“Post-truth” has topped the Online Oxford Dictionary’s list as word of the year. Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” First used in 1992 by Serbian-American author Steve Tesich in an essay about Iran-Contra and the Persian Gulf war, “post-truth” has seen a surge in searches in the online. Unsurprisingly, given this year’s historic political votes in both the USA and the UK, it was the most-searched term on both sides of the pond. Oxford Dictionaries President Casper Grathwohl commented by saying “I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our times.”
- Fact Checking
The strongest illustration of our post-truth world is the complete disregard for fact-checking. During the U.S. presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton struggled to shed an image of dishonesty. Democrat voters were left tearing their hair out at the amount of wishy-washy unfounded claims Trump could get away with. Fact-checking website Politifact trawled through Clinton and her opponent’s speeches and came to the following conclusion: Clinton came in top position with 72 true statements compared to Trump’s 14 true statements. Clinton’s 29 false statements paled in comparison to Trump’s 113 false statements. Perhaps this type of a post would not be shared on a Republican’s Facebook feed, but more likely, it would be dismissed as “liberal media lies.” Dismissing facts is something Trump encourages his followers to do. Despite losing the popular vote to Clinton by 2.5 million votes, he continued to suggest in a series of Tweets that “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” and therefore encouraging his followers to believe in conspiracy theories. How do we overcome an inherent confirmation bias?
- Framing Stories
Whilst fact checking is incredibly important, facts do not sell without stories. The second issue in a post-truth world is of misleading framing issues. The EU Referendum was meant to determine whether British citizens wanted to remain or leave the European Union. Their votes would determine whether UK should regain regulatory and legislative rights, and economic and trade independence, or remain a top partner and decider of EU infrastructures. Unfortunately, regaining autonomy in an interconnected world is a myth in itself. The argument for sovereignty ignores the fact that Norway and Switzerland follow most EU laws despite not being a part of the European Union, and doing so helps increase trade with their European neighbours. I write this even though I am also critical of the current functioning of the European Union. Legislation is not interesting to talk about, so, instead, the Leave campaign framed the referendum around immigration and stress on the NHS. EU immigrants contribute over £2bn a year in taxes, but were blamed for stress on the NHS. Leave voters were promised £350m a week to go towards the NHS instead of the European Union after the negotiations. Only one hour after the referendum results, Nigel Farage retracted this claim. Whereas Leave voters hoped the referendum would slow down immigration to the UK, Tory MEP Daniel Hannan then announced another hour later that immigration would not even be impacted. This means that two key arguments for the Leave campaign were denied the same morning the campaign won. How can the EU Referendum have been an example of democracy, when British citizens were knowingly kept misinformed and misled?
- Science Writers and Expressing Fact
Post-truths are not simply confined to politics. It can be difficult for readers to distinguish which pieces of research are meaningful without the hindsight of long-term studies. Speaking to Vanity Fair, New York Editor David Remnick recalls a recent conversation with a despondent President Barack Obama: “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.” The same can be said of the organic vs GMO debate. Aldi was recently praised for shifting to all-organic produce. However, for years scientists and science writers have been fighting to inform and argue that organic produce is not necessarily better than genetically modified food. Going as far back as 2007, researcher and science writer Alan Dagour said “there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.” Yet the industry continues to grow. As the New Scientist reports, “farming is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Because yields are lower, organic farms require more land (…) The most promising technology for reducing farming emissions is genetic modification.” A common misconception is that organic food does not contain pesticides, or if it does it contains better pesticides—which is false. Writing for the Scientific American, evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained “organic pesticides hold the same health risks as non-organic ones.” Furthermore, buying organic does not mean that your food is healthier or more nutritious, as “gene-edited crops can be genetically indistinguishable from conventional crops.”
This past year has seen a proliferation of fake news, both political and scientific. In fact, Facebook struggled with fake news so much during the U.S. election that it had to reorganise its algorithms to attempt to weed out false stories. Unfortunately, the echo-chamber effect in which you only receive stories that mirror your own views is strong enough to keep you blindsided by the actual outcome of votes. It would be callous to ignore the outcomes of this year’s post-truth statements, be it the UK’s post-Brexit economic crash, or the surge in hate crimes in the US post-Trump election. However, depending which side of the political spectrum you fall, your news consumption may paint the same story in shockingly different lights. Whereas we all want to tell the truth and read the truth, sometimes our biases may restrict us from achieving that. So, how do we overcome our own biases? How do we argue with people we disagree with in a way that is not emotionally and mentally depleting? How do we spread the truth? If you use Chrome as your browser, you can consider downloading the extension Verify which informs you whether the websites you are visiting are likely to contain fake news. You can also request Verify to investigate new posts, and the extension does not save your data. Finally, I believe now is the time when organisations like The Norwich Radical are needed more than ever. Online social activists going against the grain like Kat Blaque and Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey are needed more than ever. We need events like our upcoming War Of Words Progressive Media Conference. I wish I had more answers on how to fight back, but for now, I urge us to keep having difficult conversations. In between those conversations, remember to take breaks to look out for your own mental health.