“You’re saying it’s a falsehood […] Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said in 2017 on national television in an interview with NBC.
This quote was in reference to the lie former White House press secretary Sean Spicer told in his very first press conference that Trump’s inauguration had been attended by the largest audience in history. Conway’s words, particularly her claim of the viability of “alternative facts,” have come to represent a trend made evident by Trump and his administration, in what political scientists have dubbed the “Post-Truth” era.
The term encompasses the idea that public opinion is shaped increasingly by emotional appeal and decreasingly by objective fact. This is demonstrated by the list of falsehoods that Trump has made throughout his presidency; according to the Washington Post, he has made over 9,000 false or misleading claims since assuming office. Among these was the boast he made to the United Nations in September of 2018 that his administration had accomplished more than almost any other in history. This claim was met with laughter.
Yet his lies find great success, at least among his supporters, because he offers a narrative that is not only flashy and seductive but, critically, one that his intended audience has already accepted. This gets to the heart of our Post-Truth problem: The departure from the truth is not inherent in our politicians, but in ourselves. The public has become far less discerning with information that is presented to them, and more sloppy in the process of forming judgments. Instead of drawing opinions from the evidence, we’ve begun to place facts nearer the end of the process, where they do little more than reaffirm our prior convictions. Our problem, then, is not in the propagation of untruths, but in their wide and unquestioning acceptance.
As tempting as it is to blame this trend on the president’s disregard for truth, Trump is but a sign of the times. We are likely witnessing the culmination of several societal shifts. For one, our politics have more consistently recognized the rhetorical value of entertainment. Trump understood this especially well in the 2016 election, utilizing his Twitter account to make snappy jabs at his opponents. Catchier information inevitably grabs public attention; it’s far more gratifying to read a 140-character tweet that the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive,” than it is to painstakingly pore over the data and form an independent judgment yourself.
Another likely cause is the age of digitalisation, which floods an online viewership with too much information to effectively verify. After all, when’s the last time you fact-checked an article online? In climate change denial and the anti-vaccine movement, we see the grim repercussions of our devaluing of truth.
The Post-Truth era is an indication of our collective response to information, and it is through monitoring our responses that we can resist its perpetuation. Primarily, we must become skeptics of any information presented to us. Through the internet, we are all publishers. This makes holding an opinion a responsibility, one that requires you to check, assess and verify every claim, especially if it pillars your own beliefs.
Post-Truth is a symptom of our willingness to believe, and our eagerness to be right. We have been slipping into a state of vulnerability, becoming the kind of society that a foreign agent or authoritarian ruler would lick their lips at. It is not too late to reverse this trend, but any solution requires us to demand the truth, and to settle for nothing less. The facts are out there, and it’s our job to find them.
Dillon Cranston is a freshman writing about politics. His column, “Holding Center,” runs every other Tuesday.