Post Truth?: From the First Fake-News to the Present

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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” (OED, definition of post-truth), Oxford English Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ the word of the year back in 2016 (OED 2016) and it is not hard to see why. 2016 was the year that the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential elections in the US changed the game. Since then, post-truth, an almost ten-year-old term whose meaning evolved to fit the needs of the time, became an integral part of the political discourse. Post-truth in that context seems very new but after all the noise around it, one cannot help but wonder: was the political logos before 2016 focused solely on objective facts; and was propaganda completely absent from daily life?

It has been said that the first fake-news in history was the branding of Pharaoh Ramses (1303-1213 BCE) as a mighty general (Addelman 2018). Evidence has showed that the pharaoh was not conducting fierce wars with his Libyan neighbours, as Egyptian sources claimed, but maintained rather peaceful relations with them (Nielsen 2017 ). The sole battle that the Pharaoh seems to have actually fought is the battle of Kaddesh (1259 BCE). Ramses’ troops were tricked by the Hittites, who would have secured a win if three Egyptian regiments had not saved the day. Eventually both armies retreated and the battle ended inconclusively. Ramses cultivated the myth of a complete triumph over his enemies but today we know that this narrative was just…fake-news.

One of the classic books of 20th century fiction is without a doubt George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell drew inspiration from the elaborate propaganda systems of Nazi Germany and the USSR to write of a dystopian world, where truth was being replaced by lies, under the supervision of the ‘Ministry of Truth’. In Orwell’s world, words have lost their meaning and are used elaborately by the government to distort reality, turn citizens into obedient workers and maintain the nightmarish status quo.

Of course propaganda is not only found in Orwell’s pessimistic vision of the future, neither is it an exclusive attribute of distant past figures like Ramses. Herman and Chomsky in 1988 drew attention to the ways mass communication media manufacture public consent in a propaganda system backed by substantial economic and political interests. Herman and Chomsky (1988) found five editorial filters that distort or completely silence stories to effectively manipulate public opinion.

In 2016 Katherine Viner with an article at the Guardian claimed that the difference between traditional and post-truth lying lies in the rise of online social media as new sources of information. Viner argued, that the negative implications of platforms such as Facebook are enormous, since unchecked news are winning the race against professional journalism, that used to research and filter information. David Block (2018) in his book “Post-Truth and Political Discourse” further added to the causes of post-truth the confidence crisis in political establishments and suggested that another difference is that now propaganda is not exclusive to totalitarian regimes, but also on western liberal democracies. However, Herman and Chomsky already 30 years ago, described the systematic propaganda mechanism which lied in the heart of the democratic Western World, deeming this second argument not very convincing, as Block himself admits a few lines later.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari (2018) tackled the issue from another angle, claiming that Homo Sapiens is a post-truth species, meaning that humans have always been telling lies. Harari did not mean that we should not care about post-truth, because it has always been happening, but rather consider it as a more complicated phenomenon than is often claimed to be.

It could be argued that post-truth is a nuisance for the establishment because it is a form of unregulated bottom-up propaganda replacing the former centralised top-down one. Although this allegation might capture part of the truth, it is evident that post-truth has served the needs of what is generally referred to as the top rather well. Trump and Orban recently pushed for new policies, which will take a heavy toll on the environment and the working class for years to come. The oil industry has earned billions upon billions in profit by distorting scientific research finds to mislead the public into believing that climate change is a hoax. In this context it seems that post-truth is a game played by everyone but with only a few winners.

If Harari is right and post-truth goes hand to hand with humanity’s history, we need to address the context that allowed what we now refer to as post-truth to blossom, meaning the recent economic crisis, the harsh austerity, the failures of the left, and the ever growing public distrust towards established mainstream institutions, such as the press.

Mainstream journalism has been too slow to react and for the most part has been unable to understand the roots of the problem. This could be attributed to the missing link between civic mainstream journalism and the struggling working low class. Populist politicians and movements by default have been more efficient in the game. They have exploited the situation and have extracted massive gains. The alt right was nurtured in these conditions to become a considerable threat to democratic values and does not seem to be running out of steam soon.


Photo by Kyle Glenn.

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