Do We Live in a Post-Truth Era?

Lauren Reiff
Dec 24, 2019 · 8 min read
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Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

In the past four years, the words “Fake News” have mounted a major invasion of the cultural zeitgeist. Propelled into national discourse during Donald Trump’s campaign circuit in 2016, “Fake News” would eventually become a partisan war cry. On the advent of the second decade of the 21st century we speak in pontificating tones about the absolutely sure insanity of the opposite side of the political aisle, bemoan living in a “post-truth” era, and shake our heads over what we label as the “unprecedented” nature of our times.

Needless to say, the tussle between the media, political class, and polarized citizens seems to define our present juncture in history. As a consequence of media becoming politically segregated and having its reputation maligned (by politicians and citizens alike!) the overall trust conferred on the media has crumbled. There is no shortage of thinkpieces on the fake news phenomenon, nor on the comparatively more recent “post-truth” argument.

But what defines most of this content is the ubiquitous underlying political bias. Thus, those that concur with the political bent present might walk away from such articles with a smug air about them, feeling quite satisfied with their intellectual concern over truth in this “troubling” new era. Those that disagree with the political bent, on the other hand, are likely to feel a wash of annoyance, turned-off by the sanctimonious tones, and will react by sighing and x-ing out their tab.

This kind of secondary commentary — news about news stories — actually exacerbates the situation because of its unshakable political biases. It can further alienate people by rustling up potent emotions such as trust, disgust, and even outrage. Needless to say, it doesn’t neutrally address the issue and the cultural components that help contribute to “fake news” and the “post-truth era” as much as it just tosses the blame on the opposing side. If you merely cast blame on the other side, however, you are no further ahead. You’ve only deepened your own entrenchment on your side of the political battelines (and if that was the whole point, that should be revealing).

This obsession over truth and lies, facts and alternative facts, science and ideology underscores just how much mutual trust has fractured in our nation. With it we risk losing perspective, respect, and cultural equanimity. It’s worth asking why and how this came to be, without first accusing the opposing political side of intentional sabotage.

‘Fake News’ Isn’t Recent

Contrary to what most people think, fake news isn’t an “unprecedented” or “new” phenomenon. It has plagued civilizations for centuries in some form or another. Neither is a battle over “objective truth” uncharted territory. When we speak of being in a “post-truth” era, such a statement presumes that we once really had it. Such a label paints the past with nostalgia and the future with apocalyptic dread.

This is a bit of a simplistic picture to construct, not to mention, it naively assumes that the reflexive instinct of humans is to seek out the unvarnished truth. (From this line of thinking, the era of fake news has corrupted this noble human instinct). But the search for “truth” isn’t as innate as we think. We’re far more likely to attach ourselves to ideologies than we are to messy reality. We prefer vibrant narratives over dispassionate facts and we’re drawn to tales that clearly delineate an us vs. them dynamic.

What this also means is that we care about winning more than we care about preserving the virtue of so-called “objective truth”. The latter is hard to do — and it doesn’t necessarily come natural to us. We have to choose it, and work towards it, and in many cases, to fight against our primitive instincts welling up inside of us.

Now-famous author Yuval Harari puts forth the following distillation of this dilemma in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:

“As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it — and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it.”

He’s quite right in this observation. It is almost like a breath of fresh air to realize that in most cases, people are really only trying to control the world rather than to understand it. (And there’s a good chance that includes you too.) This observation makes the political environment more intelligible by revealing the true motives embedded in human nature and eliminating some of the cognitive discomfort that arises from thinking your political opponents suffer from some especially grievous vein of ignorance. (When really, we all just want to order the world as we see fit.)

And so, “fake news” isn’t so much a problem confined to the modern era as we think. In fact, it masquerades in a thousand different forms all around us. The problem is, we’ve only learned to obsess over it in the form of political news that doesn’t square with our ideologies.

For example, radical political creeds such as fascism or communism have attracted millions of adherents over the years. Their promised glories never materialized and their statist systems inevitably collapsed in rubble. But people once believed in them! And this was largely due to charismatic leaders and obedient media that trotted out lies that looked like truth.

A more innocuous example of “fake news” is misleading advertising. Product ads deliberately shape our perceptions for commercial gain — instead of working towards what is actually “true” about their company or merchandise. That’s just the way the world works. Take, for example, tobacco ads in decades past which were intent on equating smoking to being cool and sophisticated when in fact, it cut years off one’s life span.

So, it’s established that neither “fake news” nor “post-truth” are especially unique to the 21st century. The question still remains, however, have they actually gotten worse? And if so, how?

