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Why Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin lie... and why they are so good at it

Post-truth is the first step toward authoritarian rule.

In a recent interview in Mother Jones, the political activist and Russian dissident Masha Gessen offers an important insight as to why Donald Trump seems so comfortable lying, even when he can easily be disproven. Trump does not lie because he believes what he is saying to be true – nor to change the minds of others – Gessen argues; he lies to assert power. “Every time [Trump] lies, especially when he lies about something really obvious – like the size of the Inauguration – he’s saying ‘I can say whatever I want, whenever I want to, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ I think he understands that instinctively."

In this, Trump has learned the lesson of countless dictators and strongmen across the ages, a lesson that could be well taught by his opposite number in Russia, Vladimir Putin. Real power does not need the consent of the governed. One need not worry about changing others’ beliefs (which may be thought of as requesting their cognitive consent), when one can dominate their reality.

This is why post-truth is so dangerous. In the public imagination, post-truth is about lying and fake news. But in actuality it is not merely about these, nor even about disinformation, spin doctoring, or propaganda. Post-truth is the first step towards authoritarian rule.

Many are shocked by the current political situation in America, and believe it has no precedent. Yet “post-truth” did not arrive anew in 2016, when it was proclaimed the Oxford Dictionaries’ word-of-the-year. In reality, its roots stretch back decades, with both historical and conceptual precursors.

The historical parallels are easiest. Of the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s, the political theorist Hannah Arendt once observed that “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction … true and false … no longer exist.” In the initial stages of an autocratic regime, it is not uncommon for a would-be ruler to see how many lies he or she can get away with, before preserving political power through propaganda. Even here, though, the point is not to convince but to dominate. Contempt for truth goes hand in hand with political oppression.

As the philosopher Jason Stanley argues in his recent book How Propaganda Works, the goal of propaganda is not to persuade, but to demonstrate that you have authority over truth itself. Epistemological authority has always underpinned political authority. Writing about Bolshevism, the philosopher Roger Scruton, put it this way: “Facts no longer made contact with the theory, which had risen above the facts on clouds of nonsense, rather like a theological system. The point was not to believe the theory, but to repeat it ritualistically and in such a way that both belief and doubt became irrelevant. . . . In this way the concept of truth disappeared from the intellectual landscape, and was replaced by that of power.”

As for the conceptual roots of post-truth, these are easy to see, though perhaps difficult to accept. Most prominent is the notion that forty years of science denial – be this the correlation between smoking and lung cancer, the existence of evolution and climate change, or whether vaccines can be linked to autism – has conditioned people to challenge facts that they simply don’t want to believe. Who needs empirical evidence when you already know what to believe on the basis of ideology? Another root of post-truth, inherent cognitive bias, seems obvious in the abstract, though it can be stubbornly difficult to recognise when we are in its grip. Do viewers believe most of what is seen on MSNBC because they trust that their broadcasts are double-sourced and fact-checked before going on the air, or because they fit with their ideology? And it works that way on the right too – indeed more so – as cognitive scientists have found that those with conservative political beliefs have greater susceptibility to conspiracy theories and fear-based thinking. Finally, what if any blame might be due to post-modernism – that 800 pound gorilla of 1980s literary criticism and cultural studies – that taught a generation of scholars to question whether there was such a thing as objective truth (even in science) and to be suspicious of all factual claims outside the context of their political motives.

Each of these – along with the rise of social media and hard times for journalism – created an ideal environment within which fake news could thrive, tribalism could gain ground over reasoning, and politics could trump reality. Although the Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election may seem inextricably tied up with post-truth, neither was its cause – they were the result.

What then of the gathering threat of authoritarian rule in the United States? A recent VOX article asserted that the US was facing an epistemic crisis, due to the fact that even if the Mueller investigation turns up evidence of wrong-doing, the political response may be underwhelming. Years back, one wag in philosophy set the terms by observing that the response to every philosophical argument was either an “oh yeah?” or a “so what?” So far, the Trump administration has vociferously denied that it is lying about Russian involvement in the 2016 election and, in fact, has said that all of the lying is on the other side. What then of the day when solid evidence is revealed, but no one cares? When our post-truth politics facilitates the easy slide from “oh yeah?” to “so what?”

