Post-truth age, implicitly and explicitly, denotes the loss of truth, narrative and meaning. Thereafter, truth is merely a relic, an artifact, a notion, an “alternative fact”. The spectacles generated and proliferated in such a worldview, are devoid of even a modicum of fact. The spectacles are so grand that the residual “narrative” is bereft of the last smidgen of truth.
If post-modernism was about losing the grand-narrative, post-truth is about the triumph of grandeur, over narrative. The grandeur, or the spectacle of the lie, trumps empirical facts. In such a worldview actual facts are supplanted by meaningless twaddles, and feelings supersede evidence; only the appeal of the grand, to the ocular excels. That is to say, we don’t need truth, or narrative; what survives thereafter is just the aesthetics of grandeur.
Trump and Brexit
While many believe that the election of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States, or the Brexit referendum were imperative to the phenomenon of Post Truth, many political critics see these moments as instances; baring the effects of the age of Post-Truth. One critic says, “Post-truth only recently entered the political lexicon, but the trend it describes has been around for some time. It was there in the build-up to Iraq … The same happened in the EU referendum. Leavers promised the moon on a stick …”.
In effect, Dunt says that this new period is merely a protraction and aggravation of the pre-existing condition wherein, “reality is not just overruled, but made effectively irrelevant”. Seemingly, lies and deceptions have been an intrinsic part of politics for its propagandist function and pedagogical function, Plato credited Socrates for his ideas of deception, as a “noble lie”. Similarly, Machiavelli asks the ruler to enact as “a great pretender and dissembler” in The Prince. However, political critic Mathew D’Acona says, “Yet political lies, spin and falsehood are emphatically not the same as Post-Truth. What is new is not the mendacity of politicians but the public’s response to it” in the “Digital Bazaar”. He further adds:
“Trump was never a sympathetic candidate. The opinion polls showed that the American people were perfectly aware of his character flaws. But he communicated a brutal empathy to them, rooted not in statistics, empiricism or meticulously acquired information, but an uninhibited talent for rage, impatience and attribution of blame. The assertion that he was ‘plain speaking’ did not mean – as it might have in the past – “he is speaking the truth”. In 2016, it meant: ‘this candidate is different and might just address my anxieties and hopes.”
Mathew D’Acona locates the problem elsewhere; he sees politicians like Donald Trump, Theresa May, Jair Bolsanaro or Narendra Damodardas Modi as merely symptoms, and not causes.
Contrarily, it is more interesting to see the reception of these iterations with the backdrop of this “Digital Bazaar”. He says, “So it is tempting to ascribe the rise of Post-Truth to rise of Trump. Tempting, and wrong. If this crisis of veracity could be blamed upon a single political sociopath, the problem would be containable and time related… But Trump is more symptom than cause.”
Transformation of the Digital Landscape
The age of digitisation and global interconnectedness has opened us to an age where emoticons claim primacy over truth. While the political lie is not a new phenomenon, it is different from political-lies in the past, so far as how it is conceived by its audience. Also, the age of new-media and the medium in itself, makes these political lies all pervasive. The grandeur of political-lies in itself makes it plausible for its audience to believe.
Analogous to this age is the absolute transformation of digital landscape. Here, the user’s interaction with the electronic media is not passive, as the electronic media in itself, has become more engaging than ever before. It is difficult to imagine life without Google, Facebook, and Instagram which has become a part of our everyday social existence; so much so that we have taken electronic media and its repercussions for granted. Its benefits aside, it has also become a platform for creating smartmobs, trolls, organised hacking networks, and meddling with elections, among other issues. Moreover, the “big five” – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft – now hold unprecedented amount of information. Information is power, will definitely be the profound proverbial saying for this age. In every interaction, we tell them a little more about ourselves. The business model is to give free content in exchange for personal data, which can be monetized – economically, or politically. Post Truth age is also one that has made the distinction of economic and political gains obscure. Information gathered in this age, as can be seen in the Cambridge Analytica, can be used to affect national elections and can have global resonances on politics and policy.
In an Indian context, Facebook and Whatsapp play a big role in the elections, so much so, that Mark Zuckerberg said that he “wants to help countries around the world, including India, to conduct free and fair elections”. It is amusing to hear a corporation, whose sole aspiration is profit and its fiduciary duties towards its shareholders, talk about “help” to the state. In savage irony, one grasps, that the state with all infrastructural resources at its disposal has the prerogative and means of creating grand and spectacular lie in a post-truth world.
