Post-truth politics has fuelled Political culture of lies and fake news
Dr. P.R. Kalia
The truth has never been high on the agenda of politicians. Particularly, today, in the hands of the powerful, the post-truth phenomenon functions as a new weapon of political manipulation.
Now-a-days, it has become difficult to tell the difference between fact and fabrication. It is the prevalence of lies that characterises the current political condition. This climate of blatant lies has entered into the way politics is conducted these days. In the age of communicative abundance and monitory democracy, “reality” is multiple and inconsistent. Virtually, we are in an age of post-truth politics.
As glaring lies permeated politics worldwide, in 2016 post-truth was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year due to its prevalence in the context of that year’s Brexit referendum and media coverage of the US presidential election. Then, it was also applied as a political buzzword to a wide range of political cultures. In December 2016 “postfaktisch” (post-factual) was named word of the year by the German language society, also in connection with a rise of right-wing populism from 2015 on.
Now, Post-truth politics is a kind of political culture in which debate is framed by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy. It differs from traditional falsifying of facts. It was less notable before the advent of the Internet and related social changes. One of the ironies of living in the information age is how it has led to a ‘post-truth’ scenario of a highly polarised world fuelled by half-truths, lies and fake news.
Critics have identified dominance of post-truth politics in many nations, notably Australia, Brazil, Russia, India, the United Kingdom and the United States, among others.
The problem is that the experts and agencies involved in producing facts have multiplied, and many are now for hire. There are too many sources, too many methods, with varying levels of credibility, depending on who funded a given study and how the eye-catching number was selected.
Retroactively Post-truth politics was identified in the lead-up to the Iraq War, particularly after the Chilcot Report, published in July 2016, concluded that Tony Blair misrepresented military intelligence to support his view that Iraq’s chemical weapons program was advanced. Yet, in its original formulation, the phrase “post-truth politics” was used by Paul Krugman in The New York Times to describe Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign in which certain claims—such as that Barack Obama had cut defence spending and that he had embarked on an “apology tour”—continued to be repeated long after they had been debunked. Other forms of scientific denials in modern US politics include the anti-vaxxer movement, and the belief that existing genetically modified foods are harmful despite a strong scientific consensus that no currently marketed GMO foods have any negative health effects.
Then, in 2016, especially the label of “post-truth” was widely used to describe the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. In 2017, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others, have pointed out lies or falsehoods in Trump’s statements after the election. The U.S. election was explicitly about brazen lies and also about the indifference of the voters to obvious lies.
Likewise, it’s worth noting that the world’s largest democracy has been living in a post-truth world for years. From education to health care and the economy India can be considered a world leader in post-truth politics. The election of Narendra Modi in 2014 can be marked as a significant inflection point. Ever since, the country has existed under majoritarian rule with
widely reported discrimination against minorities. We have the ability to influence the world without enjoying good governance or basic living conditions for so many at home. Nowhere is this more evident than with India’s demonetisation drive, which plunged the country into crisis,
against the advice of its central bank, and hit poorest people the hardest.
Also, there have been violent disagreements over the truth of the ‘surgical strikes’ across the border and although the public is supposed to consume these reports, they are not expected to have a judgement on their authenticity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at a rally at Latur
in Maharashtra on 9 April 2019, dragging the Indian Army once again into the BJP’s campaign for votes, certainly exploited the people’s trust. Modi said, “I want to ask the first-time voter, can your vote be dedicated to those soldiers who conducted the air strike on Balakot in Pakistan?
Can your first vote be dedicated to those soldiers who were killed in Pulwama attack?” Modi’s Latur speech heralds the advent of post-truth politics in our country. Certainly, there were echoes of the nationalism narrative that swept Modi again to power in 2019.
The dichotomy of India’s current post-truth experience was nicely summed up by Arun Shourie, an influential former minister from Modi’s own party. Shourie said the policies of the current administration were equal to his predecessors’ policies, plus a cow.
The ugly face of post-truth politics is now becoming deeply embedded in political discourses in the United States. Canada needs to avoid the same path. In Canada, a better-informed debate over the details of Bill C-69 and their implications would be a good place to start.
Reinforced by the failure of democratic institutions to respond effectively to anti-democratic challenges such as the growing influence of cross-border corporate power, worsening social inequality and the dark money poisoning of elections, the decadence is proving to be a lavish gift to leaders, parties and governments. They are merchants of post-truth, exploiters of trust and
confidence artists who take advantage of the communications revolution.
A report by an advertising agency with inputs from the U.S., U.K. and India in 2012 found that 72 per cent in these three countries agreed that truth was hard to find in politics these days. In view of this, political commentators often rightly refer to the wave of populism that has engulfed many of the world’s democracies as ‘Post Truth Politics’.
Ironically this world of lies and deception is supported and made possible through assertions of one truth or the other. Each party bases their lies on claims that they are speaking the truth while their opponent is lying! Thus not only is there a cynical use of lying, there is also a cynical use of truth to ground these lies — this is the contemporary condition which has been to a large extent caused as much by media and technology as by a fall in standards of public probity.
Harold Pinter in his Nobel Prize in Literature lecture on 7 December, 2005 spoke on “Art, Truth and Politics” and argued, “The majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon
which we feed.”
Before that, in 1967, the philosopher Hannah Arendt in an influential essay, in the The New Yorker titled “Truth and Politics”, powerfully articulated the problem in the following manner: “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues. Lies have always
been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade… Is it of the very essence of truth to be impotent and of the very essence of power to be deceitful?” Arendt’s suspicion that “it may be in the nature of the political realm to be at war with truth in all its forms” was particularly true of the fascist Nazi
regime which she had first-hand account of but was also extended to politics in general.
Still, in contrast, there was Mahatma Gandhi for whom politics was primarily defined through truth. Gandhi also showed how a fundamental engagement with truth could lead to profound political action. This engagement with truth and politics was very much a part of the freedom movement in India and also of the early stages of politics in our country.
So what really is the problem between politics and truth today? Perhaps politics has nothing to do with truth. The main purpose of democratic politics seems to be only to convince others of something or the other. All the public debates in recent times illustrate this most powerfully. It was impossible to even conduct a conversation about certain topics without it degenerating very
quickly into a shouting match. That is why post-truth is regarded as the harbinger of a new totalitarianism.
In order to better the credibility of political class, recently, some technology companies have started to make efforts to tackle the challenge of “post-truth politics”. In an article for the journal Global Policy, Professor Nayef Al-Rodhan suggested four particular responses: –Improve the technological tools for fact checking. For example, Germany has already asked Facebook to introduce a fake news filtering tool; –Greater involvement and visibility for scientists and the scientific community. The UK, for instance, has a series of Parliamentary committees at which scientists are called to testify, and present their research to inform policy-making. Likewise, in Canada, the role of Chief Science Advisor was re-established and each department with even a small scientific capability was required to develop a policy for scientific integrity; — Also, to fight fake news, we need to invest in journalism and in media literacy. Journalists should promote greater transparency in their work.
However, in the present circumstances, don’t be fooled anymore by the governments that have mismanaged our most precious resources to the benefits of capitalists, who in-turn promise them their political authority. Democracy can certainly be lost in these situations.
It is high time we woke up and saw the world the way it is, not the way our leaders pretend it is.
Wake up and smell the post-truth.
- Editor Asian Times, Edmonton, Canada