“There are three types of lies,” Benjamin Disraeli is alleged to have declared, “lies, damned lies, and statistics”.
One wonders what Disraeli or Mark Twain, who popularised the quotation, would have made of the current state of politics, which is filled to bursting with all three. So prevalent has ‘post-truth politics’ become, whereby people distort facts, dubiously source data, or simply make up things in order to fuel their own narrative, that the phrase was declared the Oxford Dictionary’s word of 2016.
It is my firm belief that post-truth politics helped push Britain out of the EU and Donald Trump into the White House. Politicians now seem comfortable promising things that they surely must know can never be delivered, from £350m a year for the NHS from the Leave campaign, to walls on the US border with Mexico from the then Republican candidate.
It appears that Michael Gove was right when he said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Voters now seem to care more about the sentiment than the statement itself. So dramatic has this change in discourse been, that it is hard to remember quite how we got here.
Writing in the New York Times back in August, William Davies, author and Associate Professor in political economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “The problem is the oversupply of facts in the 21st century: There are too many sources, too many methods, with varying levels of credibility, depending on who funded a given study and how the eye-catching number was selected.”
Davies says that there is a for-hire facts industry that means anyone can pay for their own truth if they have enough money.
We are, without doubt, drowning in a sea of information, and this allows people to fish out the facts that suit them. However, I’m not convinced by Davies’ argument. It may not be fashionable to say so, but research, polling and yes, good old fashioned journalism, still have a vital role to play in helping us understand what is going on in the society, and what is deliverable by our elected leaders.
Social media is clearly a huge factor in information getting warped, and untruths being spread. We live in an age where trolls and troublemakers can, as the old saying goes, get a lie halfway around the world before the truth has put its boots on.
Fake news, powered by Facebook and Google algorithms not smart enough to edit fact from well-constructed fiction as humans can, is hurtling around the internet at lightning speed.
The US Presidential election demonstrated this perfectly. There was a genuine discussion in the media as to whether Hillary Clinton had suffered a stroke or was suffering some other major illness, because her opponents spread it on social media and on television that she had, despite all medical evidence pointing to the contrary.
The Trump campaign has regularly made statements that independent, non-partisan websites such as Politifact declared to be untrue, and yet he still swept to a comprehensive victory in the electoral college. His supporters cared about the rhetoric, not the reasoning.
If you cannot get an appointment easily at your local GP, £350m a week for the NHS sounds great.
If you think your job has been taken by a Mexican immigrant you may well want to build that wall, and you would probably believe a US President can make Mexico pay for it too. Most importantly, even if you do not believe those things can come to pass, you would be pleased somebody is prepared to tackle your issues.
Post-truth politics is then born both out of a frustration at the way things currently are, and a technological and media environment that allows people to ramp up and spread all kinds of misinformation.
After all, much of the public think that the current crop of political leaders have not done so well for us. They may well reason that even if a grandiose promise is only partially kept that is better than things are now.
From Brexit to Trump, Corbyn to Sanders, immigration to surveillance laws, liberalism has taken a bit of a pounding in 2016. In this post-truth era liberals have found ourselves at a disadvantage. In large part this is because so much of liberal thought is based on reason, logic and evidence, the very things people are rejecting.
Light will always be the best disinfectant though, and if we are going to counter fake news and post truth politics we liberals need to do more than just piously fact check. We need to sell the reality, the accurate, fact based, reality, far better than we are doing. Otherwise post-truth politics will be here to stay.
Charlotte Henry is a member of Bright Blue. This is an article from Bright Blue’s magazine The End of the Establishment?