Lee McIntyre is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and the author of “Post-Truth,” which will be published in February 2018 as part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series.

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How Martin Lewis’s battle with Facebook could shake online advertising to its core

The consumer advocate is furious that his face is being used to sell scams. 

Facebook simply cannot catch a break – not that many people will feel at that sorry for it. This month the company is in the middle of dealing with the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while also trying to make its service compliant with strict new EU data protection rules.

And now it’s having to deal with a lawsuit that could, in theory at least, threaten its entire business model. The challenge comes from consumer advocate and financial talking head Martin Lewis – no stranger to publicity – who is suing over the issue of his image in Facebook adverts linked to financial scams.

Adverts for these scams are one of the major sources of fake news across the internet, and Lewis is far from the only person to see his likeness used in them. The adverts are for an extremely high-risk and under-regulated form of trading known as “binary options”, which have seen numerous reports of people losing their life savings.

The extremely high-risk product, though, is often advertised as virtually (or entirely) risk-free, thanks to some formula devised by an expert – often accompanied by a convincing fake write-up by a trusted news network, such as the BBC or CNN. One such site even created a video faking an endorsement from the physicist Stephen Hawking to sell its services.

Lewis, then, has picked a good villain: he has every right to be angry that his image is being used to sell such scams, and a good case to make that it could be damaging to his reputation. He argues that despite the volume of adverts uploaded to Facebook, given their reputation for facial recognition and other technologies, they should easily be able to stop these adverts appearing at all.

This is where Lewis’s argument becomes somewhat simplistic: no level of facial recognition would let Facebook automatically fix the problem of placing adverts. Yes, Lewis may not lend his image to sell any financial product, but what if he was the keynote speaker at a conference? Or if a news outlet did an interview with him and wanted to promote it to help it attract views (a practice some outlets actually do)?

In the case of other public figures it gets trickier still: an environmental group may wish to use a picture of an oil company CEO as part of a Facebook advert, or campaign groups may wish to use pictures of politicians. Preventing all of this would effectively create a huge new right over use of likeness, to the detriment of free speech and free debate.

And yet Facebook’s current response – that it removes any misleading adverts if they are reported to it by users – feels lacklustre to the point of inadequacy. This becomes especially true given the strange plot twist following the publication of stories about Lewis’s legal challenge. In a tweet thanking outlets for the coverage, Lewis alleged that similar adverts were now appearing next to the articles in question, including on Sky News and the Guardian, asking them to “rectify this immediately”.

This highlights a huge issue for any site mainly or partially reliant on advertising – including this one – where many if not most of the adverts you see are determined by algorithm with no prior control or sight by any staff (editorial or commercial) before they’re seen by the public.

Sites can try to rule out adverts for certain types of product or services, or based on certain keywords, but such rules are patchy. The result is often that on numerous high quality journalism sites, the adverts can push dubious products, if not outright scams. At their most harmless, these are very low quality, ad-stuffed, celebrity listicles (‘18 celebrities you never realised were gay’). But then there are questionable sites offering help with PPI refunds – which can be got for far lower fees through official channels – and binary option scams.

Editors can and do try to get such adverts removed when their users alert them, but this needs to be done on an ad-by-ad basis and can be time-consuming. Oddly, thanks to the ad networks upon which they rely, news outlets find themselves facing the same problem as their oft-time rival Facebook

As a result, the high-quality media which is currently railing against, and trying to fight back against, fake news often finds itself at least partially funded by that self-same fake news.

If successful – and it’s likely to be a very long shot – Martin Lewis’s lawsuit could find that it radically breaks and reshapes the way not just Facebook advertising, but all online advertising. That would be a huge, perhaps existential, risk to many sites which rely on it. But given the threats posed by the current business model of the internet, many could be forgiven for feeling the risk might be one worth taking.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk