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24 March 2021

The truth about post-truth

The emotive reaction that liberals have over "fake news" is uncannily similar to the delusions they rail against.  

By Lorna Finlayson

We don’t hear about “post-truth” quite as much as we used to. In 2016 – non-coincidentally the year of Brexit and Trump – it was the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. Now, in 2021, it already feels slightly dated. But the basic idea behind the deployment of “post-truth” and its sister terms – among the most prominent of which is “fake news” (often coupled with the more tepid “online misinformation”) – is still much in evidence. That idea is as follows:

Until relatively recently – about the mid-2010s – things were basically OK. Not perfect, by any means, but more or less well-ordered and rational. Then something went badly wrong. People lost contact with reality, even lost interest in truth itself. Many have been seduced by populists and conspiracy theories. They have lost trust in experts and institutions. All that we hold dear – our freedoms, our democracy – is under threat.

It’s not that this narrative is false. To all but the fans of the ascendant reactionary right, it is clear enough that the world is heading in increasingly dark and apocalyptic directions. It is not difficult to count the ways in which things are getting worse. It’s also not hard to see that the present is going to look rosy compared to the future that likely awaits us.

[See also: The politics of spring]

Truth, however, is not binary. Now there is a remark that will set off the “post-truth” sirens, triggering fears of an ill-defined yet allegedly rampant “post-modernism” or “relativism” that thrives on social media and feasts on the brains of youth. But the point here is not mysterious or philosophically extravagant. It is both possible and common – in politics especially – for ideas to be true and false at the same time. This is how so-called ideological illusion works. Illusory forms of thought are far more powerful and more likely to have a hold on us if they are not merely illusory, but instead offer a distorted yet recognisable picture of reality. Socially prevalent illusions often depict the world upside-down or back-to-front. Such illusions may be at once absolutely wrong and almost right, just as a mirror image reverses but also resembles reality.

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Take the Trump supporter or the Brexiteer. On the narrative sketched above, these people have simply lost their hold on reason and reality. To the extent that their illusions are seen as explicable at all, the diagnosis offered is one of weakness or quasi-insanity, triggered or compounded by an external “bad influence” (invariably in the shape of social media). But this tells us more about the proponents of the narrative than it does about Brexiteers or Trump supporters themselves, whose “populist” worldviews contain some general truths. There is nothing naive or crazy about thinking that societies are run against the interests of the many and in the service of a very few. That the media lies to you. That many “experts” are not to be trusted. That the much-vaunted values of “freedom” and “democracy” are hollow in societies where freedom depends on means and democratic “choice” is between functionally indistinguishable parties, answerable to the same set of interests.

[See also: Does the truth set us free?]

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This is not to underplay the sheer twistedness of some of the conclusions drawn from these convictions. The QAnon conspiracy theory is deranged. The right’s ongoing assault on the limited protections, rights and freedoms afforded by “liberal democracies” is, to say the least, bad news. Donald Trump is not – was not – the answer. Nor is Brexit (although anyone looking forward to the moment when this becomes painfully clear to those swept up in its nationalistic fervour should prepare to be disappointed: it will be painful, and that is all). But who is more deluded? Those who misidentify the answer, or those who cannot see the problem?

Just as the so-called “populist” worldview contains distorted truths, so too do mainstream reactions to it. But it is a truth about the worldview from which these reactions emanate, rather than a truth about “populism”. The psychological phenomenon of “projection” is defined as a displacement of a person’s (often unwanted or unacceptable) feelings or urges onto another being. Centrist narratives about “populism” and “post-truth” (or whatever is the latest conceptual vehicle for the expression of incomprehension and dismay at the state of things) make for a textbook case, displaying features uncannily similar to those they attribute to their targets.

[See also: Work isn’t working: how to build a radical alternative, and why we must]

The same people and outlets sounding the alarm about “fake news” – and it is instructive to notice how readily and uncritically this Trumpian notion has been accepted and taken over by his liberal opponents – are also those who bought and sold some of the biggest political lies of the 21st century: from weapons of mass destruction to the need for public austerity to conspiracy theories about Russian bots hijacking otherwise healthy democratic processes. Many of the same voices to be heard talking about threats to “democracy” are those still hoarse from shouting for a referendum to be re-run, in truth because it produced an unacceptable result rather than because of any democratic deficit or irregularity (and while the Leave campaign played fast and loose with the truth, the same could be said for many an election campaign that was passed over in silence). Warnings about “authoritarianism” come in the same breath as calls for the tighter regulation of our speech online by governments and even corporations.

All this is so thoroughly incoherent that it can only be understood as an emotional response – to thwarted desire and expectation, to the removal of accustomed comforts and certainties – which, once again, is precisely the charge levelled against the enemy. If it makes no sense, then perhaps it’s not supposed to. Seem familiar? It’s beginning to sound a lot like “post-truth”.

Lorna Finlayson teaches philosophy at the University of Essex.