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We are not entering a "Post-Truth" era. The truth is, we have never been in anything else.

Lies have been a part of life since the dawn of man. The idea of post-truth misdiagnoses the endemic threat of being force fed too much information to compute.


I must admit, the Labour Party’s recent election campaign ads have left me feeling uneasy and I do not think I am alone. Regardless of one’s politics, deliberately misrepresenting a person’s views on a subject as emotive as sexual assault is a bold, even dangerous, course of action to take against a political opponent regardless of how low in regard you hold them.


Many commentators have used the campaign to claim that for a leader of the opposition who has crafted his image on seriousness, honesty, and integrity to authorise the release shows that UK politics, in line with most of the world, has manoeuvred itself into a period of “post-truth” where deceit is weaponised to win political arguments.


Yet whilst I agree dishonesty has become a recognised weapon in the arsenal of politicians on both sides of the spectrum, I struggle with the concept of “post-truth”. For if we are said to have entered this new age of deceitfulness in politics, when exactly was the utopian pre-truth or truth era?


From the dawn of time, human beings have created stories (lies) that have subsequently become the foundations upon which society as we know it has been created. Take religion, a concept that has shaped societal norms, ethical standards, and moral behaviour, which in the absence of evidential facts, is a series of mistruths that have snowballed into the large institutions that we know today.


Whilst this point may be contentious to some, it is incontestable that even the most ardent believer in any God must by definition of their belief agree that the other 17,000 Gods that anthropologists claim have been worshipped since the Bronze age are false? If it is true, that the Aztec God Huitzilopochtli decapitated his sister to avenge the killing of his mother then it cannot be the case that Shiva gave birth to Ganesh or Jesus turned water into wine. At least two of the three must be the result of human creativity.


I say this not to be disparaging of religion but to demonstrate that for as long as human beings have existed, they have used mistruths to aid the success of the species. The shared stories, be they religious or cultural allowed humans to create tribes, build relationships and ultimately develop a set of frameworks that enabled them to trade, socialise and expand. In that context, we are not entering into a post-truth age, we are, as historian Yuval Harari claims “a post-truth species”.


As a species we have become accustomed to the lies of others and actively take steps to protect ourselves from it. This is why we ensure that our boss provides us with a legally enforceable contract of employment to ensure that they will do as they promise. It is why shops issue receipts and demand proof of purchase when a customer seeks to return a product and why we tend to be wary of texts or emails from unknown senders asking for information. We have evolved as a species to be aware of the inherent presence of deceit in all aspects of our lives and politics is no different.



 

Honesty in politics is a peculiar concept. Whilst it is often held up as the minimum requirement for those elected to represent us in high office, it so very rarely seems to be present and tends to shock the general population more when it is demonstrated than when it isn’t. A study conducted by University College London found that of 6,500 participants, 71% valued honesty as the single most important quality required in politics. Hand in hand with this expectation however is the surety that it is something that is unlikely to be consistently realised, thus earning no more than a slight raise of one’s eyebrows in response to another episode of misleading claims, distraction techniques and outright lies.


Yet, lies have been synonymous with power since the dawn of time. From Roman Emperor Severus lying about his descending from Marcus Aurelius to Richard Nixon and Watergate, lying is hardly a new trick. They have often been a useful weapon in the arsenal of ambitious statesmen who understand the power of weaponising deceit to elicit emotion amongst a receptive audience. As Winston Churchill famously claimed, “a lie gets halfway around the world before truth has a chance to get its pants on.”


This is not to say that lies, especially in politics are not at times necessary. On the contrary, a Prime Minister afflicted by the curse Jim Carrey found himself under in Liar Liar could very easily cause turmoil in financial markets, geopolitical incidents and put national security at risk. Whilst philosopher Emmanuel Kant claimed that all lies, regardless of their aims are inherently unethical, in reality, they are a crucial tool in effective governance when employed appropriately.


However, where disinformation in its current form differs from any other time in history is the way in which it is disseminated and the volume that is thrown out into the digital ether. Author Aldous Huxley predicted this in his dystopian novel Brave New World where he imagined a future society being drowned in a deluge of information, the sheer amount meaning that any attempt to decipher and analyse is rendered useless. We see this dystopian vision coming to fruition on social media where there is a never-ending vacuum of information, facts and conspiracies and a growth in the way in which it has become used as a primary news source, with OFCOM estimating that more than half of British adults use online platforms as their primary source of news.


It is in this context of emotion being an effective driver of decision making combined with the rise of social media as a news source that we can begin to understand why a political party that chooses to stick to truth and facts will struggle to gain traction against a rival who is not so constrained. No where was this more evident than in the 2016 Brexit Referendum where Dominic Cummings’ false claims on the side of a big red bus gained far mar online traction than well calculated estimates on the financial impact of leaving the European Union.


Johann Hari’s extensive investigation into the role social media giants are increasingly playing in society illustrates this perfectly. His interviews with designers of algorithms behind the worlds biggest apps and neuropsychologists demonstrate the human disposition to being drawn to things that illicit anger over anything else and the exploitation of this by the website designers. It is telling therefore that Labour chose to publish their advert on Twitter alone, fully aware of the way in which their audience and the algorithm would react to such a provocative statement.


It is in this environment that we must learn to understand politics in the shape that it has been moulded into. In a world where hyperbole and controversy are the means with which to push out a message, politics of the next decade may come to be defined by the need to embellish and twist facts in order to ensure that they reach and register with the target audience. This is not an indication of a great leap into a post-truth age but a continuation of bending truth to suit political aims encouraged by social media algorithms that promote exaggeration over truth. In this new reality, perhaps it is time to let go of the unrealistic expectation of truth in public discourse and to stop chasing the gold at the end of the rainbow that we all know we are never going to find. It is well understood that politics has always been full of smoke and mirrors and truth is used only when beneficial to the person speaking. As we move into an age where information is so abundant that substantiating can be impossible to do accurately, it is perhaps time to view political messaging with a healthy dose of cynicism and suspicion.



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