What is it?
It was the word of the year for the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016, but it was firstly used in 1992. The first person to use the term post-truth was the novelist Steve Tesich, who used it in 1992 in an article for The Nation magazine. He talked about the news revolving around the Regan administration and the Gulf War, where he referred to the post-truth as the intention of Americans to strip away the relevance of the truth and the concern that the truth brought with it.
Today, we understand post-truth as the term used to refer to the "deliberate distortion of a reality, which manipulates beliefs and emotions in order to influence public opinion and social attitudes", according to the dictionary of RSA. In other words, it is used to indicate that emotions are used more than facts in political and social discussions. Several circumstances are associated with post-truth, such as lying, ignorance, charlatanism, disinformation, fake news, populism, social networks, propaganda, and denialism, all of them based on the idea of mass deception.
We find an example of post-truth in the context of Covid 19 pandemic, where anti-vaccine groups are common. In most countries some people refuse to be vaccinated, claiming that the vaccine is not effective against the disease, arguing that generates serious side effects. Many of these people carry out campaigns mentioning false pseudo-scientific studies, which serve as arguments to spread “facts” but, they are opinions tainted with lies. These groups seek to convince us that vaccines do not save lives, but affect them. They are not interested in the scientific studies that support the suitability of the vaccine to combat the mortality caused by the pandemic, they ignore and discredit them with opinions instead of facts.
Another example of post-truth is the anti-establishment sensation that helped Donald Trump to obtain the U.S. presidency. According to Politifact, 70% of the statements he made during his election campaign were false. "Trump is the ultimate exponent of 'post-truth' politics, (...) a reliance on claims that feel true but are not supported by reality," wrote The Economist magazine. The Washington Post states that in 200 days in office as president of the United States, he made 1,318 that were not true. One example is that, according to CNN, he said more than 100 times that, before his presidency, the United States had for years an annual trade deficit of US$ 500 billion with China, although the actual pre-Trump deficit never reached US$ 400 billion.
Post-truth as a concept is being widely discussed by academics. Some definitions emphasize the sender of the messages, others that put focus on the listeners. But before settling any academic discussion, we can understand post-truth as a concept that has recently developed to refer broadly to the goal of a person or group to convince people to believe in something, using disinformation, fake news, lies, or emotional arguments to do so.
Why is post-truth relevant?
Following Pew Research Center, 23 percent of people admit to having shared news stories that later turned out to be false, and 14 percent knew they were false, they also revealed that half of Americans aged between 18 and 30 consume news through the Internet platforms. All of these imply that social networks and the content we share, responsibly or irresponsibly, will reach our contacts or followers as easily as hitting ‘send’ or ‘share’.
Hyper-connection has allowed social networks to be our daily source of information, but it should also lead us to be much more critical of the content we consume. WhatsApp chains and user opinions on networks should not become our sources of reliable information, because they have an absence of objective rigorousness. We will end up reading what is shown to us as an embellished truth configured to our liking, something we accept as truer than the truth of the facts themselves. Juliana González, professor of Social Communication at Eafit University says that "now people get information through Facebook, through what other people share, which can be compared to what used to be the 'they say over there’, and those sources are rarely reliable".
One of the characteristics of democracy is the possibility of expressing opinions freely. However, the problem of post-truth is that opinion becomes a source of information and leaves aside the objective facts of the things we want to talk about or describe. The problem is that we do not know what information is reliable for argumentation and public debate, then appealing to emotions becomes a perfect option for those who ignore the truth and this is the scenario in which disinformation takes part in the daily conversations of citizens.
What can we do?
Not everything should be unimportant. We will start giving back the real value of truth by reflecting on whether we respect it, and avoiding manipulating it at our whim. In this sense, we cannot treat data in the same way as opinions. We will have to make an effort to recognize what is objective and what is tainted by subjective interpretations.
We citizens must assume the responsibility as users, to make an additional effort when consuming and producing content for social networks. Before sharing content, we should ask ourselves: Has anyone verified this information? Where does this information come from, and is it a primary and reliable source? Is there an intention behind this content?
Besides, being critical of the media will allow us to eliminate the veils of perception. It is important to ask ourselves: Does this media usually correct information that is trending or erroneous? Does it share ambiguous contents or conspiracy theories? Who are the owners of this media? Does this media have a defined political position?
There is even the opportunity to be self-critical, so we can ask ourselves: Do I want to be right in this discussion at any cost? Does that imply inventing false arguments? Am I talking about real facts or my own opinions? Do I have an opinion based on truthful information and reliable sources? We should be committed to the truth rather than winning political arguments.
All these guiding questions will allow us to discern between truth, truth with interests involved, a lie disguised as truth, and a lie.
We'd like to invite you to join our free, online course on "Countering Disinformation" which will give you the basic knowledge of and practical tools regarding countering disinformation:
If interested, you can find fact-checkers around the world in this page: International Fact-Checking Network