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The era of post-truth, post-veracity and charlatanism

Author: Martín Montoya Camacho, Professor of  de Philosophy in the University of Navarra (Spain).
Published in: +1 Adding Stories
A version of this article was published in Palabra magazine
Date of publication: 2019

Many Spanish journalists and political analysts categorised 2016 as the posverdad year. This word is a translation of post-truth, word of the year in 2016 according to Oxford Dictionaries. Its meaning refers to something that denotes circumstances in which objective facts are not as influential, in terms of forming public opinion, as an appeal to personal emotions and beliefs. Therefore whoever wishes to influence public opinion should concentrate on the creation of discourse that is easy to accept, and place an emphasis on what will satisfy the emotions and beliefs of the audience, instead of real facts.

Therefore, in a short space of time, the Association for the German Language declared that postfaktisch would be chosen word of the year for 2016. And in Spanish the BBVA Fundéu Foundation nominated the word posverdad for a similar award.

Post-truth has often been identified with lies. In many type of media it has been concluded that post-truth is not new: lies have always existed and therefore it is a neologism which is the result of a whim. So, should we take this word seriously?

The birth of an era

The term post-truth was used for the first time in the North-American press in 1992, in an article by Steve Tesich in The Nation magazine. Tesich, when writing about the Watergate scandal and the Iraq war, indicated that at that time we had already accepted we were living in a post-truth era, in which lies are told indiscriminately and facts are hidden. However, it was in the book entitled The Post-Truth Era (2004), by Ralph Keyes, when the term achieved a certain degree of conceptual development.

Keyes indicated at the time that we live in a post-truth era because its creed has settled among us: creative manipulation can take us beyond the kingdom of mere exactitude to the kingdom of the narration of truth. Embellished information is presented as true in spirit, and truer than truth itself. Keyes’ definition offers a key to understanding the facts occurring in  previous months. We will come back to this shortly. But first we should ask ourselves:  how did we get to this post-truth era?

To understand how it is possible to find ourselves in a time like this, certain factors have to be taken into consideration related to the media sources that propagate news. To start with, the post-truth era makes reference to the proliferation of fake news on the internet, such as insulting comments that are almost defamatory and are uploaded every day onto online communication platforms, or discrediting institutions through comments – often anonymous- posted on the same media source.

In her article “How technology disrupted the truth”, Katharine Viner, director of The Guardian, noted that behind all of this there is intentional misrepresentation of the facts in some of the digital media that represent a specific social and political stance. However, there are also efforts from this type of media to attract visitors to their platforms with no other purpose than to maintain a business that sells what the public wants.

Viner explains that this is possible due to the algorithms that feed the news sources of search engines such as Facebook or Google, which are designed to offer the public what they want. For the director of The Guardian, this means that the version of the world that we find every day when we open our personal portals or through the searches we perform on Google has ben invisibly filtered in order to reinforce our own beliefs.

Information consumption is on the rise

There is therefore an effort to mould sources of information, and content, to users tastes. In accordance with Keyes’ definition, we can say that we are shown an embellished version of the truth which is configured according to our own tastes, something we accept as truer than the real true facts.

A few years ago it would surprise us to find advertisements to buy products we had seen on Amazon just a few hours before on a website somewhere. Today this is just a regular event.  It seems like, nowadays, the strategy that is applied to selling products on the internet is also used in the case of the news  we want to consume. This cannot seem strange to us. A report by the Pew Research Center revealed a few months ago that half of North-Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 consume news items via internet platforms, and that this is a growing trend. Therefore, the market for the consumption of information will not stop increasing, and the strategy of giving the client what they want is the way to achieve their loyalty. It is true that the purchase of news in this type of media is not abundant, but this is where the maximum opportunity exists for an impact on future consumers.

This means that, when using electronic platforms it will become less and less likely to find information that will challenge us, that will broaden our worldview or to discover facts that refute false information.

Even for a social network that is as flexible as Twitter, this can be the case, due to the constant publication of the tweets liked the most by followers. However, it would be absurd to attribute all of the blame for the post-truth era to the media and its strategies for transmitting information. It is clear that the blame must be attributed to the people who lie, thus misrepresenting the true facts. But it seems it is also important to examine, albeit briefly, an attitude that can be found among users or consumers and which is our direct responsibility.

Post-truth and mistrust

In the The Post-Truth Era Ralph Keyes indicated that the immediate consequence of post-truth is post-veracity. This involves a lack of trust in public discourse, not due to the content, which may be true and even possible to prove scientifically. The mistrust generated by post-truth is based on the fact that the message can serve a hidden purpose, which is not desired by the audience.  Does this idea reflect something real about our society and the way we behave in it?

