We are living in an era of post-truth. The Oxford Dictionary defines post-truth as an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.
How did we get to the point where objective facts are no longer trusted? For a society to function, even in a complicated world, an agreement on the facts should be the starting point for any discussion or debate. Consider the 2020 Presidential election. It seems clear that Joseph R. Biden won the election. State and Federal government officials are in agreement on that and multiple recounts as well as the courts have upheld the results.
Yet, there are those among us who insist the election was somehow stolen. The emotions and beliefs of those who would have preferred a different outcome have seemingly overwhelmed the facts. I have listened to people suggest that a vast conspiracy occurred that permitted the rigging of elections in key states. It’s interesting to note that at least two key states where questions were raised are run by Republican governors. I also find it interesting that in Senate races, in four states, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine and North Carolina, where the Governors are Democrats, Republican candidates won those races. Considering the advantages of having control of both houses of Congress, why weren’t these important elections stolen?
I’m also troubled by the idea that such enormous conspiracies could actually take place without credible evidence identifying specifically how it was done. Surely, authorities involved in the election process would know. Benjamin Franklin’s saying that “three can keep a secret if two of them are dead,” comes to mind. Stealing an election either by the manipulation of counting machines or vote counts done manually, or even counting invalid votes, takes the work of more than a few people. Are there really that many people out there who can refrain from telling anyone about such a bold deed? I doubt it.
To be clear, both sides of the political spectrum are prone to favoring emotion over hard facts. Post-truth is a non-partisan issue.
You may be familiar with the term the “illusory truth effect,” which postulates that when we hear something that isn’t true often enough, we are more likely to start believing it is true. Research has shown that people with high intelligence levels are not immune to this phenomenon. According to an article in Research Digest, we are all predisposed to believe repeated information regardless of our own particular cognitive profile. Certainly, that makes it easier for advertisers and politicians to sell to us.
But social media has also played an important role in bringing us to the post-truth era. Prior to social media, the written word found in newspapers and magazines went through a rigorous editorial process where facts were checked. We might not agree with the conclusions a story reached, but we could usually rely on the factual information presented. Even television news was restrained by editors, at least until cable news became hyper competitive.
Notwithstanding some recent changes put in place by social media companies, there are practically no editorial or fact checking, controls that govern social media posts. We can write whatever we please, possibly unaware that what we are saying isn’t true; or trying to serve other purposes, knowingly post something that isn’t true. Other than perhaps a service like Snopes, people are left to their own devices. How rigorously do any of us distinguish between fact and opinion?
You’ve probably heard the term confirmation bias. That’s the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs or hypotheses. Confirmation bias makes it that much harder to evaluate things we hear or read, objectively. If it’s something I already believe, how much effort would I put into contradicting my existing views?
Can the post-truth era be turned around? I believe news organizations, including social media companies, are obligated to step up and vigorously reinstitute time honored practices like requiring confirmation from two separate sources before they publish a story. Whenever possible, sources should be mentioned by name.
Journalism’s number one obligation is to make every effort to tell the truth. When people have confidence that the source of their news is not fake, but truthful, they are quite capable of handling news they may not like. If we can once again agree on objective facts, perhaps we can move on to debate the real issues we face.
Len Serafino is a published author, seasoned writer and an experienced writing teacher.