In mid-to-late 2016, an emerging narrative began to claim that we had entered a world in which truth no longer carried the weight and significance that it once did. The notion of post-truth, which had lain dormant for at least a decade, would go on to become the word of that year. In the months that followed, post-truth quickly became an irresistible, if dystopian, frame for understanding what many recognized as a crisis of liberal democracy. Scientists around the world began marching for facts as if their lives depended on it. Paeans to the internet and social media dissipated in the din about fake news and filter bubbles. Postmodernism and constructivism regained their popularity as punching bags, with journalists and others penning scorching indictments.
Ever since the narrative took hold, several intellectuals and academics have attempted to articulate what distinguishes the allegedly post-truth era. Many have followed the Oxford Dictionaries in invoking a greater role for emotions, beliefs, or opinions than objective facts. Others, such as James Ball, have likened post-truth to “bullshit”. We are no longer certain about what true or false mean, they claim. Yael Brahms, in an in-depth examination of post-truth published this year, has characterized post-truth in terms of our inability to “clarify the reality in order to understand it and in order to function within it on the basis of facts…”. The culprits invoked by intellectuals for ushering in the post-truth era are many, ranging from filter bubbles induced by social media to postmodernism’s assault on objectivity.
But something does not quite add up about the definitions of post-truth and about the stories that explain its supposed rise. Aren’t most of us awaiting a coronavirus vaccine eagerly? Aren’t we addicted to cars and smartphones? Don’t we seek cover on receiving a weather alert about an impending tornado? Experts armed with facts and using a scientific approach are behind almost everything that we take for granted in our modern lives. There is no indication that we have begun renouncing those comforts because we have become confused about facts or allergic to expertise. Indeed, survey after survey shows that science and scientists enjoy great trust among publics around the world, as is strikingly evident during these times of the pandemic. Why and how are these observations compatible with a post-truth world? On which basis, and in which contexts, can we claim that we are no longer able to separate fact from opinion or truth from lies?
Certainly, many or most of us may favor facts that confirm our biases. There is no doubt, too, that facts about contentious issues such as climate change pass through filters of culture and politics. Even so, it is not as if all climate sceptics reject science or facts in themselves: after all, many are well-educated professionals. Arguments denying anthropogenic climate change may be based on poor science, but they nevertheless invoke the authority of science. If anything, the pre-eminence of science and facts is acknowledged more and more, even in parts of the world where tradition and mythology once reigned supreme. Perhaps this explains why Lee McIntyre has argued that the post-truth era is about some facts being favored over others based on political or subjective considerations. But, arguably, this is not a new phenomenon.
Some questions about post-truth were, clearly, either not asked or not answered convincingly, especially early on. Was there ever a “truth world” and, if so, when did it exist and what were its attributes? What is the basis for proclaiming the apparently abrupt transition to a post-truth world? Is post-truth a universal phenomenon or primarily a regional one? Sheila Jasanoff and Hilton R. Simmet did caution early on against ringing the funeral bells of truth prematurely. But such voices were never prominent in the mainstream media, which privileged more conformist voices that explained post-truth without threatening to undermine its premises. Such voices were happy to simply accept the new era as a given, busying themselves with uncovering its causes and suggesting remedies.
In the past two years, however, critical scrutiny of post-truth has begun gathering steam, offering a wealth of perspectives on the notion. For example, Robert Mejia and colleagues have questioned the nostalgia for the apparently simpler days of yore, charging the post-truth narrative with ignoring the complex and problematic histories of democracies. Peter Dahlgren has reminded us that filter bubbles, which have long characterized the media’s reporting on post-truth, are something of a “tenacious myth”. Kathrin Braun has identified and problematized several attributes that are supposed to be distinctive about the post-truth era. She has identified the tendency of the dominant post-truth narrative to rejuvenate old dichotomies, such as objective vs. subjective, facts vs. values and reactionary vs. progressive.
Importantly, Braun has also noted how the apparently enlightened, liberal sections of society found themselves “conveniently placed on the side of the good with no further need to question their own…biases and blind spots…” Indeed, intellectual conversations in mainstream and social media during the past few years reveal a group of often-self-righteous elite academics, journalists, and others who portray themselves as marginalized victims. Further, as Braun has suggested, the post-truth phenomenon – to the extent that it captures something real – may be specific to the US context and not necessarily indicative of global currents. But American experience is easily universalized, and it seems to have been no different with the post-truth narrative, which was seized on eagerly by many European liberals as an interpretive lens.
Post-truth, Fake news and Democracy, published late last year, is a crucial contribution to problematizing the notion of post-truth and the understanding of democracy implicit in it. Authors Johan Farkas and Jannick Schou draw on rich empirical material to explore what they term as post-truth worlds – articulations of “how, why and in what ways democratic practices” are under fire. The authors show that there are multiple discourses about what democracy, post-truth, fake news, and alternative facts mean, how they are related, what caused them, and what is to be done about them. Yet, common to most discourses is what they term as “democratic eschatology” – the contention that democracy is doomed to decline, be destroyed, and ultimately disappear. In turn, this eschatology is nourished by the implicit assumption that the survival of democracy is contingent on the thriving of truth and reason.
