Guest post: The logic of the post truth era

Originally a post by Bjarte Foshaug at Miscellany Room.

As a part of my ongoing efforts to study the rise of authoritarianism I recently finished reading This Is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev. Here are what I take to be some of the main points.

Where the totalitarian movements of the 20th century used to peddle some official story (an ideology, a philosophy, a world view etc.) that purported to be true and back it up with appeals to supposedly objective facts and rational arguments, the new authoritarians have adopted a more “postmodern” approach. Rather than claiming the truth for themselves, the likes of Trump, Putin, and Erdoğan are content to put so much conflicting information out there that people finally just give up trying to understand what’s going on. Apart from creating general confusion, the idea is to sow as much doubt, distrust, suspicion, cynicism, and paranoia as possible in order to convince people that nothing is what it claims to be and everything they hear – including any criticism of the authoritarians themselves – is all just part of somebody else’s hidden agenda or nefarious plot. If everyone is always lying, you might as well go with the lies that are most favorable to your own tribe. If everyone is a crook, you might as well support the crook who claims to be on your side.

Even back in the “pre-post-truth” era politicians, commercial interests, and ideological pressure groups of every kind did, of course, employ the whole arsenal of outright lies, subtle lies, bullshit, bending the truth, half-truths, spin, and a practically endless store of disingenuous and self-serving “framings”. But even if people often failed to live up to the established norms and standards of honesty and truthfulness, at least it used to be implicitly understood that there were such norms and standards, which is why even liars (at least the clever ones) would usually make some effort to cover their tracks, make sure there was “plausible deniability” etc. Being caught telling obvious, outright, shameless lies used to be embarrassing pretty much no matter who you were, and hardly anyone ever walked away from such an exposure without being at least temporarily weakened. The logic of the post truth era has turned this situation on its head. As Pomerantsev puts it:

…what seems novel is that they seem to be making a thing out of showing that they don’t care about whether they tell the truth or not. When Vladimir Putin went on international television during his army’s annexation of Crimea and asserted, with a smirk, that there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea, when everyone knew there were, and later, just as casually, admitted that they had been there, he wasn’t so much lying in the sense of trying to replace one reality with another as saying that facts don’t matter. Similarly the president of the United States, Donald Trump, is famous for having no discernible notion of what truth or facts are, yet this has in no way been a barrier to his success. According to the fact-checking agency PolitiFact, 76 per cent of his statements in the 2016 presidential election were ‘mostly false’ or down-right untrue, compared to 27 per cent for his rival. He still won.

Paradoxically, in a world of collective distrust and suspicion, the person who lies most openly and “blatantly” may end up being perceived as more “honest” than those who “pretend” to be telling the truth.

The libertarian trope that the truth always prevails in a free “marketplace of ideas” was, of course, always on shaky ground. The idea that new media – simply by making all kinds of information more readily available – would inevitably lead to a new enlightenment was only ever a Utopian dream. The same technologies that have made it easier than ever to spread true information and good ideas have also made it easier than ever to spread false information and bad ideas. Still, it used to be a common perception that free speech, as well as more information in general, favored the side of truth and democracy while censorship was the tool of oppressive regimes who were afraid of the truth and could only survive in a climate of forced orthodoxy. With the rise of social media authoritarians have managed to co-opt many of the tools of pro-democratic movements, including free speech, e.g. by framing organized disinformation campaigns by thousands of trolls and bots as “concerned citizens exercising their right to free speech”. Meanwhile, faced with this sudden onslaught of disinformation and fake news, some of the people on the pro-democracy side do indeed start calling for censorship, thus enabling the authoritarians to claim that their opponents are the ones who are afraid of the truth and have no choice but to silence their critics because they don’t have any counter-arguments.

Another tool that authoritarians have taken from the playbook of their opponents is to assemble a mass-movement by uniting widely disparate groups behind a lowest common denominator that should be so vague and nonspecific (disaffection with the “elite” or the “establishment”, wanting “change” etc.) that everyone can find an interpretation they can get behind. Indeed, another advantage of not being committed to a coherent ideology is that you are free to selectively target different groups with different messages especially tailored to their tribal prejudices and biases. The algorithms of social media platforms like Facebook have made it easier than ever to identify people’s predispositions, and frame your message in terms of what they are already afraid of or angry about. If you’re on the far left, say, you might find your timeline flooded with messages portraying Ukrainian protesters as nazis;. If you’re on the far right they’ll be portrayed as representatives of the international Jewish conspiracy. If you’re part of the BLM movement you’ll be targeted by messages portraying Hillary Clinton as a racist; If you are a racist, you’ll be told that she loves black people and is in favor of wide-open borders. The fact that these messages can hardly be true at the same time doesn’t matter as long as the people on both sides live in separate information bubbles and never compare notes.

Not only are people especially susceptible to information that confirms their pre-held views, but hardly anyone is immune to group conformity and tribalism. Bots, trolls and cyborgs exploit this by disguising themselves as ordinary citizens and members of the same tribe as their targets, thus creating the impression that certain views are both immensely popular and widely accepted among those you consider part of your ingroup:

Today bots, trolls and cyborgs could create the simulation of a climate of opinion, of support or hate, which was more insidious, more all-enveloping than the old broadcast media. And this simulation would then become reinforced as people modified their behaviour to fall in line with what they thought was reality. In their analysis of the role of bots, researchers at the University of Oxford called this process ‘manufacturing consensus’. It is not the case that one online account changes someone’s mind; it’s that en masse they create an ersatz normality.

Once this “climate of opinion” or “manufactured consensus” or “ersatz normality” has been established, you hardly even need the trolls and bots anymore. People will eagerly and enthusiastically keep spreading the disinformation all by themselves.

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