The year 2016 will be remembered for Brexit and for the election of Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the United States, for the media and pollsters getting it wrong, for experts being out of touch with “regular” people and for the establishment being oblivious to the extent of public discontent.
Perhaps 2016 will also be remembered as the year that facts ceased to matter.
In November, Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as its international “Word of the Year.” The term is defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Casper Grathwohl, the president of Oxford Dictionaries, said it was not surprising that “post-truth” was selected to define 2016, given it has been a year “dominated by highly charged political and social discourse.”
“Fueled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time,” Grathwohl said in a statement.
The use of “post-truth” spiked in June with buzz over the Brexit vote and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination.
The post-truth campaign
Trump’s U.S. presidential campaign and the Leave.EU campaign in the U.K. succeeded with a deliberate strategy not to engage in a debate based on facts and to focus solely on winning the emotional argument.
Businessmen Arron Banks, who funded the Leave.EU campaign, said he relied on the explicit advice of U.S. political consultancy and public relations firm Goddard Gunster that “facts don’t work.”
“The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work,” Banks said earlier this year. “You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”
The Trump and Brexit campaigns were particularly effective in appealing to voter emotions with their slogans “Make America great again” and “Let’s take our country back.”
The messages tapped into the dissatisfaction of people who feel they have no control over their lives, which, seen through the proxy of their country, are heading in the wrong direction.
Modern campaigns no longer attempt to offer plausible policy solutions. Engagement on an emotional level is much more important.
The Brexit campaign communicated with short video clips shared on social media asking, “Are you concerned about the amount of crime being committed in the U.K. by foreign criminals?” or “Are you worried about the overcrowding of the U.K. and the burden on the NHS [National Health System]?” The supposed answer came in the form of another question: “Isn’t it time to take back control?”
Trump followed a similar strategy.
Political theorist Danielle Allen, who directs the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, says the U.S. has split into a culture that reads and a culture that watches.
Most of Trump’s campaigning was directed at people who watch and do not read, she said, which is one of the reasons why he could ignore the press. Instead of policy papers, Trump’s campaign website featured short videos expressing his attitude on specific topics.
“The old-fashioned read-a-lecture-from-a-text does not meet audiences where they are right now. And Trump gets that,” Allen told the Harvard Gazette in June. Trump appreciates the new culture, the changes in news consumption, and he knows how to amplify conversations through social media more than any other political actor.
“The communications marketplace has been transformed, and Trump is the only candidate in either party who understands the new architecture,” Allen said. “Any candidate could actually master the communications architecture just as well as Trump has and fill it with positive content. We’re in the very unlucky situation that the first person who happens to have mastered the new communications architecture is also filling those channels with junk.”
Trump, who says he has more than 10 million people following his social media accounts, is fully aware of the effectiveness of communicating on these platforms. In 2012, he tweeted, “I love Twitter … It’s like owning your own newspaper – without the losses.”
Lies do not matter
Yet, owning a newspaper, unlike Twitter, comes with the added responsibility of being bound by reporting facts. Newspapers can certainly be biased by omitting information and emphasizing certain facts over others. However, telling inaccuracies or even lies is much harder to do in traditional news media than in social media.
In his public statements, Trump often contradicted the established record, the facts and even himself without the negative consequences typically attached to outright lying.
PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact-checking organization, verified more than 300 of Trump’s statements since 2011 and found 70 percent of his claims were “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire.” About 15 percent of his statements were “half true” and the remaining 15 percent rated “mostly true” and “true.”
By comparison, PolitiFact verified nearly 300 of Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s statements since 2007 and found 26 percent of her claims were “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire.” About 24 percent of her statements were “half true” and 51 percent rated “mostly true” and “true.”
During the presidential campaign, both Trump and Clinton tried to taint each other as untrustworthy, habitual liars. In previous elections, this would have damaged the candidate who made the allegations. Not so in 2016.
“This has just been a clinic on the post-truth age of politics, Trump in particular. It’s performance art at this point,” Christopher Robichaud, a lecturer in ethics and public policy at Harvard said in the university’s Gazette. “It’s true that what Trump is saying is false, it’s just that in the post-truth age of politics, we’re beyond criticizing someone for that. It’s like criticizing an actor for saying a lot of false things. He says whatever he needs to say to move people emotionally.”
The media called this practice, rightly, populism and reported on Trump’s inaccuracies, putting the president-elect on a war footing.
The logical response for Trump, in dealing with organizations that trade in facts, was to deride the news media as elitist and partisan, and to brand them as part of the establishment that is, according to him, the real problem.
Reporters were singled out for abuse at Trump rallies and blacklisted for critical stories. Trump threatened to sue the New York Times for reporting on his taxes and NBC for the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape from 2005. In the video, he bragged about grabbing women by their genitals and getting away with it because he is famous. On “Fox News,” he threatened to go after Amazon for unpaid taxes. Amazon founder and CEO Jeffrey Bezos owns The Washington Post.
To do so, Trump advocated the introduction of tougher libel laws.
When the New York Times reported on the infighting in Trump’s transition team in November, the president-elect tweeted the Times “is just upset that they looked like fools in their coverage of me.” He claimed that the newspaper “is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the ‘Trump phenomena.’” The Times responded by saying its subscriptions are surging.
