What is ‘post-truth’?

I’ve spent the last couple of years grappling with the notion of ‘post-truth’ in order to understand the changing social and political context within which academics are using social media. It’s a term I’m instinctively wary of because it so often fails to transcend the level of platitude, enabling people to dismiss political currents they disagree with as mindless upsurges of so-called populism which can be explained away as reflections of a deeper underlying political crisis. As the Oxford English Dictionary defined the term when choosing it as the word of the year for 2016, “Post-truth is 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”. There’s an epistemic judgement inherent in the designation, implying that those it is applied to are failing to be responsible citizens in so far as they act on the basis of belief and emotion rather than the ‘objective facts’ which it is assumed should guide political life. It only makes sense in terms of a centrist conception of politics, produced in an era the political sociologist Colin Crouch describes as ‘post-democratic’ and embodied by the figures of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, built upon a belief in technical solutions to social problems which are based in evidence. Anthony Giddens, at the time the UK’s most influential sociologist, offered the notion of a ‘third way’ which expressed an ambition to overcome the division between capitalism. and socialism. In reality, as the Labour leftist Tony Benn observed in his diaries, “Anthony Giddens just hovers round trying to put an ideological cloak around whatever is being discussed” leading, as Bev Skeggs put it, “sociology to become a source of legitimation rather than critique”. In this sense belief played a crucial role in the avowedly evidence based politics now imagined to precede our current post-truth era, as well as providing powerful justifications for a whole generation of political figures who were seeking to advance their careers and hold power. The idea of post-truth suggests a widespread disdain for facts and a tendency to be driven by emotion. Ironically the diagnosis itself tends to be made emotionally and with little factual justification.

However something is changing and the notion of ‘post-truth’, for all its many problems, operates as a placeholder through which we can point to that change. The digital sociologist Noortje Marres argues that we need to examine the “changing architectures of the public sphere” and resist the temptation to restore our facts to their pride of place by reasserting the authority of those task with their production: for example scientists, intellectuals, journalists and policy makers. There’s a bigger change underway which the political theorist Will Davies characterises as the breakdown of trust in systems of representation such that people no longer trust that facts represent the reality which they claim to. What were one received as disinterested claims are now regarded as smoke screens for private interests. For example the warnings of climate scientists being dismissed as a means to increase their own influence and impose an unstated political agenda. While politicians like Michael Gove, with his infamous claim that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, have certainly fuelled this hostility to experts for their own purposes, I don’t think it’s plausible to believe they have created it. Nor that the problem will go away if only they stop fanning these flames. There has been a broader change which has implications for every one whose work involves the production of representations, in the sense of characterisations of the world which are assumed to have authority. In principle this authority has been seen to be derived through respected training or established methods which ensure this representation has a reliable relation to reality. In practice this authority has always been a variable matter, as can be seen if you read the comments section on any newspaper report of qualitative research which supports a critical agenda. But what theorists like Marres, and Davies are pointing to is a much deeper change in how these representation are produced and come to circulate in the public sphere, as well as how they are evaluated by audiences outside of their initial context.