Since the election of Donald Trump, many pundits and media figures have lamented the emergence of a “post-truth” politics characterized by mendacity. These individuals point to Trump’s repeated, and demonstrably false, claims concerning climate change and manifold other issues to assert that the criterion of truth no longer matters in our public discourse. Oftentimes, observers argue that social media platforms’ lack of editorial control, or the public’s ignorance, are to blame for the advent of our post-truth moment. In doing so, I fear that too many commentators exculpate the mainstream media for creating the environment in which a post-truth politics could take hold.
Post-truth politics is not a contemporary invention. However, its present power may be historically unprecedented. If it is, it is likely because of the misguided notion, popular among US media elites, that all sides of an issue deserve a fair hearing, even if one side of a debate is roundly rejected by all relevant experts. The “view from nowhere” ideal of US journalists has ironically contributed to the deterioration of American political discourse.
If the United States is to move beyond a post-truth politics, the media must be willing to make judgments about which sides in a debate are worth covering and to call out lies when politicians, pundits, or other elites promote them. This is a difficult task that may affect the bottom lines of news organizations. Nonetheless, not all claims are equally valid, and the media has the responsibility, indeed the democratic duty, to determine the legitimacy of competing assertions before popularizing them.
Trump’s recent electoral victory and the subsequent rise of a post-truth politics should be seen not as an insurmountable crisis, but as an opportunity to confront some previously unassailable truths that many Americans have taken for granted. Americans like to think of themselves as citizens of a “city upon a hill” that has shined the light of liberty throughout the world for the past 240 years. While the United States has done much that is good, it is important to recognize the nation’s failings both at home and abroad. Only in the light of all truth — whether this truth be inspiring or upsetting — can we transcend post-truth politics.
There is nothing particularly new about “fake news.” Societies around the world have grappled with rumors, gossip, conspiracy theories, and assorted propaganda for centuries. New technologies can, of course, amplify misinformation. Someday, social media’s role in 2016 may be remembered the way radio impacted politics in the 1930s and ’40s — a new medium that often claimed in authority what it lacked in legitimacy. Stephen Bannon may just be the new Walter Winchell.
If we intend to confront efforts to create a “post-truth” era, we must be especially precise about the nature of the problem. It is old, not new. It is widespread, not limited to any single group of political bloggers or clickbait merchants. It has many contributing factors — including financial pressures on the press and audience demand — which doesn’t make a very good villain story.
Indeed, while all kinds of people strive to live what we might call an empirical life, there is a strong urge to embrace information that reinforces our values. That tendency probably has more pull on people with values to begin with — true believers in any given religion, ideology, or belief system — than it may have on the nihilists or burnouts, who don’t care to begin with.
All of which suggests one possible antidote to campaigns against the truth: let’s develop propaganda paranoia. We can be skeptical of any claim without evidence. We can be suspicious of any spin. We can doubt our own tendency to focus more on information confirming our beliefs than information that stokes our cognitive dissonance.
We should also realize that in a media environment where rumors, smears, and lies spread faster and easier than ever, some proverbs no longer apply. They used to say “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” That sounds right. But it’s not. Sometimes there’s no fire; there’s just one guy with a smoke machine, and a whole lot of gullible people.