The Age of Post-Truth

As Mattelart wrote in History of Information Science (2006), the notion of information overload refers to a high rate of information input in urban societies, making effective treatment impossible. Thus, we are facing a social circumstance in which the flow of information is excessive, and the frenzy of obsolence and the ethics of the instant, terms from Chesneaux, in Modernity-World (1996), have not complied with the verification of sources, facts and the need for individual reflection on the phenomena. This situation is responsible for producing the concept of “post-truth”, the most striking aspect of the digital society in which we live.

The excess of information has generated a particular need, accelerated by social networks and their reduced characters, emphasising the impact of “fat” newspapers (headlines and subheadings) and soundbites. As McCallam in his article “Les “petites phrases” dans la politique anglo-saxonne” (2000) and Le Séac’h in “La petite phrase: d’où vient-elle? Comment se propagage-t-elle? Quelle est sa portée réelle?” (2015), the soundbite presents itself as a kind of modern proverb of political action, which functions by itself and as an end in itself.

This conjugation shows that the non-verification of informative contents is a “snowball” problem. We know that such content is massively shared and produces an excessive flow of misinformation and factual errors since many of the media fail to present news headlines that correspond to the content of the information, a deontological fault and journalistic ethics of solid social repercussion.

With this, we have a media and social broth favourable to sprouting the “post-truth”. Well, “post-truth” is understood in terms of the Priberam Dictionary of the Portuguese Language,

Set of circumstances or context in which great importance is attributed, mainly social, political and journalistic, to false news or credible versions of facts, appealing to emotions and personal beliefs, to the detriment of verified facts or objective truth (…). Information that is spread or accepted as fact due to the way it is presented and repeated has no factual basis.

From this clear and objective definition, two major analytical categories emerge verisimilitude and personal beliefs. From this combination of alternative facts, i.e. that possess verisimilitude and personal beliefs, the devastating but operative effect on political activity of “post-truth” is understood.

In his book Post Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It (2017), Davis shows the need for individual and anonymous citizens to position themselves vis-à-vis public actors and the once again Manichean and polarised world we live in is more important than the unravelling of facts. In other words, political discourses are increasingly relevant not because of their ability to access the content of the facts and, therefore, the truth they contain, but rather because they embody the set of personal and group beliefs. In this sense, social phenomena are manipulated to give meaning to discourses rather than discourses reflecting social facts. “Post-truth” corresponds to the interpretation and adulteration of data and facts to compose an alternative narrative or make them fit into an idea of reality. It is, therefore, the ideology of a group that wants to be guaranteed, no longer by the recomposition of the past that Triaud spoke of in “Lieux de mémoire et passés composés” (1999), but by the reconfiguration of the present.

All this has been present in the political actions of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro and Andre Ventura, to name a few cases.

Their voters have had no problem declaring that lying does nothing to change their political confidence or voting intention. There are recognised political values in lying for electoral purposes. This is consistent with a new form of citizen political participation, more ideological than in recent decades. The news and content produced for disinformation (fake news) are now at the service of electing politicians who claim nationalist values and policies and take advantage of prejudices that were once silent.

Neither the manipulation of unemployment figures nor the influence peddling that underlies the current impeachment process are problematic for Donald Trump’s loyal electorate, most of whom are rural, poorly educated, economically unstable, evangelical and racist, who understand Trump’s soundbites better than Obama’s speeches. In the final days of the 2019 election campaign, several Boris Johnson voters declared that they were not concerned about the incongruities of the Conservative leader’s speeches; the most important thing was to deliver Brexit. André Ventura’s voters did not seem worried about the paradox of his PhD thesis and his speeches about the Roma, nor that those speeches were discordant with reality, or that he advocated a fight against corruption and presented European candidates with court cases for corrupt practices. It was not problematic that André Ventura had been surprised by his party’s programme of destruction of the welfare state. Bolsonaro’s voters were not concerned about his apology for military dictatorship or the radical solutions in his government programme on privatising all the country’s natural resources and attacking education. In both cases, the most relevant thing was the presence of narratives that translated racism, homophobia, and the attack on multiculturalism, coinciding with the aspirations of such electorates.

The era of post-truth, verisimilitude, and alternative facts, can be summed up in a classic phrase: don’t let the truth spoil a good story.

Citação recomendada: João Ferreira Dias, “The Age of Post-Truth,” in O Estado da Teoria, acedido a Junho 22, disponível em < https://joaoferreiradias.net/blog/?p=5823>.
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