While the big players in the digital bazaar hold immense power, the information in this bazaar, is also one without veracity. Consequently, there is a cacophony in the digital bazaar with peer to peer interaction, as opposed to traditional press disseminating information, which leads to a pandemonious bazaar. This frenetic chaos is perfect for unscrupulous information to thrive: click-baits, unscientific medical reposts, conspiracy theories, fictional sightings etc. You can pick your “truth” from a table d’hôte menu: the price is predetermined, and you have limited choices to pick your version of “truth”. By dispensing falsehoods as “truth” the age of Post Truth seamlessly squash privacy, democracy and financial protocols.
Bernard Williams, in “Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy”, explains this nature of internet that “supports that mainstay of all villages, gossip. It constructs proliferating meeting places for the free and unconstructed exchange of messages which bear a variety of claims, fancies and suspicions, entertaining, superstitious, scandalous, or malign. The chances that many of these messages will be true are low, and the probability that the system itself will help anyone to pick out the true ones is even lower” (216).
Moreover, often, people with opposing viewpoints are called trolls and their falsehoods ignored. These falsehoods languish in the digital space, just as we languish in our own “echo chamber” or “filter bubble”. D’Acona says:
“This, it should be emphasised, is not a design flaw. It is what the algorithms are meant to do: to connect us with things we like, or might like … The web is the definitive vector of Post Truth, precisely because it is indifferent to falsehood, honesty and the difference between the two” (53).
While iterations of leaders like Trump and his ilk, can be symptomatic of the age of Post Truth, yet, the sanction of creating grand spectacles lies with the state and those at the helm of power. They continue to use media and propagate their lies to affect public policy. For instance, as of November 2018, Pulitzer Prize winning website Politifact, Trump had already made 6420 false or misleading claims over 649 days. In the UK, Theresa May continues to peddle unsubstantiated information about how breaking up from the EU (Brexit) will boost UK’s economy, something that political critic Luke McGee calls, “economically illiterate and downright dangerous” McGee 2019, CNN). After the corruption scandal in Brazil, in 2018 after pervasive corruption and rising unemployment, far right figure Jair Bolsonaro was elected as the new President. Bolsanaro’s election campaign was marked with production and dissemination of “fake news” and his sexist, homophobic, racist and xenophobic rants. In Russia, Putin and the state-run media continues to proliferate falsehoods that attune to Kremlin’s propaganda machinery, affecting both national and international politics.
Unbridled Liberty of the State
While one can cite multitudes of example of Post-Truth affecting national and international politics, interestingly the German government in 2017 asked tech companies to engage in rigorous fact checks. Mired in statistical data, while the results of such measures still remain uncertain, in 2018 Facebook expanded its fact-checking to 17 countries.
However, as mentioned before, the state enjoys unbridled liberty and its power becomes all pervasive in a Post Truth world. The state is the arbitrator of information, and states resort to law is never without violence.
French philosopher Jacques Derrida too suggests that there is an intricate relationship between control of the archive and political power. He suggests that since archives, or the records of the past, determine what can be known about the past, to control the archive is to regulate the kind of stories that can be told about a place or people. He says: “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by one essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution and its interpretation.”
Moreover, the archives are not sacrosanct – it can be added to, deleted from, and reinterpreted. Hence, Derrida raises important questions about what we do with archives: what do they comprise of, who accesses them and to what effect? Additionally, what do these archives do towards a process of democratization and producing more inclusive visions of society?
Effectively, the function of the state is to naturalise its own interest to be the interest of the people. Hence, it naturalises the interest of the elite and those in position of power, to present it as the larger interest. In our frenetic digital Bazaar, this entails spreading abundance of lies as spectacles.
That said, the age of Post Truth opens us to the possibilities of collectivising, through the very algorithms that create “echo chambers.”. The need is to move away from regressive masculine hate mongering, towards ethical vigilantism. This entails that one must callout instances of post-truth sensationalism collectively to check lie-mongering. Collectives of ethical vigilantism, that allows the collective of callout instances of post-truth sensationalism and lie-mongering, is a different order of political awareness and, a different template of political consciousness that this current political moment requires. This is the way forward to mitigate with an age which epitomizes loss of truth.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
The author is a Ph.D. student at JNU (Delhi). He works on protest politics, education, and contemporary political issues. Akash was a Charles Wallace fellow-in-residence (2018) at King’s College London and a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Kansas (2013-14). He can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org.