Combating “Post-Truth”

President Trump addresses the nation. Photo: Carlos Barria, Reuters

This morning, the United States federal government entered the 21st day of its ongoing shutdown. Federal employees continued to work for free while the President again urged Congress to approve funding for a barrier along the Mexican border. On Tuesday, he took to the airwaves to address the nation face-to-face, painting a picture of the United States as a country under siege by malicious foreign nationals while blaming the Democrats for the shutdown, saying they “[would] not fund border security.”

Except the Democrats have offered $1.3 billion for border security measures, and Trump himself claimed — on national television, no less — that he would “take the mantle” for the shutdown just a month ago.

This incident of presidential untruth and history bending is just one of hundreds that have flowed incessantly from the Oval Office since the beginning of 2017. It has been clear since the early days of his campaign that the President does not concern himself with facts. When his every word is amplified by an acquiescent press, and enough people believe what he’s saying regardless of factual content, why should he confine himself to truthfulness?

In his 2016 book “Post-Truth,” Lee McIntyre confronts similar questions in his exploration of the titular phrase. The extent to which fake news and malicious disinformation have pervaded our society is staggering, leading some to declare that we have entered a “post-truth” era. According to a 2016 Pew poll cited in the book, 44% of US adults get their news from Facebook. Yet the social media giant is far from an ideal place for news. In the three months before the 2016 election, the top 20 fake news stories on Facebook were shared more frequently than the top 20 real stories. In effect, certain segments of American society now believe not only in a different ideological persuasion but a completely separate factual reality.

Of course, the rise of social media and spread of fake news are not the only causes of our shift toward post-truth. Throughout the book, McIntyre suggests several contributing factors that have pushed us away from facts and toward a landscape in which, to quote the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition for “post-truth,” their 2016 Word of the Year, “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Among them are the shift in media toward news-as-entertainment, popular journalism’s practice of awarding equal time to competing perspectives despite unequal grounding in science, and, interestingly, a right-wing cooptation of postmodern theories regarding the construction of reality in order to undermine science.

McIntyre’s exploration of post-truth’s explanatory variables and the cognitive biases that have enabled them to take root is compelling and far-reaching. Yet while “Post-Truth” sufficiently identifies the causes of its subject matter, it fails to provide an adequate roadmap to combat them.

In the final chapter of the book, McIntyre seeks to provide his readers with a blueprint for fighting post-truth. He suggests that we must “always fight back against lies,” regardless of whether those lies are outrageous, and recognize our own cognitive biases in an attempt to shut them down and protect ourselves from fake news. These recommendations are logical, to be sure, but the fact is that they will never be enough to truly combat the political implications of post-truth.

No one wants to live in a post-truth world. All of us, even those who consume and share fake news on the Internet, fancy ourselves logical, free-thinking people who can make our own decisions as to what is true and false. As individuals, we can call out every piece of fake news we encounter ad infinitum, but most of our cries will likely go unheard. Truthfully, most of McIntyre’s readers probably don’t know many people who contribute to the spread of fake news. And when there is no personal relationship between the person sharing fake news and the person decrying it as fake, why should the sharer believe a random person on the internet over one of an ideological like-mind who vehemently agree with the source’s validity?

This gets at the fundamental flaw of the author’s suggestions: he puts too much faith in individual agency, which will never be enough to truly grapple with the political implications of post-truth. McIntyre himself actually acknowledges the political nature of our society’s slide toward post-truth, writing that it has been enabled by the spread of fake news in “a deliberate attempt to get people to react to one’s misinformation, whether for the purpose of profit or power.” In order to mount a serious response, then, we must first recognize that the move toward a post-truth society has been facilitated by those who recognize that they stand to gain from such an environment.

For decades, the narratives of American political discourse have been shaped by powerful interest groups. Certain industries in particular have been enormously successful in controlling the ways in which issues that would threaten their profits are discussed in the media. McIntyre touches on this point in depth in his book, noting that both the tobacco and fossil fuel industries came together to sow public mistrust of the scientific findings that would endanger their business model if left unchallenged. The fossil fuel example is particularly pertinent, as its disinformation campaign continues to this day, providing a perfect example of how those with power benefit toward a societal shift away from facts. Rather than claiming that climate change is not occurring, the industry has for decades put forth its own “experts” who claim that it is impossible to know whether climate change is truly caused by human activity. By convincing media to give equal airtime to climate scientists and skeptics in the interest of “fairness,” the industry has created the illusion that both views are equally grounded in fact despite nearly all experts agreeing that climate change is indeed human-caused.

All of this is to say that powerful interests have long understood that public opinion can be controlled simply by presenting a narrative — the factual content of that narrative is irrelevant. Trump provides a great example — all he has to do is send out a Tweet saying he was wiretapped by President Obama and the media will cover it for weeks. Did this really happen? It doesn’t matter. The President said it did, the media amplified it to a national audience, and by the time the pundits concluded it was false, the President’s supporters had already made up their minds. Those who control the narrative wield great power.

But the narrative can be controlled to our benefit, too. Consider the impact that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has had on the national discourse since being elected to Congress. Shortly after her swearing-in, she appeared on 60 Minutes to speak about a Green New Deal and a 70% tax rate on the highest income bracket. Almost overnight, the Green New Deal has skyrocketed to national attention, and some establishment Democrats have voiced their support for her proposed tax increase on the wealthy. It’s clear that progressive politics can shape our national dialogue when presented articulately and fairly. Democrats have attempted to fight Trump’s lies with fact-checks since his campaign, and what have they accomplished? It’s time for those on the Left to shape the narrative themselves, presenting a bold alternative rather than attempting to ground Trumpian discourse in factual reality. To the extent that many Democrats are will be to do so, it becomes incumbent upon the grassroots Left to build political power in order to shift the party leftward.

If a bold Left response is the answer to the “power” element of the fake news equation, it is also important to touch on the “profit” motive. As previously mentioned, almost half of American adults get their news from Facebook. What can be done to prevent fake news from spreading there, apart from calling it out when we see it? McIntyre recognizes the underlying issue, writing that “it is unclear whether Facebook can (or wants to) do anything” about it. Any attempt to regulate fake news may result in users leaving the platform, driving down profits for Facebook shareholders and executives.

Yet the author again fails to provide a solution to the problem he identifies. It seems obvious that we must have a national conversation on the merits of allowing a for-profit business to account for so much of our daily lives. If Facebook is unwilling to police the content posted on its site, perhaps we must consider ways in which the platform can be broken down and restructured in a more democratically-oriented fashion. Such a thing may seem politically impossible at the moment, but the Overton window has never been shifted by silence.

It’s simply not enough for us as individuals to fact-check each and every piece of information we consume and call out those which are fake. While these may be good practices, they ultimately amount to little more than an adaptation to a post-truth world without challenging the underlying structural forces that have allowed our society to make such a shift. We must instead use facts to steer the national discourse away from authoritarians and toward those ideas that stand to benefit us all. If Trump can control the narrative by speaking it into existence, why can’t the Left?

“Post-Truth” by Lee McIntyre is published by the MIT Press as part of their “Essential Knowledge” series.