It sounds like a terrifying dystopia. A world in which shadowy forces have conspired to not only obscure damaging facts, but destroy the very concept of objective truth.
But this sci-fi nightmare isn’t something that only exists in books, or the fevered mind of Rod Serling.
It could be the world we’re living in today.
Welcome to the Post-Truth Era, where the facts don’t matter, and the only reality is the one the powerful want you to believe.
Although it became popular in 2016, following Britain’s divisive Brexit referendum and America’s even-more divisive Presidential election, the roots of Post-Truth politics are deeper than you may imagine.
The word itself can be traced back to 1992, when Oscar-winning screenwriter Steve Tesich – writing on the Iran-Contra Scandal – lamented:
“We, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.”
But while Tesich may have coined the term, he was only naming something that had already existed for decades.
Today, we broadly understand Post-truth to mean:
“Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Source: OED)
This makes it different from old-school propaganda, which might try to hide the facts from you, but at least acknowledged that facts existed.
To illustrate the difference, let’s look at a completely made-up nation we’ll call Sovietstan.
Thanks to water mismanagement, Sovietstan is in the grip of its worst famine in decades. But the Ministry of Wheat can’t admit this, so they issue a workers’ bulletin extolling the glories of Sovietstan water management, and calling their harvest the biggest in history.
Sovietstan’s Ministry knows it’s lying. What’s more, it’s terrified the people might figure this out.
That’s why they block broadcasts from neighboring Democracia: they know that Truth is the enemy of propaganda.
By contrast, Post-Truth politics doesn’t just blur the line between truth and lie, or even say the line never existed in the first place.
It says that reality itself is subjective, and everyone is entitled to their own “Truth”.
So, while your Truth might be that you saw the President of Democracia eating puppies while pooping on the flag, your neighbor’s Truth might be that he was giving those puppies kisses… or that no puppies existed at all.
This is the scariest part of a Post-Truth world. By rejecting objectivity, it allows us to believe whatever we want.
For many, the critical underpinning for this madness can be found in one philosophical movement: postmodernism.
A mishmash of theories that had their heyday in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, postmodernism isn’t easy to pin down.
But one of its key texts is Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1979 The Postmodern Condition, which super pushed the idea that no objective truth can be said to exist.
Instead, we all just have our own, subjective view of the world, an idea later postmodernists picked up and ran with.
The same idea that later made its way into politics.
This is why you’ll often see guys like Jordan Peterson shredding Postmodernism. After watching this far, you’re probably inclined to shred it, too.
But there is another school of thought. One that says Lyotard and his ilk weren’t just tearing down reality and condemning us to a dystopian hellscape – well, not all of them, anyway.
This school says their work was in fact a warning.
A warning about information overload.
The postmodernists were writing at a time when information seemed to be flowing in crazy, unprecedented ways. There was cable TV! Exploding consumerism!
Some, like Jean Baudrillard, were terrified this ocean of noise would result in a swathe of fake-realities indistinguishable from the real thing – what he called simulacra.
Today, we call those simulacra Twitter, Tik Tok, and Facebook. Places that mimic real life so well, we consider them more real than the factual world around us.
Together with algorithms that narrow these realities further and further, they’re essential for a Post-Truth world.
Back in Democracia, our fictional president has seen these stories about puppy-eating and flag-pooping spreading.
But while he will deny these reports, the most important thing isn’t his denial. It’s the tidal wave of disinformation he and his followers unleash in the media.
There are Deepfake videos. Think pieces filled with whataboutery. Denials. Distractions, everything the Information Age can throw at you.
Faced with more competing narratives than they could possibly untangle, citizens simply give up and retreat back inside their simulacra.
Unable to tell what’s real and what’s fake – overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion – we forget how to react altogether.
That’s the architecture of a Post-Truth world, a world built to keep you confused.
The question is why does it work?
Why do ordinary people feed into this wall of disinformation?
It comes down to our all-too human flaws.
The biggest of these is confirmation bias.
If you’re predisposed to disliking the president, a headline about him pooping on the flag and devouring cuteness incarnate will have to clear lower barriers because you subconsciously want it to be true
Conversely, a headline about him rescuing a whole bunch of puppies will have to pass much higher barriers. Perhaps impossibly high ones.
This isn’t your fault. A lot of research shows we’re very resistant to having our deepest beliefs challenged, especially by members of another tribe.
Our brains evolved in an environment where trusting outsiders could lead to you having your head bashed in and your wife dragged off to some rival’s cave.
With all those millions of years of development behind us, how could we possibly expect to ever live as sane, reasonable people?
But while human nature doesn’t help, others think it’s new technology – specifically social media – that’s primarily to blame.
The Sydney Initiative for Truth has encouraged people to start thinking of online disinformation like a virus in the years before germ theory.
In this analogy, the way we live our lives online is like medieval Londoners; hurling our cholera-infected crap out the windows, not caring who the virus inside it gets passed on to.
But grim as this is, it does at least give some cause for hope. Just as we learned to wash our hands and vaccinate our kids (err, mostly), we can learn too how to handle disinformation and stop it from infecting others.
But there’s another group out there, too. One with a radically different take on today’s story. One that may turn everything you think on its head.
This group believes that the entire concept of a Post-Truth world is, itself, fake news.
Since 2016, a lot of academics have begun studying what they call “truth decay” and associated phenomena like the “backfire effect” – where being given evidence that you’re talking out your ass only makes you cling to your dumb beliefs tighter.
Political scientists Ethan Porter and Thomas J. Wood have been particularly prolific, publishing 13 studies in serious journals, all of which demonstrate exposing people to solid facts leads to them holding more accurate beliefs.
But they’re not alone. Other researchers, too, are coming to the conclusion that our descent into the Post-Truth era may be more like a shallow dip.
Taken together, their body of work suggests most of us could be as rational as ever.
It’s just being able to access factual information that’s the problem.
Yet even in the worst breeding grounds for disinformation, things may not be as bad as you’d expect.
A 2019 study found that the sharing of fake news was far less prevalent on Facebook than commonly believed.
And those who do share disinformation are usually in older generations: those who lived their lives before social media was even a thing.
Generation Z, by contrast, have been shown to be broadly responsive to fact-checking, adept at figuring out when someone is trying to influence them, and skeptical about the content they see online.
That’s not to say all young people are super clued-up, hyper rationalists. But it does suggest that the wall of disinformation surrounding our lives might be starting to crack.
If that’s the case then, one day, we’ll likely look back on the tactics of the president of Democracia as pityingly as we do the blunt propaganda of Sovietstan.
What we call the Post-Truth era, then, may turn out to just be a historic blip. A moment when our minds collectively became so overwhelmed by a surge of information that we went a little crazy trying to sort our way through it all.
But while it’s great to end on a happy note, there also needs to be some caution.
A Post-Truth era can only exist in a world deeply divided. A world where people feel alienated enough from one another to seek out completely different information bubbles.
Although disinformation can drive these feelings, it can’t create them out of thin air.
For a society to decay, there has to be rot to begin with.
As we embark on another four years of rancour, of claims of stolen elections and illegitimate presidents, let’s try to bear in mind that the foundations are there for us to reach across. To come together in the real world and agree on an objective truth.
But we need to lear to do so kindly. Humbly. Without getting fired up by the need to protect our tribe.
Because, if we can’t manage this, we may find that our Post-Truth dystopia lasts longer than we could’ve ever imagined.