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“Post-truth” is a term thrown around when talking about politics nowadays. In fact, it seems to be generally agreed upon that we are headed into a “post-truth era”. But before delving into what that means for us, it’s important that we understand what it is. Although voted Oxford Dictionary’s “word of the year” in 2016, it’s still widely misunderstood. From a compilation of sources, for the purposes of this article, we will be understanding “post-truth” as the unwillingness to engage with other perspectives, and a reluctance to accept that words matter. To put it simply, it’s the concept of careless talking. In our day to day lives, this may not affect us all that much, but when turning to politics, it becomes increasingly important.
Political speech, when detached from factual truth, doesn't aim to convince or persuade an audience. Instead, it creates confusion, anger and disorientation. This can take the form of denying something obvious, or making up an event that never happened. Here, the aim is to usurp “normal” political debates, and direct attention away from a candidate’s policies, making critical analysis impossible. And although similar to regular lies, post-truth refers specifically to lies that can easily be disproven. This would suggest the need to increase fact-checking. At first glance that may seem like the perfect solution, but fact-checking has its downsides.
Firstly, with the rise of social media, it becomes increasingly difficult to control the spread of misinformation and correctly fact-check every piece of information shared. Perhaps the most well known example of this is the spread of “fake news” on Facebook regarding COVID. Anti-vaccine misinformation reportedly reached 59 million followers across the main social media platform, and Facebook has been heavily criticised for failing to control this.
Secondly, we have to wonder if sources we turn to are truly “fact-checking”, or are they merely providing us with data? To understand the difference, we should look at the way we use weather forecasts. We understand the predicted weather will not remain constant throughout the day. Nevertheless, we turn to these predictions in order to decide for ourselves how hot or cold the day will be. If the same principle is applied to fact-checking, a trend in which we look at numbers as indicators of current sentiment, rather than statements about reality arises. This provides the perfect environment for conspiracy theories to prosper. It allows numbers to be shaped and manipulated to fit someone’s version of reality. While we will have far more means of knowing how many people believe these theories, we will have far fewer means of persuading them to abandon them.
We’re left to wonder: is fact-checking necessarily the solution to “post-truth”? On one hand, it can help provide a counterweight to the spread of misinformation. On the other, it provides a perfect environment for people to shape facts in a way that fits their personal truths.
Because of this, we need to make sure that we’re not contributing to the spread of misinformation, and the rise of a post-truth era. We need to ensure that we’re looking at the world objectively, and not letting our biases cloud our judgement.
Tess is a full-time OnJustice Group member