I first used the term “post-truth” last summer, before it was cool. By the end of 2016, “post-truth” had become various dictionaries’ “word of the year” and I had become sick of the sound of it. It has become an excuse for vanquished liberals like me to avoid confronting our own political mistakes.
“Post-truth” and its children “fake news,”, “the rise of populism” and “trolls” are all new variants of the ancient lament: “The public are stupid and the media is lying to them. If only they could see the truth, they’d agree with us.” Fake news is real (and has an inglorious history that precedes the internet, from the Hitler Diaries to the Hillsborough disaster) but it is a distraction. Instead of reflecting on why their ideas have lost their political potency, opinion formers have retreated to the oldest excuses in the book.
The current panic about fake news is convenient for traditional media groups, struggling to monetise their content. Trusted brands command a premium and these organisations hope that this might be the differentiator they’ve been looking for. Politicians, meanwhile, find old certainties disappearing in the digital age and are seeking ways to regain control.
Edelman’s 2017 Trust data found that the focus on “fake news” is out of kilter with the public mood. The majority of British people trust algorithms (59%) over human editors (41%) when it comes to filtering news. British and German politicians are applying pressure on Facebook to moderate more of its content, but the public doesn’t want to install a new set of human gatekeepers, they prefer the wisdom of the crowd. And whilst trust in the media overall collapsed dramatically, trust in digital-native brands (the ones typically blamed for propagating fake news) has risen by 5% over the last five years worldwide, whilst trust in traditional newspapers and broadcasters has fallen by 5% during the same period, closing the gap to only six points.
The crisis in journalism
The public doesn’t believe the problem is fake news, it’s news in general that has the problem. The collapsing economics of traditional journalism mean that news is increasingly shaped by narrative rather than fact.
Comment is cheap, news is expensive. Opinion is proprietary, facts want to be free. Social drives news consumption and it is the most-shrill voices we like to share. As journalism has become harder to monetise, it has suffered a brain drain. Increasingly, news is presented to us by ideologues, motivated by a desire to reshape a world they no longer have the time or expense accounts to learn about.
The case of Michael Brown highlights the problem. Brown’s fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 was a catalyst for the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Media reports at the time reinforced the idea that Brown was a victim of racist, militarised policing, with his hands up when he was killed. As the Washington Post would report months later, this version of events was a lie. On March 16, 2015, The Post’s Jonathan Capehart wrote:
“What DOJ [Department of Justice] found made me ill… Brown fought with the officer and tried to take his gun… ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ became the mantra of a movement. But it was wrong, built on a lie… In fact, the false Ferguson narrative stuck because of concern over a distressing pattern of other police killings of unarmed African American men and boys around the time of Brown’s death.”
That should have been the end of the matter. The court reached its verdict. A paper of record set the facts straight. But the narrative did not die. It is, to this day, repeated on a regularly across the media and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” is still the unchallenged rallying cry of Black Lives Matter. In January this year, The Guardian devoted its “long read“ to the incident, smothering the facts of the case in thousands of words of agitprop.
This kind of narrative-driven journalism is undermining trust in the media. The public might enjoy a polemic – and they’ll share ideas they approve of – but they have decreasing respect for journalists as experts. As Michael Wolff told Reliable Sources recently:
“Individual journalists, in many cases, are having a nervous breakdown. A good example is The New Yorker. For 100 years, it has had one style of journalism – very detailed, very close reporting. Since the election, the editor has gone off in fits of bloviation, never seen in the New Yorker before. No facts… The Trump strategy is to show that media people are hopeless prigs, out of touch with the nation.”
The tyranny of ‘someone like me’
But the root cause of the post-truth world is not our lack of trust in the news, it is the growing trust we place in “someone like me.”
For the last 17 years, the Trust Barometer has been tracking the long-term decline of trust in authority figures and traditional sources of information. Individuals are more trusted than institutions. Regular employees are more trusted than CEOs. Leaks are more trusted than news releases. Unpolished, off-the-cuff speakers are more trusted than scripted answers.
This trend began as healthy scepticism and a willingness to hold power to account. But it has gradually tipped over into tribalism. Ironically, this makes us less likely to hold power to account. The 2017 Trust data found that around 40% of people would overlook exaggerations from politicians as long as they were on the “right” side of the argument and we are four times more likely to ignore information that does not support a position we believe in. Like the journalists covering Ferguson, we believe truth is less important than the cause.
Thanks to search, Wikipedia and fact-checkers, facts have never been easier or cheaper to find, but they can be boring and uncomfortable – and sharing them can lose us friends. We prefer ideas and stories that make us feel good and allow us to signal our virtue by propagating them. We are fighting the good fight. And if we have to tell a few lies along the way then so be it. The ends justify the means. This phenomenon is not confined to any particular social group, it is universal – the product of our desire for purpose and belonging. As Brexit campaign strategist Dominic Cummings observed:
“We all fool ourselves but the more educated are particularly overconfident that they are not fooling themselves. They back their gang then fool themselves that they have reached their views by sensible, intelligent, reasoning.”
This is the public forum we have created. One in which narrative trumps fact and our fetish for “people like me” creates tribes and clusters immune to counter-argument.
It is not the fault of the journalists, whose wages we refuse to pay. It’s not the fault of fake news creators, whose click-bait stories feed our narcissism. It’s our fault. It’s you. And people like you.