english version era postverdad

txt la era de la postverdad

The age of post-truth, post-veracity and charlatanism

Author: Martín Montoya, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Navarra
Published in: +1 Sumando historias
A version of this article was published in Palabramagazine.
Publication date: 2019

The year 2016 was labelled by many journalists and political analysts as the year of post-truth. This term is the translation of post-truth, chosen as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. Its meaning refers to something that denotes circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in influencing public opinion training than appeals to personal emotions and beliefs. Under these terms, anyone wishing to influence public opinion must concentrate their efforts on making speeches that are easy to accept, insisting on what can satisfy the feelings and beliefs of their audience, rather than on the actual facts.

Thus, shortly afterwards, the German Society of the language declared that postfaktisch would be chosen as the word of the year 2016. And in Spanish, the Fundéu BBVA foundation nominated the word posverdad for a similar award .

Post-truth has often been identified with lies. In many media, the conclusion is that post-truth is not new: lies have always existed and we are therefore dealing with a neologism born out of whimsy. So, should we take this word seriously?

The birth of an era

The word post-truth was first used in the American press in 1992, in an article by Steve Tesich for The Nation magazine. Tesich, writing about the Watergate scandals and the Iraq war, indicated that even then we had accepted living in an era of post-truth, in which lies are told without discrimination and facts are concealed. However, it was in Ralph Keyes ' The Post-Truth Era (2004) that the term found a certain conceptual development .

Keyes pointed out at the time that we live in the post-truth era because his credo has taken hold among us: creative manipulation can take us beyond the realm of mere accuracy into a realm of truth narrative. Embellished information is presented as true in spirit, and truer than truth itself. Keyes' definition offers a certain core topic to understand the events of the past months. We will return to it shortly. But first we must ask ourselves: how did this post-truth era come to us?

To understand how it is possible that we find ourselves in such an era, we need to consider some of the media factors of speech through which it has spread. To begin with, the post-truth era makes reference letter the proliferation of fake news on the Internet, insulting comments bordering on defamation posted every day on the platforms of speech online, and the discrediting of institutions through comments - often anonymous - in these same media.

The Guardian's Katharine Viner, in her article "How technology disrupted the truth", indicated that behind all this is the intentional misrepresentation of facts by some digital media that advocate a certain social and political stance. But, along with the above, there are also the efforts of this media subject to attract visitors to their platforms, with no other intention than to maintain a business that sells what the public wants to find.

Viner explains that this is made possible by the algorithms that feed the news feeds of search engines such as Facebook and Google, which are designed to give the public what they want. For the Guardian editor , this means that the version of the world we encounter every day when we log into our personal profiles, or search on Google, has been invisibly filtered to reinforce our own beliefs.

Information consumption on the rise

It is, therefore, an effort to mould the media, and the content, to the tastes of the users. Following Keyes' definition, we can say that we are given sample a truth embellished and configured to our liking, something that we accept as truer than the truth of the facts themselves.

A few years ago we were surprised to find, on any website, advertisements for the purchase of products that we had seen on Amazon just a few hours earlier. Today this is commonplace. It seems that, nowadays, the strategy applied to the sale of products on the Internet is also used in the case of the news we want to consume. This should come as no surprise. A report by the Pew Research Center revealed a few months ago that half of Americans between 18 and 30 years of age consume news via Internet platforms, and that this trend is growing. Therefore, the information consumption market will continue to grow, and the strategy of giving the customer what they want is a way to achieve customer loyalty. It is true that the purchase of news on this media subject is not abundant, but this is where the greatest possibility of influencing the future consumer public is offered.

This means that, on the part of electronic platforms, we are less and less likely to find information that challenges us, that expands our worldview, or to find facts that refute misinformation that people around us have shared.

Even for a social network as flexible as Twitter, this can be the case, due to the constant advertisement of the tweets that are most liked by the people one follows. However, it would be absurd to place all the blame for falling into the post-truth era on the speech media and their strategies for conveying information. Clearly, the blame must be placed on the people who lie, misrepresenting the truth of the facts. But it seems it is also important to examine, albeit briefly, an attitude that can occur in users or consumers and which is of direct concern to us.

Post-veracity and mistrust

Ralph Keyes pointed out, in The Post-Truth Era, that the immediate consequence of post-truth is post-veracity. That is, a distrust of public discourse, but not because of its content, which may be true and even scientifically proven. The distrust generated by post-truth is based on the fact that the message may serve a hidden purpose, unintended by the audience. Does this idea reflect something real about our society and the way we conduct ourselves in it?

