Lies, damned lies and post-truth politics

1:11 pm on 3 August 2016

What is this "post-truth politics"?

Post-truth, or post-fact, politics is an affliction that has been diagnosed widely in 2016, with particular reference to the successful and routinely fact-indifferent campaign for Britain to leave the European Union and the gobsmacking laugh-in-the-face-of-facts ascent of real-life presidential candidate Donald Trump. In his New York Times column last week, for example, Roger Cohen despaired: "Mendacity is the new truth. Choreography is stronger than content. The world is upside-down." The condition has also been observed in lands as distant as the Pacific paradise of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Those are simply assertions.

US fact-checking site PolitiFact recently recorded that of 158 Trump remarks it had examined, 95 were rated either "False" or "Pants on Fire".

Yes, but it is not in fact a fact that his pants were literally on fire.

That is an excellent and irrefutable observation. The report did however find that Trump had registered more (metaphorical) Pants on Fire results (30) "than the 21 other candidates for president we've fact-checked this cycle combined".

As for Brexit, the Leave campaign warned that Turkey was on the brink of EU membership (it wasn't and isn't), misrepresented the provenance of refugees and pledged erroneously that a vote to leave would see the £350 million directed weekly to the EU reallocated to the National Health Service.

Don't a few facts always go astray in the fog of politics?

One leading Trump supporter described "this fact-checking business" as an "out of touch, elitist media-type thing". The main funder of the Remain campaign said, following the Brexit victory, "The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn't work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It's the Trump success." And a Brexit advocate announced that "people in this country have had enough of experts".

All right, but those aren't actual politicians.

That last individual was. It was Michael Gove, the senior Conservative MP who, alongside Boris Johnson, led the campaign.

Is he the one who, despite emphatically and repeatedly insisting he'd never do such a thing, ran for the leadership, brutally destroying the ambitions of Boris Johnson, before being humiliated by his fellow MPs who voted him off the ballot?

Yes, him.

And what about New Zealand? What evidence of post-truth politics has been sighted here?

Journalists such as Andrea Vance point to a series of remarks by government ministers, as well as the opposition, that fly in the face of evident truths, on subjects ranging from trust tax reform to emergency housing. Perhaps the most brazen example, however, comes from late 2014, when the prime minister flatly denied his office had done anything wrong in relation to information feeding by the SIS, despite compelling findings to the contrary in a watchdog inquiry. Even one government minister has identified the emergence of a "post-truth approach to politics" in New Zealand, in regard especially to the housing crisis.

And who was that?

Is there any wider evidence of a post-truth trend?

Research in the US and UK has shown that there is a general erosion of trust in institutions, authority and expertise over the last few decades. Both the political and media establishments appear to generate less confidence.

Are the media to blame?


They are, aren't they?

Maybe a bit.

A lot.

There are some that attribute the trend in part at least to the increased appetite for sensationalism, the race for clicks, and the way that social media and search algorithms tend to feed users unchallenging material that reinforces their point of view.

There's also the proclivity among some media to privilege "colourful" ratings-friendly characters such as Trump, as well as the "optics" obsessed, "not a good look" style of reporting, and the false dichotomy presented by the "he said, she said" brand of journalism. On the other hand, some say -

Wait, isn't that a he said, she said?

Maybe it is. But on the other hand, some reckon the whole post-fact thing is wildly overblown.

How so?

Some think post-truthism is a loser refrain - the feeble whimper of defeated leftists. "It is a sign of their vanity and self-righteousness that they regard themselves as the embodiment of JS Mill's democratic ideal, selflessly engaged in a search for the truth, when all the evidence - yes, evidence - suggests they're even more tribal than those of us on the right."

Who said that?

Spectator columnist Toby Young.

Ha ha "Toby" what kind of name is that? Sounds like a dog or something.

Yeah, what a loser

In any case, isn't "post-truth politics" as old as politics itself?

It's true that the very idea of demagoguery, the populist appeal to emotion over reason, has its roots in Ancient Greece. And that the idea of "truthiness" - a version of truth that applies to the way someone feels "in the gut" rather than pesky facts - was invented by TV satirist Stephen Colbert in 2005. And that the term "post-truth politics" was coined by a US commentator in 2010. In 2012, meanwhile, the state of American politics prompted a satirist to write an obituary for facts in the Chicago Tribune. ("Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion").

And yet what's going on in 2016 seems like more than garden variety spin and dissembling - we're living through, at very least, an acute bout of post-truthism, even if the broader predicament may remain the same as it was when, way back in the 19th century, Mark Twain said, "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on."

Mark Twain didn't say that.


That's another quote routinely and wrongly attributed to Twain.

Oh. Right. Exactly. Post-fact. Exactly.

Toby Toby stamp

*This column is part of a weekly series, published every Wednesday, by graphic artist Toby Morris and journalist Toby Manhire.

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