Our Post-Fact World, Part I: There Isn’t a Scarier World
This is part one of a two-part series on post-fact thought. The second part will specifically address how post-fact thought influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
I may be wrong; perhaps the zombie apocalypse would be scarier. Ruling out irrationally hangry cannibals, the post-fact world tops the list. Oxford Dictionaries define “post-fact” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Such a clinical definition obscures why the post-fact world is so frightening. After all, haven’t people and politicians been lying since the dawn of humanity?
While suddenly abuzz in the media, the post-fact phenomenon is actually the result of deep, societal changes that span recent decades. These changes have produced a post-fact ideology that is unlike any of our ancestors’ deceitful tendencies. As one Economist article puts it, “The term [post-fact] picks out the heart of what is new: that truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance.”
The post-fact world is scary not because people lie, but because people now ignore reality itself. Reality won’t ever cease to exist, however, and the rift between perceptions and reality can have devastating—even life-threatening—consequences.
How did we even get in this mess?
The origins of the post-fact world are two-pronged. The first prong has to do chiefly with where we get facts from, something we tend to give little thought to.
While facts technically are an inherent product of reality—meaning nobody creates facts, they simply are—people can only learn facts through human means, namely the institutions that support our society. These institutions include the government, businesses, the scientific community, and the media. These institutions have the resources and know-how to determine what objective fact is, though one could argue that objective fact is ultimately unknowable due to our innate human biases.
The problem isn’t that humans are biased, though; that’s always been the case. The problem is that public opinion towards these fact-producing institutions has radically changed for the worse in the past 40 years. According to this study published in Psychological Science, U.S. public trust in virtually all institutions has steadily declined since the 1970s.
This is somewhat unsurprising given the scandals and lack of consensus that many of these institutions have exhibited since the mid-twentieth century. More concerning is that public trust in institutions has been intentionally degraded by those who have an interest in doing so. Climate change, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Brexit, and now the 2016 U.S. election are examples in which individuals and organizations have promoted the wholesale rejection of fact-providing institutions to the public for their own political or financial gain.
The second chief origin of the post-fact world is much simpler: the Internet. I realize that I sound like a technologically-challenged grandma by blaming the Internet, but its contributions to post-fact ideology are undeniable.
Almost two-thirds of adults in the U.S. receive their news from social media sites such as Facebook. According to the Wall Street Journal, that figure skyrockets to 88% when the demographic in question is teens and young adults age 18 and younger. Getting news from social media is problematic because of the algorithms these sites use to populate content into users’ newsfeeds. Facebook is especially notorious for its tendency to give its users news stories that reflect that user’s pre-established political views. Not only does this create an echo chamber that threatens political discourse, but it also creates the perfect breeding ground for fake news.
Fake news itself has been of late the most discussed symptom of our post-fact world. I’ve heard some experts such as this senior media writer for POLITICO dismiss fake news largely on the grounds that it has always existed. This argument overlooks the fact that fake news is now essentially weaponized through social media algorithms and click-based ad revenue programs such as Google AdSense.
The most successful fake news stories cater to conservative audiences and use eye-catching and outrageous headlines to generate clicks. Left-leaning fake news stories are propagated as well, though. This study by BuzzFeed found that 38% of stories posted by leading hyperconservative news pages contained some amount of false information, whereas 19% of hyperliberal stories also contained some amount of false information.
That study also only examined the more mainstream hyperpartisan news pages such as Occupy Democrats and Eagle Rising. There are dozens of more ideologically extreme fake news sources that churn out stories which are completely false. The people that write these stories often don’t have any political motivation for doing so; fake news is simply a way to make money, especially for those outside the U.S.
The small town of Veles, Macedonia is home to over 140 fake news sites that specifically target U.S. politics in the hope of turning a profit. The Macedonian economy is such that click-based ad revenue is meaningful income, especially for teens and young adults. This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the virulence of fake news stories. One fake news story titled “Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought” secured over 480,000 reactions on Facebook in a week. In contrast, the New York Times’ exclusive story on Trump’s $916 million loss on his 1995 tax returns accrued only 175,000 in an entire month.
Real world impact
That fiction outpaces fact at such a rate is disconcerting in the very least. Even more alarming is that ignoring fact and even promoting alternative “truths” have impacted people around the world—sometimes with deadly results.
Let’s take GMOs for example. Beginning in the late twentieth century, a stigma that GMOs were harmful to human health began to spread worldwide. That stigma was so powerful, in fact, that it led several governments to enact policies that banned or limited GMOs within their countries. In 2002, much of Southern Africa was stuck by a famine that left millions vulnerable to starvation. Instead of accepting food aid that contained GMOs, the Zambian government opted to risk starvation out of fear that GMOs were “poison.”
The most curious part of this story is that GMOs have repeatedly been proven to be safe for human consumption.* Why then did Zambia fear GMOs so much? The GMO scare can be traced back to Europe in the 1990s, when the European Union was deliberating how to regulate GMOs. The EU had a farm subsidy policy that would have outgrown the European agricultural budget with the introduction of GMOs to European farms (Drezner ch. 6). To protect its agricultural industry, the EU cast doubt on the safety of GMOs—a move that was particularly effective with an already-skeptical EU citizenry.
The factually inaccurate belief that GMOs were harmful “Frankenfoods” then spread to much of the world. A similar post-fact notion about climate change has taken root in the U.S., perhaps most vociferously promoted by the fossil fuel industry to protect its interests—much like the EU and GMOs. While it’s impossible to know how many lives climate change has taken or how many millions of dollars of damage it has caused, it remains a grave threat to this entire planet.
Whether post-fact ideology takes form in Facebook posts, fake news, or national legislature, it poses a risk. In the case of GMOs and climate change, that risk can mean life and death. In the case of the 2016 U.S. presidential election—a topic I will explore in the next segment of this series—it potentially could have determined who will become the most powerful person in the world. The post-fact world is real, and simply dismissing it will only make it a more permanent reality.
*While GMOs are safe for human consumption, they do pose environmental risks such as loss of biodiversity and increased use of pesticides.
Daniel W. Drezner, All Politics is Global: Explaining International Regulatory Regimes (Princeton University Press, 2008).
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