Standing Up for Truth Against "Post-Truth"
19 December 2016
In 1964, Isaac Asimov, the famous writer ( and professor of biochemistry) was asked by the New York Times to peer into the future and predict how the world might be in 50 years’ time, in 2014.
Asimov forecast a world of progress where communications “ will become sight-sound and you will be able to see as well as hear the person you telephone.
“The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents, and photographs and reading passages from books.”
In 1980, despite these predicted advances in technology , Asimov provided what became a well-quoted observation about ignorance in America, an observation that extended beyond its borders -
“ There is a cult of ignorance and there always has been .
“ The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion than democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
In 2016, two years after his prediction of what became the world of the Internet, Skype and smartphones, came the election of an American President aptly described by Asimov’s famous quotation about ignorance.
Fact-based technology had become the means that allowed Trump and his followers to carry out fact-free attacks against opponents , using social media as an echo chamber to reinforce each other’s views and to organise such attacks.
“Post truth”, the Word of the Year this year of the Oxford Dictionaries, is defined as :
"relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief"*
“Post-truth” fits well into campaigns built on ignorance, lack of trust in “experts” , disregard for facts, and the belief that wanting something to be true is more important than if it is actually true.
Social media and algorithm- selected news can help such “post-truthers” create a world of their own, shielding them from the troublesome worlds of others.
And the means through which people consume news is changing.
In previous times, there were set times of day when television and radio , then the main source of information, would provide news , as a matter of record, at specific times – e.g. The Nine O’Clock News, News at Ten, The World at One.
These provided a structure to the day, and it was a daily ritual than many shared by watching or listening to attentively.
The difference between information obtained through the broadcast media and social media has been observed by Pablo Boczkowski , writing in Nieman Lab :
“People increasingly learn about current events not as an activity that is the center of their attention, but as an incidental outcome of consuming Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat on the small screens of their mobile devices. Most of the time, people concentrate only on the headline and the lead paragraph; sometimes they might click on a story, but if they do, they very rarely read it in its entirety.
"The attention spent on news stories is usually ephemeral and occurs in the midst of focusing on a wide spectrum of information items — from pictures of a friend’s new pet to reports of a relative’s exotic trip. “
In such a reservoir of information from algorithms , a person is unlikely to encounter an opinion that challenge his/her views of politics or society.
Furthermore, Twitter’s message restriction to 140 characters shows its limitations as a means of explanation and understanding.
Buzz Feed reported that , in the concluding months of the US Presidential election campaign,
“the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others.”
What makes political discourse different on social media is :
*The speed with which lies and disinformation can spread – “ A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes”, to quote an old saying.
*Continuous repetition of such lies and disinformation from many sources across the span in the Internet then being wrongly taken as verification that they are true.
There can be no compromise between facts, critical thinking and rational argument on one hand and a disdain for facts, and argument by emotion, most frequently expressed through anger , on the other.
To quote Isaac Asimov :
"If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them."
We continue to stand up for the truth.