It seems like post-truth can only arise in times like now, where there is an attitude of discrediting public discourse because we expect that information to not transmit the whole truth. We might think that we should avoid being dramatic, since we continue to consume news, and a lot of content that is true continues to be provided. However, large sectors of society believe that truth has lost its value, that it has been demolished and is lying on the ground in its final death throes.

Thinking that truth can be assassinated may leave us perplexed, but this is what has been happening in terms of its value in society. For that reason the issue of post-truth is not superfluous. For Keyes the problem resides in the fact that we can be governed by it, and actively participate in this dynamic without realising it. This could occur through an attitude derived from the justification of our own lies, so we  become accustomed to living in an environment in which the truth is discriminated against depending on our personal interests.

This can happen when we don’t reflect on the sources of the news we consume or, in a broader view of circumstances, when we remove our gaze from the points of view we do not like. Sometimes we run away from all of this without stopping to think about how things can be seen from another perspective, simply because we don’t want to be cheated. As if everything that doesn’t coincide with our ideas can be classified as false advertising.

Jason Stanley, in his book How Propaganda Works (2015) explained that a certain type of authoritarian propaganda can destroy the principle of trust in society, thus undermining democracy. However it is also true that not every use of language that alters reality is a lie. There is always a little bit of truth there. However, to tackle it, it is important to have critical skills and an attitude of approaching it without mistrust, but with a free spirit that is reinforced through careful study of reality.

Even although the era of post-truth has impacted our times with a certain amount of force, users or consumers have the last word, they are free people who can decide to re-establish the value of truth. This means avoiding lies, your own and those of others, and avoiding becoming accustomed to living in circumstances in which falsehood is usual. Rejecting any lack of truth in any way possible, however subtle it may be.

Superficial charlatanism

In an interview in the Belgian Catholic weekly publication Tertio, Pope Francis made reference to several of these issues. He particularly condemned the damage that the media can cause when they venture into defamation by publishing fake news. In his direct style, the Holy Father explained that misinformation in the press is terrible, even if what is published is true, since the majority of people have a tendency to consume this misinformation indiscriminately. Therefore, he explained, a lot of damage can be done and he compared the trend of consuming falsehoods and half-truths, to coprophagy.

The words of the Pope are not anecdotal and hold more weight than may be perceived at first glance. This can be appreciated more if we compare coprophagy with the term used in English to name one of the most subtle types of misrepresentation of the truth, bullshit. This term was recently translated into Spanish as charlatanism in the work of the North American philosopher, Harry Frankfurt.

In his book entitled On Bullshit (2013), Harry G. Frankfurt indicated that it is less intentional than we may think. When we lie we concentrate on doing so, but charlatanism does not require effort because it is inadvertently spontaneous: the presentation of facts is simply omitted. Charlatans retain a clear distinction between what is true and false, but because they are not concerned about the value of the truth, they can use a fact to defend one position and the opposite position.

Charlatans have no intention of misrepresenting reality, but they simply have no intentions at all towards reality. Their intentions are focused exclusively on themselves, on the superficiality of their projects or, in the case of specific media or users, on their own propaganda. Lies have always caught our attention. This is understandable. The act of lying involves a maliciousness that is repellent to us. In order to tell a lie you need to have the intention to do so. It is not a simple slip up, you need to work on it. For liars the truth has a value according to their own purposes, which is where their interest in manipulating it stems from. However a charlatan does not care about this, and this attitude can cause a lot of damage, which is what has happened in this post-truth era.

Charlatanism is contagious, said Frankfurt. Some of that may spread to us as consumers of information when we don’t pay attention to the news we propagate on social networks. We are not exempt from responsibility by participating in some way in defamatory acts, even when it seems like what we are doing is not significant, or we think that what we have transmitted is true. When this happens, it is because we have stopped thinking about the fact that language is not only a vehicle for facts, figures, strategies, demonstrations and refutations, but also a bearer of values. It is important to take into account that knowledge of what is true or false, while important, does not sufficiently set out what is needed to do justice to others, and to act out of real charitable feelings.¡

A charlatan is embodied by any media source that transmits news or users that consume it and then redistribute it, they are the main contributors to post-truth: they promote mistrust and tension in society. For that reason, it is important to recognise the importance of what the information we are managing refers to.

We cannot accept everything. Reflecting on whether we respect the truth, and trying to avoid manipulating it on a whim will allow us to restore its true value.