The media struggle
Post-election, media critics called news organizations “smug” and out of touch with ordinary people, in line with Trump’s allegations of an “elitist” and “establishment” media.
Conversely, it can be argued that ordinary people have become out of touch with traditional news media.
Since the advent of social media, the lines between reporting and opinion are increasingly blurred.
Traditional media not only have to fight free-falling advertising revenues, they also are no longer an authoritative voice. Newspapers, unsure about how to react to their diminishing influence and how to embrace digital media in a way that makes money, are now just one of many voices in the media landscape.
Media consumers have changed their behavior accordingly.
A 2016 Pew Research report on the modern news consumer confirmed a trend away from traditional news media. Although local and national news organizations remain the most trusted, only 20 percent of adults regularly get their news from print newspapers, down from 27 percent in 2013. And of those 20 percent, 85 percent are over the age of 50.
The same age group drives TV news consumption, which is still the most prevalent news platform. However, half of all news consumers under 50 receive their news online. Those who prefer digital news have a more negative view of the news media overall. They trust it less and sense more media bias, the research found.
In January, in another survey by Pew, more people under 50 reported that they get their news from late-night comedy programs than from local and national newspapers.
Ironically, it is comedian Stephen Colbert, who more than 10 years ago coined the term “truthiness” in “The Colbert Report,” a satirical mock news show on Comedy Central, in response to the increasing number of lies told on regular TV news channels. The term denotes that something is true because it comes “from the gut” or “feels right” regardless of evidence, reason or facts.
Media and ‘anti-media’
Meanwhile, the proliferation of partisan media has led to a rising polarization that reinforces bias and has made political dialogue and problem solving more difficult.
Following the U.S. presidential election, CNN’s Brian Stelter said traditional news media reporting still mattered to some people. “But maybe something else mattered even more, something I would call anti-media. Breitbart is anti-media. Much of ‘Fox News’ is anti-media. Fake news websites and some right-wing blogs are anti-media.
“These outlets provide a different audience with a different set of facts about the world, but too often what they’re really selling are opinion and conspiracy theory masquerading as fact.”
All journalists have a responsibility to the truth, he said.
“The truth is not in a bubble. It is not elitist to reject conspiracy theories or fact-check obvious falsehoods. It should be done equally, but truth is the word we can keep coming back to. Don’t cower before the truth. Don’t tell half-truths, don’t shade the truth. Don’t fear the truth. And then we can focus on the other “t” word – trust. Winning back the trust of people who right now prefer anti-media.”
This will be a difficult task.
The internet and social media have democratized the news by giving everyone with access to a computer or cellphone a voice. They have brought about new forms of journalism like citizen reporting. They have also created an enormous amount of noise.
Social media sites like Facebook, through which most millennials receive their news, even call their main messaging boards “news feeds.” On this social media news feed, links to traditional news reports compete for attention with news from family and friends, entertainment, puppy and cat videos, food photos, conspiracy theories, fake news and well-packaged misinformation.
An analysis by BuzzFeed News found that in the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement in the form of shares, reactions and comments than the 20 top stories from major news outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post or NBC News.
Google faced similar criticism when after the election its top search result featured a fake news blog claiming, with detailed results, that Trump had won the popular vote.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rejected the allegations that fake news on the social network could have swayed voters in the U.S. presidential election as a “crazy idea.” He added that Facebook does not want to become an “arbiter of the truth.”
Facebook and Google nevertheless announced they will stop placing their advertising on sites that present fabricated news. Facebook later outlined plans to combat misinformation.
Changing and hidden values
The relative anonymity of the internet has brought about increasingly coarse language in the public discourse that is now even mirrored by mainstream political candidates. Traditional fact-based reporting is countered with a permanent diet of “crisis mode” talk, needed to make the new radicalized rhetoric more palatable for the disoriented, dissatisfied voter.
More than just a changing culture of language, the diminution of fact reveals a fundamental shift in the basic common value of honesty and a growing tolerance for divulging opinions and core values that in the past remained hidden.
“Telling it like it is” no longer means disclosing a hitherto little shared fact. It has become uttering something that until now was unacceptable because it is, at the very least, bordering on the obnoxious.
This is also reflected by the inability of surveys and opinion polls to get a correct handle on the true beliefs of their focus groups in the run-ups to Brexit and the U.S. election.
It is a valid criticism that the media, in an effort to supplement the reporting of campaign slogans with fact, overly relies on polls and surveys without the disclaimer that they have a considerable margin of error.
The limitations of surveys have been known for decades. One factor is the spiral of silence theory, which has provided numerous examples since the 1970s showing that people remain “silent” in surveys when they believe their views are in opposition to the majority. Or they plainly lie if they feel their views are socially unacceptable, for example because they might be perceived as sexist or racist.
Other sources of potential inaccuracy in surveys include poor sampling of a population, not weighting data properly in a “non-random” sample, and bias on the part of researchers asking the questions and interpreting the results.
The danger is that disregarding facts has wider consequences for everyone.
“If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” President Barack Obama said in November.
“If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect. We won’t know what to fight for. And we can lose so much of what we’ve gained in terms of the kind of democratic freedoms and market-based economies and prosperity that we’ve come to take for granted,” he said.