Finding Meaning in a “Post-Truth” World

Both the British and American public are trying to come to terms with some of the most divisive, unstable and unpredictable political events in modern history. In the UK, the population is still riding the wave of uncertainty as the Brexit saga rolls on and between Prime Ministers and High Courts, everyone is still none the wiser as to what is actually going to happen. Now America has returned its 45th head of state to office. The self-styled Brexit President has defied the odds, the pollsters and the very vocal critics to creep into the Whitehouse, propped up by a very similar feeling of marginalisation, hopelessness and abandonment by the establishment which lead to so many voting for Brexit.

Someone said to me recently, if you’re faced with a choice between more of the same and a swerve round a blind corner, and your more of the same is pretty dire, you’ll swerve every time. This is clearly a new kind of political thinking, dubbed Post-Truth Politics by some and I’ve been pondering the ramifications. Not in the sense of my own political beliefs (never talk about politics and religion at the dinner table after all!) but more about what Post-Truth means for communicators who rely on facts, statistics and insights to do their jobs, help organisations succeed and give the public the best experiences possible.

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The Washington Post’s Fact Checker Blog awarded Trump its must dubious accolade, four Pinocchios, which as cute as it sounds is actually terrifying when 70% of the “facts” they checked turned out to be highly dubious or outright lies. Trump was even in the habit of phoning journalists and pretending to be his own spokesman, John Miller, which would be a wheeze if not for the fact that this man now has his hands on the nuclear launch codes.  Very few 70 year-old men could secure a job with zero previous experience, criminal allegations hanging over their head, and widely reported misogynist and racist slurs without the power of the reality TV and the power of confirmation bias. Trump spent $795 million compared to Clinton’s $1.3 billion, yet managed to secure almost twice as much media coverage.  It was his celebrity which allowed people to explain away the above flaws which would ensure every door was shut to you in the corporate world.

As reprehensible as you may find Trump (or indeed as refreshing), what can’t be ignored on either side of the debate is the fact that throughout the Brexit and American presidential campaigns, lies have been reported as facts, misinformation peddled mercilessly and the general public has developed a sort of malaise of acceptance. People are rejecting the system perceived as broken, whether it’s the growing grumblings about our own “First Past the Post” system or the fact that Clinton actually received more votes, effectively an indication that one American’s vote is not equal to another’s. I believe this has had a very telling effect. The public are lying in response.

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In the British general election, the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election, the pollsters, a former bastion of reasonable prediction backed up by hard data, have failed miserably to predict very much of anything. The people they poll are saying one thing and doing another. Some because they don’t want a perceived risible political opinion to be openly known (even if polls are private). Others because they make last minute U-turns when they hold the ballot paper in their hands. Don’t worry though, some institutions are still making frightening accurate predictions. We can always rely on The Simpsons!

This kind of response to polling could start to take hold in the general psyche, and if so, statisticians and purveyors of insight like me will soon be out of a job as our weighted arguments won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on.

Of course, we could all be living, if you believe Adam Curtis, in the era of Hyper-Normalisation; The concept that the media, politicians and corporations have conspired to create a “fake world” where the pageantry of politics and a free press simply exist to mask the fact that the world is run by corporations. As bleak as this is, it becomes even more worrying if the big brands in charge no longer have an effective way to measure popular opinion themselves.

‘Post-Truth’ is Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2016

Callum Gill

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