Facts in the new ‘post-truth’ world

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Media Practice | 19/11/2016
With people preferring lies to facts and social media to the mainstream media, the role of the latter in exposing falsehoods has become more important than ever.
SHUMA RAHA explains


“Post-truth”, the Oxford Dictionary’s choice as the Word of the Year, is piquant, for  it sums up a year in which Western politics has been driven by a stunning disavowal of facts in favour of appeals to biases and beliefs. Both the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as President of the US came riding on a battalion of falsehoods and half-truths that most people either believed or coolly ignored. This, while they thrilled to the cunning plays on nativism and deep-seated resentments that both campaigns unleashed.

In each case, the traditional media, which takes upon itself the task of checking facts and exposing falsehoods, did call out many of these lies. But that had little effect on voters who were only listening to what they wanted to hear.

Take Britain’s Leave campaign, which was built primarily on the claim that the UK contributed 350 million pounds to the EU per week, an amount that Leavers said could be spent on improving the National Health Service. Parts of the media pointed out that this was a gross distortion of facts but it went unheeded. However fantastical, a majority of UK voters were intoxicated with the idea, as they were with the Brexiteers’ promise to cut immigration by “taking back control” of the country’s borders.


"The Brexit vote and Trump’s win show that the media’s role as fact-checkers is becoming almost irrelevant in today’s political discourse."


On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump, the caricature plutocrat-buffoon, won the election in spite of (or was it because of?) the astonishing amounts of falsehoods he has uttered over the years. Among his many colossal lies, Trump has said for years that Barack Obama, the country’s first black President, was not an American citizen, and then claimed that it was Hillary Clinton who started the “birther” controversy.

He has called Mexican immigrants “rapists and criminals”; claimed that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey had celebrated the 9/11 attacks; that he respects women,  although he has been exposed as an unabashed misogynist and sexual predator; that climate change was a hoax “created by and for the Chinese to make US manufacturing non-competitive” and so on.

According to fact-checking website Politifact, as much as 70 per cent of Trump’s statements were false or mostly false. Other mainstream newspapers and cable television networks such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and so on, have repeatedly pointed out Trump’s mendacity. But to no avail. As Salena Zito wrote in The Atlantic, “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

Indeed, to Trump’s supporters, his wild assertions were just ballast to his core message, namely that he would bring the jobs back, chase away the immigrants, and make America great again by reclaiming it for the white working class who felt dispossessed and marginalised.

The Brexit vote and Trump’s win show that the media’s role as fact-checkers is becoming almost irrelevant in today’s political discourse. The reason is due in part to the widely diverse media environment. Many people get their news and views from social media or niche websites which come without the filters of mainstream media.

They could disseminate the most outrageous conspiracy theories but if these are in sync with the user’s beliefs, he or she may accept them as fact and look no further.

Fake news is shared and circulated as gospel truth. This week Paul Horner, a prolific fake news writer on Facebook, told The Washington Post, “Nobody fact-checks anything anymore - I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it.”

Links to Horner’s wild fake news stories were often circulated by Trump’s supporters, not for entertainment, but because they believed in them.

What has also whittled away the influence of the media in setting the record straight is that social media now allows politicians to communicate directly with the people. Trump has 15.4 million followers on Twitter; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has 24.6 million. They can talk straight to the electorate, without giving the mainstream media the opportunity to set out the necessary context, or go into the veracity of their statements.


"What has also whittled away the influence of the media in setting the record straight is that social media now allows politicians to communicate directly with the people."


In a speech to Temple University’s School of Media and Communication earlier this year, Marty Baron, editor of The Washington Post (Baron’s was a pivotal character in the Oscar winning film Spotlight), said, “We are living in a time when people can choose where they get their information. Choice is good. Yet people are turning to media outlets that are cynically propagating falsehoods to advance an ideological agenda.

“Fact-checking by mainstream media organizations has no effect. We are objects of suspicion, accused of hiding facts. Seeing opportunity, politicians exploit these fabrications for their own ends, repeating them - or staying silent when they know full well they are untrue.”

That said, at times the traditional media also fall short when it comes to fact-checking. Television channels are often the biggest offenders on this count. Many of them would rather show something sensational that will send the ratings soaring than get into the tedious business of fact-checking. In the US, it could be a Trump speech peppered with outrageous assertions; in India it could be video footage that seems to show JNU’s student union president and others shouting anti-India slogans.

In January this year, several Indian news channels showed the footage again and again, pumping up the populist, nationalist rhetoric. Few bothered to check if it was authentic before deciding to bombard viewers with it. As it happens, at least two of the tapes in question were eventually found to have been doctored.  

In the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump winning the US presidency, reams are being written on how we are in the era of post-truth politics. However, the art of the spin has always been an essential part of politics. Politicians, rarely known for their fidelity to the truth, try to manipulate the masses any way they can.

However, in the functioning democracies of the world, the media have always held them to account for what they say or do, by questioning, investigating, and offering alternative perspectives, and have thereby influenced public opinion.

This week Google and Facebook announced that they will restrict ads on fake news sites on their platforms. Google is also going to fund a project to develop a fully automated fact-checking system. The moves come after widespread criticism that fake news may have influenced the outcome of the US elections.

These are small measures. But they are a start. Indeed, in the current climate, where manifold versions of “facts” ricochet around the internet, the media’s responsibility in checking facts and calling out liars and shysters cannot be overestimated. Few may be listening now, but that job still needs to be done.


Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi.Twitter: @ShumaRaha




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