By: Nikolai Rubanovskii
Sometimes feelings are more important than facts—like giving an incurable patient a glimpse of hope or reacting positively to a present you do not care about. However, in politics, the same approach constitutes post-truth. The term, first used by the blogger David Roberts in 2010, is defined as "a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation).” “In a post-truth era, the debate is largely formed by appeals to emotion and repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.”
The growing application of post-truth politics is evident everywhere. The Russo-Georgian War in 2008, where the same footage was used both by pro-Russian and anti-Russian media with different voiceovers and captions to illustrate the opposing sides’ aggression towards innocent civilians; the Ukrainian Crisis in 2014, with several claims from both sides of the conflict that did not align with the evidence (Ukrainian examples; Russian examples); the notorious Brexit vote in 2016 with argumentation largely based on false claims about the cost of UK membership in the EU; European right-wing populism in Austria, France and Poland; the Ishrat Jahan case in India with allegations of faked evidence by the former IPS officer; and, of course, the most prominent examples in the United States, starting from conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s descent to groundless statements on crime rates and climate change, which could be easily disproven by scholarly research. It seems that in pursuit of higher ratings, today’s media is practicing gaslighting on a massive scale, making the audience question its own sense of reality.
Politics have always been a “dirty business,” where everything is considered fair game, especially if national security is at stake. It would take several book volumes to list all the cases of kings, emperors, politicians, ministers and presidents telling bare-faced lies that were exposed either prior or post-factum.
What has changed then? Have we just discovered that politicians can use deception to achieve certain goals? The difference from past instances is the public’s reaction to the lies. If before, people had more consensus on what a lie and the truth were, today, due to factors like the emergence of the Internet, global media space, social networks and instant communication, the public is more polarized and ultimately confused on what can be considered true or false. Today, the idea that each has their own truth becomes more acceptable, and less likely to be disputed, at least by the majority.
The phrase "alternative facts" used by U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway during a Meet the Press interview in 2017 perfectly describes why today’s situation is unprecedented. The mere definition of the word “fact” implies its indisputability, yet, in today’s situation anything can be staged, faked or orchestrated. The recent advancements in artificial neural networks’ ability to overlay and animate people’s faces means we are entering the era where nothing can be trusted anymore, even one’s own senses. Science used to be the last resort, the ultimate yardstick to a claim; however, fake scientific research, published daily in “predatory” journals, can now be used as a tool by different interested parties to “legitimize” their seemingly truthful statements. According to one Finish Study, the number of poor-quality articles published in “predatory” journals has increased from 53,000 to almost half a million between 2010 and 2014. SCIgen is a tool created by scientists at MIT, which can generate “research” papers consisting of complete nonsense, yet written in a complex academic language. Papers produced using this algorithm and others like it have been accepted by dozens of conferences and have been published in several academic journals.
Furthermore, the enormous corpus of data and the amount of information that flows daily through global communication channels makes it not only harder for an average citizen to rebuke or fact check false arguments, but also creates opportunities to find arguments and support for almost every point of view, even those that may seem utterly absurd. What is more terrifying, social media provides a platform for these conspiracy theorists to easily join like-minded groups to further perpetuate their views. The Internet certainly gave opportunity to underrepresented and oppressed voices to be heard and spread. However, there are always two sides of the coin. With the advantage of free speech, came the disadvantage of mass hoax that can be quickly and easily spread with modern means of communication. Unfortunately, millions can be wrong, and we cannot count on the media industry to help us find the truth either, as their ratings are fueled primarily by emotions, not reason. Currently one of the most powerful groups of influencers, especially for young generations, is YouTube vloggers. Projecting their very subjective and largely, incompetent analysis on their millions of followers, vloggers rarely realize how much their opinion influences susceptible, young audiences.
The emergence of instant mobile communication and the phenomenon of mobile reporters was initially supposed to aid in debunking some of the mainstream media propaganda by delivering “real,” “eye-witness” information to the public faster than a TV channel could process the event through its ideological filter. Nevertheless, media is constantly adapting and now we can see instant communication backfire in the form of clever editing to create new realities.
This all-embracing complication of media space and the evolution of its usage patterns poses a great challenge to current and, possibly, future generations in seeking the truth. Today, as never before, we should not only maintain a critical approach to news we consume daily, but make it a new habit (for example by introducing solutions like mandatory training on fact-checking in schools and universities) to counter the spread of misinformation in the future.
Nikolai Rubanovskii is a Fulbright Student from Russia pursuing a master’s degree in Communication and Development at Ohio University's Scripps College of Communication. Currently an intern at the EastWest Institute, his areas of interest include U.S.-Russia relations, media and information warfare.