.

Another egregious example of post-truth is found in Trump's unabashedly false claim that he won the popular vote.  Indeed, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the election of 2016 by nearly 3 million votes.  It is quite simply an undeniable fact.  Trump says, however, that he actually won the popular vote because 3 million people in CA, NH, and VA voted illegally.  This conspiracy began on infowars.com, a conspiracy website.  Although there is literally no shred of evidence or proof to corroborate his claim, he blasts his ideas through Twitter and millions of his followers believe him.  Stunningly, rather than having to prove his allegations of illegality, he shifts the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused.  He said that it is our duty to prove that millions of people didn't vote illegally.  What's false is initially true until it can be "proven" otherwise.   In the era of post-truth, we are guilty until proven innocent. 

Climate change denial is the classic example of post-truth.  97% of scientists agree that climate change is real, and caused by humans.  There is an overwhelming amount of evidence to delineate the issue and its effects.  Yet the Republican party flatly deny the concept of industrialized human society playing a role in the process.  In light of the fact that the entire planet believe this is a serious issue, it's especially conspicuous for one group to adamantly deny the facts and evidence. Of course, the prime motivator behind this is economic: increased regulation and transition to green energy is an economic disaster for fossil fuel industry.  The Republican Party overwhelmingly support said industry.  It's the way in which the populace at large is persuaded which is truly a trait of the post-truth era.  

In the post-truth era, the government actively spreads misinformation through social media and viewed primarily through smartphones

In the post-truth era, the government actively spreads misinformation through social media and viewed primarily through smartphones

The head of the House Science, Space, and Technology re-tweeted a preposterous climate denial article from misinformation-factory Breitbart.  Completely devoid of context or long term trends, the article claimed that "land temperatures have dropped", and thus climate change does not exist.  Obviously, temperature and climate are not at all the same, and the article is easily debunked.  Misinformation spread through social media is now put forth by legitimate institutions which have always been accepted as truthful by nature of their position.  Authority figures are promulgating patently false notions.  What verifies their claims is misinformation from an appendage of the parallel media apparatus publicized via social media.

The singular most glaring example of post-truth fiction occurred recently.  A Trump surrogate on NPR chillingly stated "There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.  Mr. Trump's tweets among a certain crowd - a large part of the population, are truth." And there you have it: facts no longer exist and appeals to emotion and belief via twitter are truth.  A stunning interview on CNN shows Trump supporters blindly spewing falsehoods based on misinformation and conspiracy.  The population at large are choosing their own realities as if it's a selection on Netflix.

And while a simple Google search could easily debunk these wild conspiracies, most people refuse to do any additional research.  This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the post-truth era; that people primarily accept information which reinforces their worldview - they disregard dissenting opinion.  Simply put, people believe what they want.  Reality is what one believes it to be.  The internet and social media reinforce our biased notions inherently.  People live in a bubble of like-minded thinking.  Objective reasoning and logic are obsolete.  That the President-elect of the United States is the source of this problem only confounds the issue and multiplies it's severity.  I'm not sure how we can function as a society.  Welcome to the post-truth era.

-Adam Mantine

 

Adam MantineComment