Nov 17 2016


post-truthThe Oxford Dictionary word of the year is “post-truth” which they define as:

an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

The implication is that we are now living in a post-truth era. Many people would probably point to the outcome of the recent presidential election as evidence of this. Of course there were many factors influencing the election and it’s impossible to tease them all apart, but this seems to legitimately be a factor.

Trump has 15 million Twitter followers, which means that more people likely see his tweets than will watch any news broadcast. Trump just appointed Stephen Bannon to be his chief White House strategist. Bannon was the chairman of Brietbart news, a far right propaganda echochamber.

I have friends who span the political spectrum, and it did strike me this election how cocooned they were in the narrative of their candidate. It was not just a matter of perspective, they would cite as facts blatant lies and myths. Some were complex, but many were a 1 minute Google search away from being debunked. It just didn’t seem to matter.

Even more amazing were those, when challenged, who expressed some version of the defense that the actual facts did not matter. They continued to support the underlying “truth” even when the facts they put forward to support it were demolished.

Of course, this has always been true to some extent. Emotional appeals have always been more influential than dry facts, that is just the human condition. The question is – is there a difference in magnitude and net effect in recent years?

Effect of Social Media

For those who think there is something different about the current period that makes it more “post-truth” than previous times, many point to social media as being the primary culprit. Again, any complex social phenomenon is likely to have a complex set of causes and influences, but how much of a role is social media having?

At the very least we need to consider two related phenomena – the decrease in traditional journalism and its replacement by social media. More people are now getting their news from social media than traditional media.

I am a big fan of social media, as you can probably tell, but it has been a double-edged sword. It has changed the relative value of certain incentives. With social media you can profit with little infrastructure investment by attracting and monetizing clicks. We are all now familiar with click-bait, headlines that are meant to tease and titillate, leading to vacuous articles or even completely fake news.

Again, this is not entirely new, just on a new level. We grew up with the “click-bait” local news teasers. The difference is, in the past journalists would give actual news, even if it was biased or poor quality. Now, any pretense to real journalism can be abandoned. You can make up entirely fake news that is optimized to cater to a political point of view, or just shock value.

Some websites never give up the pretense of being real news, and are actually propaganda sites for a particular viewpoint. Other sites don’t even have the integrity to be propaganda, they are just fake. They may, somewhere far down on the page in small type, declare themselves to be “satire” but in many cases that is not accurate. The Onion is satire. Many fake news sites are just fake.

Facebook vs Google

We are still in the middle of this disruptive technology and trying to sort out how to deal with it. Google and Facebook have taken two different paths. Google News provides news from whitelisted sites that are curated by human editors. The Google algorithm is mainly about assessing quality.

Facebook’s algorithm rewards popularity, not quality. Posts are tested with a limited set of users and the ones that garner the most likes, shares, and comments have increased circulation. Fake news is shared as easily as real news, and has the advantage of being optimized for popularity, rather than quality.

We have been actively curating the SGU’s Facebook page for a couple of years. Overall we have been very successful, and have 1.1 million likes. This was not by accident, we had to learn and utilize Facebook’s algorithm (with the help of a knowledgeable volunteer). We therefore have many data points, and it is clear that there is almost an inverse relationship between the quality of the content we post and the number of likes and shares we get on Facebook. Facebook, it seems, is optimized for memes and celebrity. Articles of substance barely register.

This has always been the reality of mass media, again the question is one of magnitude. Social media, and in particular Facebook, have taken this phenomenon to its logical conclusion.

Where do we go from here?

I don’t think anyone yet knows how this will all play out. The shocking result of the 2016 presidential election is a good example of how clueless we all are.

When I am feeling optimistic I think of positive trends. The more experience we have with social media, the more savvy we will become in sorting through the noise and finding quality. There will hopefully be a backlash against “post-truth” and journalistic organizations will find a way to survive and provide genuine quality news.

The pessimist in me dwells on the recent election results. This was, among other things, a populist rejection of intellectuals and intellectualism. It was a rejection of the inherent value of honesty, transparency, and factual accuracy.

It is a small comfort that Trump did not win the popular vote. It was essentially a dead heat. I am as disappointed that more people did not turn out to vote against Trump as that so many turned out to vote for him.

The election was about many things, and everyone will be tempted to impose their own narrative on the results. For some of us, though, we were horrified by the abject rejection of any respect for intellectual integrity. That was more important even than policy or ideology. Trump simply did not meet the minimum criteria for intellectual integrity to be put into a position of such power.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this election is that so few people noticed or were sufficiently bothered by that fact. The American voters essentially said – you can lie to us. You can sell us whatever fiction you think we want to hear, and we will reward you for it. In fact, we will help you spread those lies. They will become our truth.

We can no longer even agree upon a shared set of facts. Did you notice how little discussion there was of policy during this election? We didn’t even get there. You can’t roll up your sleeves and start negotiating about how to solve our problems when you cannot even agree on basic facts.

That is post-truth.

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