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25/04/2019 Communication Science news and articles

Escaping post-truth

The Oxford English Dictionary elected ‘post-truth’ to be word of the year. The term can be summarised by “believing in bullshit instead of the truth”.


“There are no facts, only interpretations”—Nietzsche’s philosophical consideration of perceiving one objective reality perfectly matches the Oxford English Dictionary’s elected word of the year 2016: Post-truth. Whereas the dictionary’s definition sounds unnecessarily complicated by talking about objective facts being “less influential in shaping public opinion” and appealing “to emotion and personal belief”, it can be easily summarised by “believing in bullshit instead of the truth” (courtesy of Lukas Graf, 2016, you’re very welcome).

Exploring the deep origins of how such a counterproductive concept would ever be elected word of the year, post-truth as such was first used in an essay published in the early nineties. Its main definition underlies the assumption that nowadays’ society is drawn to believe in ‘facts’ matching their personal preferences, regardless of the information’s validity. Considering recent events around the globe, at least post-truth’s existence seems to be validated. Contemplating Brexit’s and the US elections’ campaigns along with the public’s reactions to it, post-truth is leading the way—in favour of promoting rigged perceptions of reality.

Following this, the Oxford Dictionary reasons to have chosen the word not least due to post-truth’s increased frequency in the context of Brexit and the US presidential elections. Whether it is the Leave campaign claiming that 350 million pounds a week that would usually flow straight to the EU could be spent on national health care, or Trump excoriating stories he simply doesn’t like—post-truth rules! Even though Farage himself revealed his claim to be flawed and many of Trump’s statements were publicly defeated by fact-checkers, a vast amount of people still prefers the falsity matching their beliefs over actual reality.

It feels like post-truth recently reached a level of acceptance similar to the one of natural disasters: The public is deeply aware of it, however there is nothing you can do about it other than accepting it and hoping for it to be over soon. It’s just natural. As if this wasn’t enough, there are renowned dictionaries granting post-truth even more recognition by majestically crowning it “word of the year”. Furthermore, the Oxford dictionary proudly reported that post-truth is used in major publications without the need for any clarification or explanation. In case you didn’t notice right away, this is a subtle euphemism to avoid saying “We noticed that society truly fucked up, but instead of putting any effort into improvement, we deeply acknowledge post-truth’s existence and want to value this new generation’s stupidity even more.”

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-20-30-04

Along with institutional recognition comes public acceptance. Google’s first suggestion popping up when looking for ‘Brexit Healthcare’ is ‘lie’ and a diagram provided by Politifact, a fact-checking organisation specialised in US politics, shows that 70 percent of Trump’s statements range from slightly wrong to complete bullshit. Good times ahead of us! Michael Deacon, satirical writer for The Daily Telegraph, defined the core values of politics in a post-truth society: “Facts are negative. Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic.” Indeed! Rather than coming up with solutions addressing real problems, why not create the illusion of a perfect reality on campaign leaflets and blame everybody else for everything else?

The PolitiFact scorecard for Donald Trump
The PolitiFact scorecard for Donald Trump

Without a doubt, social media are not exactly positively contributing to overcome post-truth. Clickbait-oriented media outlets are flourishing and becoming more refined in how to reach out to their readership. The ‘filter bubble’ allows ideologists of all types to stick together and cut out their opponent’s posts and opinions. Despite the initial goal of facilitating interconnection and exchange, social media encourage isolation and separation more than ever before. Blaming scapegoats is easy, especially when inter-group communication is non-existent. For the same reason, fake-facts circulate with ease and hardly get refuted or countered by the opposition.

Frankly, electing society’s stupidity ‘word of the year’ should be worrying. On the other hand, considering recent years’ elected Oxford favourites such as “selfie” (2013) and “?” (2015—This isn’t even a word!) makes me gain confidence in the fact that the world is not ultimately defined by academic institutions presenting idiocy in words on a yearly basis. However, post-truth as an acknowledged way of believing in bullshit is worrying. Assuming that “there are no facts, only interpretations”, you might as well think before interpreting.

Cover: Gage Skidmore (Modified by the author)

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