What has caused it?

Much of our current squabbling over truth can be credited to political segregation — which, in this case, is more of a recent phenomenon. Everyone has likely heard the following explanations before: Coastal citizens in urban areas are disconnected from “flyover country”, liberals watch CNN and conservatives watch Fox News, and income inequality further aggravates political polarization.

All of these explanations are perfectly plausible. There’s also the social media argument — or the idea that this particular explosive 21st century medium exploits some of our worst instincts. Which, to be fair, it does. The impersonal communication aspect of it means that we’re less likely to tame our language or try to wrap our argument up in civil tones.

In addition, the Internet can make us unkind and confrontational, pouncing for conflict. Packaging political news into social media format necessarily reduces it down to its most shocking, eye-catching elements. In a world of diminishing attention spans, managing to wrest a pair of eyes onto your content and maximize its spread is a competition of ruthless proportions.

Reduced attention spans do mean, however, that we’re less apt to sift through more words to get a handle on a political perspective or current event. Simply take a look at the magazine ads of yesteryear: They’re invariably filled with paragraphs of text which would be unthinkable in today’s visually-drunk media terrain. In a world where we drown in excess information every day, most of us have a hyper-developed habit of reduction. (And it’s less common that news outlets merely present information to us than it is that they’ve learned to reduce it (as they see fit) into something that we like.)

And when we read something, our innate suspicion-thermometer tries to deduce what side it’s trying to take — because it nearly always takes one. After all, what politically neutral news outlet can you think of that exists today? Realistically speaking, there isn’t one. Everybody knows that most of mainstream media sympathizes with left-wing beliefs and the same is true of Fox News with right-wing beliefs.

The price of information overload

While the above “causes” are fairly uncontroversial, whenever they’re paraded out as explanation for the supposed post-truth epidemic, they fail to answer the question of why exactly political segregation seems to be getting worse. They feel a bit truncated, expected, inadequate. And they are.

The truth is, the fake news fiasco makes people tired. An abundance of information in general drains people. Having to give news outlets that have demonstrated political bias a second chance is tiring in and of itself. People’s energy and motivation to parse what is true from what is false amid the knowledge that one half of the country thinks their views are the result of “ignorance” gets to be exhausting. And none of this should be particularly surprising.

How many people do you know that have abandoned reading the news in the past few years? Why did they do this? Were the events occurring in the world especially bad? Or did reading the news feel futile and frustrating?

As it is, nobody really wants to have to fact-check or to pick through sources. And when people get tired, they naturally retreat to what is most comfortable and unchallenging to them. People sort themselves into their ideological categories and consume their respective media. They latch on to particular narratives and start to feel more defensive about their political loyalties.

You can’t blame people for doing this sort of thing — after all, the emotionally punchy headlines start to inspire weariness, then revulsion and the frequency with which they invade our lives can be start to feel vaguely threatening to the degree that they just want to cut ourselves off from it all.

All of this can be quite self-reinforcing — the isolation, polarization, segregation. And it begs the questions: What follows what? Who’s to blame here? What exactly are we sacrificing as a result of this cultural conflict?

What you end up sacrificing

I will say this: Despite the fact that we humans aren’t naturally very good at deciding to seek out truth, it is still a noble aim to have. I think what people are trying to get at when they attach the label “post-truth” to our current culture is that there is no common goal that both sides of the political aisle are necessarily striving towards. The idea that there even could be a common aspiration seems to have evaporated — and it is this that is the crux of the post-truth argument. There’s a political split whose fault line separates two radically different visions for the U.S.

The social ramifications aren’t pretty. Trust in our fellow citizens has undeniably fragmented and cool-headed respect for the views of others has become replaced by moral convictions in the lunacy of the opposite side. Instead of criticism, outrage is the new normal.

This is all the consequence of a complex interlocking of different factors that motivated people to distrust the media, defend their political allegiances, and to find something so intrinsically nauseating about half of their fellow citizens that the notion of “common ground” sounded like something out of a fairy-tale.

Objective truth is always in danger of being trampled over. Even if it’s difficult to arrive at, it’s important to remember that at the very least, the idea of truth acts as the glue that holds our society together. When you don’t have that common ground (which is different from the tolerance-based ideal of “compromise”) all that you have left is asserting your will over others — that is, power, control, and stamping a set of ideas out of existence.

The problems our society faces aren’t new problems but they are important ones. When people start talking about truth, they’re afraid that the most basic philosophical aim of all is being threatened — but we must be careful in how we hope to resurrect it.

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