The book’s main message is unambiguous: democracy has never been about truth alone and insisting otherwise would do little to revitalize it. In fact, this insistence may end up sacrificing the truly radical possibilities of democracy – participation and politics – at the altar of reason and facts. As Farkas and Schou note, the dominant post-truth narrative is premised on democracy doing generally fine until “the villains of post-truth very recently derailed it.” But the history of democracy, even relatively recent history, is far more complex. Drawing on the work of the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, among others, Farkas and Schou situate the current predicament of democracy in the context of the changes that liberal democracies have been experiencing for decades. For example, neoliberalism successfully sapped the vitality of people and politics by privileging instrumental rationality and technocracy. As Catherine Happer has also noted, the wider context for the crisis in public trust and the feeling of powerlessness among a section of the public is “the common experience of neoliberalism in the West.”
The cures for the perceived malady of post-truth range from naming and shaming the uninformed or the irrational to unleashing technology and reinstating the authority of science. Farkas and Schou argue convincingly that these cures might end up being worse than the malady – not least because the malady itself appears to be misdiagnosed. For example, blaming the naïve masses and discrediting their grasp of “the truth” could help rationalize governance by the elite and the effacement of real and necessary political conflicts. Looking to technology as a savior could further entrench depoliticization and postpone the difficult work of understanding the sources of public dissatisfaction. Putting science back on the pedestal – if at all it ever left it – risks cementing the notion of truth as the preserve of elite and powerful institutions. Especially when an ignorant public is blamed for the supposed erosion of scientific authority.
What is needed instead, Farkas and Schou emphasize, is “another way of understanding both the democratic tradition as well as politics and the political.” This way would not focus on recovering the supposedly lost glory of truth by approaches that border on the post-political, are technocratic, or are based on an idealized notion of democracy. Instead, it would embrace politics as an inherently and inevitably conflictual endeavor and seek to expand the democratic avenues for harnessing the creative potential of conflicts. By linking the current predicament to global capitalism, Farkas and Schou turn the question of truth into one of “equality, universality, recognition and care.” The need for such reframing is just as pertinent in the impending post-Trump era, not least because he was the favored candidate of more than 70 million voters. The fractures that preceded Trump and that were amplified during his time are unlikely to heal following the victory of Joe Biden.
Given the critical work on post-truth during the last year or so, it is worth asking why the post-truth bandwagon could career along unchecked for so many years. One answer is that Brexit and the election of Donald Trump proved to be too tumultuous to allow reflection. The unthinkable had happened and it demanded an explanation, an immediate response. If Trump was exceptional, a clean break with the past, then so must be the era he symbolized. The journalist Glenn Greenwald did contend, well before the election, that Trump’s policies were “not anathema to U.S. mainstream but an uncomfortable reflection of it.” But the liberal mainstream was in no mood to accept this, as is evident from the apparent inability of the Democratic Party to be genuinely introspective and from its obsession with hostile external actors.
The events of 2016 were worrisome in many respects and the social and political changes leading up to them did deserve to be explored. But, in that charged atmosphere, alternative frames of analysis – for example, a crisis of (neo)liberalism or, indeed, global capitalism – were set aside for positing a crisis of truth. A massive edifice of thought and action was built rapidly on the foundation of an inadequately tested hypothesis. Post-truth has undoubtedly served as a sense-making notion or what Kathrin Braun has termed an ordering device, “a concept that serves as a means to create order in a complicated world.” But, while it may illuminate some aspects of reality, Braun rightly reminds us that the concept may obscure others and that it reveals something about those who coined the term and are using it.
There could be other reasons as to why the post-truth bandwagon could proceed unchallenged. It has certainly been safer to be on the wagon than off it, for non-conformity tends to entail substantial personal and professional costs. The post-truth narrative has also provided ammunition to those who have always looked to discredit constructivist or interpretive traditions of knowledge, or traditions that investigate the links between truth and power. Indeed, as Farkas and Schou note, a caricature of postmodernism has often served as a convenient strawman. It could also be that the disciplines that typically engage in critical enquiry are simply unprepared for, or unwilling to, adjust to the quickly shifting timescales of debate in a digital world. Whatever the reason, critical voices have been largely marginal.
How the post-truth narrative evolves following the exit of Trump remains to be seen. It may well persist, given that the undercurrents that propelled him to power continue to roil. Or, it may peter out as other narratives and issues gain prominence. Whatever happens, its origin and ascent should serve as a reminder that nuanced, context-specific analysis of contemporary issues should never be sacrificed for the security of simplicity.
Note: An abridged, Swedish version of this article was published in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on 1 August 2020.