It seems that post-veracity can only emerge in times like the present, when there is an attitude of discredit towards public discourses because we expect that such information does not convey the whole truth. We might think that we should avoid drama, since we are still consuming news, and news still conveys a lot of truth. However, large sections of society believe that truth has lost its value, that it has been knocked down and lies mortally wounded on the ground.

To think that truth can be killed may perplex us, but this has been the case for its value in society. For this reason the question of post-truth is not superfluous. For Keyes the radical problem is that we can live governed by it, and actively participate in its dynamics without realising it. This would come about through an attitude derived from justifying our own lies, and by becoming accustomed to living in an environment in which truth is discriminated against on the basis of personal interests.

This can happen when we fail to reflect on the sources of the news we consume or, in a broader view of the circumstances, when we look away from those points of view that we dislike. Sometimes, we run away from all this without stopping to think about how things can be seen from another perspective, simply because we do not want to be deceived. As if everything that does not coincide with our ideas can be labelled as misleading propaganda.

Jason Stanley, in his book How Propaganda Works (2015), explains that a certain subject of authoritarian propaganda can destroy the principles of trust in society, thus undermining democracy. But it is also true that not every use of language that alters reality is a lie. There is always some truth. But, in order to approach it, it is important to have critical capacity and the attitude to approach it not with distrust, but with a free spirit that is strengthened by careful study of reality.

Even if the post-truth era has arrived in our time with some force, the last word is with the users or consumers, free people who can decide to re-establish the value of truth. This means avoiding lies, one's own and others', avoiding getting used to living in circumstances where falsehood is commonplace. It means putting aside any means, however subtle, of misrepresenting the truth.

Superficial charlatanism

In an interview he gave to the Belgian Catholic weekly Tertio, Pope Francis addressed reference letter to several of these issues. In particular, he condemned the damage that can be caused by the speech media who engage in defamation by publishing false news. In his direct way of speaking, the Holy Father explained that media disinformation is a terrible evil, even if what is said is true, since the general public tends to consume this disinformation indiscriminately. In this way, he explained, much harm can be done, and he likened this tendency to consume falsehoods and half-truths to coprophagy.

The Pope's words are not anecdotal and have a deeper significance than meets the eye. This is best appreciated if we compare coprophagia with the term used in English for one of the most subtle modes of misrepresentation of the truth, bullshit. This term has recently been translated into Spanish as charlatanería in the work of the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt.

Frankfurt pointed out, in his book On Charlatanism (2013), that charlatanism is less intentional than we might think. When we lie we concentrate to do so, but charlatanism requires no effort because it is inadvertently spontaneous: the presentation of the facts is simply neglected. The charlatan keeps the distinction between true and false clear, but because he is unconcerned about the value of truth, he can use a fact to defend one position and its opposite.

The charlatan has no intention of misrepresenting reality, but has no intentions towards it. His intention is focused exclusively on himself, on the superficiality of his projects or, like certain media or users, on his own propaganda. Lies have always been the focus of our attention. This is understandable. The act of lying has a malice that repels us. To tell a lie, one must have the intention to tell it. It is not a simple carelessness, it has to be worked at. For the liar, the truth has a value in terms of his own ends, hence his interest in manipulating it. But the charlatan does not take care of it, and with that attitude he can do a lot of damage, as is the case in this post-truth era.

Quackery is contagious, Frankfurt points out. Some of this may have spread to us as consumers of information when we do not pay attention to the news we may spread on social media. Given this, we are not exempt from responsibility for participating in some way in defamatory acts, even if we feel that what we are doing is not significant, or we believe that what is being transmitted is true. When this happens, it is because we have ceased to consider that language is not only a vehicle for facts, figures, strategies, demonstrations and refutations, but also a carrier of values. It is important to keep in mind that the knowledge of true and false, while very important, does not sufficiently define what is needed to do justice to others, and to act with true charity.

The figure of the charlatan, whether embodied in a media outlet that transmits news or in a Username that consumes and redistributes it, is the ultimate contributor to post-veracity: it fosters mistrust and tension in society. Therefore, the important thing is to recognise the relevance of the things to which the information we deal with refers.

Not everything can be the same for us. Reflecting on whether we respect the truth, avoiding manipulating it as we please, will allow us to begin to give it back its real value.