The post-truth phenomenon: A challenge to WACC

By Fr Benjamin Alforque on May 13, 2017


In the last US elections, social media had the freedom to publish “fake news” like Pope Francis’ support for Presidential candidate Donald Trump, Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s illness and the murder of an FBI agent on the order of the Clintons.1 President-elect Donald Trump himself declared, shortly after his inauguration, that his inaugural crowd was the largest gathering, far vaster than the protests that accompanied his proclamation. TV footages comparing the two events showed otherwise. Trump supporters asserted that the mainstream media were anti-Trump and “doctored” their footages to discredit the new President of America.

In the Philippines, the same media phenomenon was happening. But here, the followers of presidential candidates divided themselves into sharply opposing camps. Either one was in favour of the candidate of the former administration party – the “Yellowtards” – or die-hard fanatics of the new President-elect Rodrigo Roa Duterte or “Dutertards”. And don’t ever say anything negative about one or the other; you will receive an avalanche of angry responses, name-calling and cusses, identifying you as belonging to one camp or the other, depending on who you’re commenting on. Each of them will tell you what is true!

This phenomenon – of citing “facts” which didn’t happen – but addressed to your emotions and feelings in order to convince you that “such is true” is called “post-truth”.

“Post-truth − adjective: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” So says Oxford Dictionaries, announcing their 2016 word of the year. If we really have entered a post-truth era, as so many have written, what does that mean for the scholar and the student?”2

For WACC members and partners, we may ask: what does “post-truth” mean in our advocacy for communication rights, access to communication technology, and truth?

Post-truth is backed up by paid and volunteer writers who keep watch on comments in social media. They dish out supportive statements, invent data and facts, and appeal to your emotions and feelings either negatively or positively, with all the venom and passion they can muster. These are called “trolls”.

In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for the troll’s amusement. This sense of both the noun and the verb “troll” is associated with Internet discourse, but also has been used more widely. Media attention in recent years has equated trolling with online harassment.3

These trolls not only exist in social media like Twitter4 and Facebook accounts. They are also found actively engaged in making commentaries on the news in the mainstream media In the interactive portion of the coverage, they may give supporting statements to their favoured subject, or attack somebody who has a contrary opinion, or harass and demonize those who do not agree with them with harsh language, name-calling and labels that could put one’s life in danger, especially in authoritarian states where critics are called “enemies of the state” or “communists” or “terrorists”.5 This “trolling” has actually put people’s personal lives at risk, compromised or killed.6

The “post-truth” phenomenon today, with its attendant trolls, is backed up, probably not in a conscious way, by an ideological movement known as the “alternative right”. “Alternative right” or “alt-right” presents itself as an alternative to the prevailing consciousness in the political-cultural field. It identifies itself as “belonging to the alienated”.7 It claims to belong neither to the mainstream conservatives nor to mainline liberals; it tends to be populist on the Left or the Right. In the US, “alt-right” surfaced prominently from the shadows with the appearance of candidate Donald Trump in the US elections.

Though they often disagree in tone and tactics, members of the Alt Right are bound by a few core beliefs. They regard most Republican politicians as Zionist puppets, captive to corporations seeking cheap labour. They tend to be protectionist on trade, isolationist on foreign policy and unmoved by cornerstone conservative issues like free markets or the Constitution. They reject the benefits of diversity and view demographic trends as an existential threat.8

When WACC advocates for equal access to communications technology especially for the poor, the indigenous people and the marginalized in general, it must contend now with the unknown forces of the “trolls”. The ideological inclinations now of different groups are harder to recognize, because the “alternative right” may exist in the heart of the mainstream conservative or mainstream liberals as well as in the left forces and populist ideologies.

One would think that with the advance of information technology, truth would be easy to come by. In fact the opposite is true. All data are available. Even false data presented convincingly as true. So, what is truth now?

Why is “truth” conceived this way now?

There are attempts at tracing the historical development of the modern situation of “truth-telling and lying”, if only to understand how it has come about and what can be done about it. For the situation now is that “false truth” when directed to the emotion and the sentiments of the receiver, becomes “truth” in the receiver’s mind and heart, even if there are no facts or facts are contrary to the proposed truth. The “liar” is the sender; the “lie” is the message, and the confused or fanatic audience is the receiver. 

If there can be said to be an era in recent American history when the essence of truth was under critical scrutiny, it was the generation after 1960. In both popular and academic culture, that was when the belief that truth lay in a sphere of certainty independent of truth’s inquirers began to fragment. Social scientists learned to grow much more self-critical about their methods. Anthropologists realized that they could not write themselves out of their ethnographies. Historians learned that archives contained fictions as well as facts.

Paradigms, in Thomas Kuhn’s phrase, shaped the very worlds of assumption in which natural scientists worked. None of truth’s seekers, it was increasingly realized, could wholly escape the perspectives and experiences they carried with them. What seemed “natural” was, as often as not, not natural at all but a product of culture and unspoken assumption.9

In the context of an individualistic society, where the community-of-truth seekers is relegated to the background as forces of social manipulators, “truth” is defined by feeling, by feeling right about it. Expressions like “if you like it, go for it”, “I’m OK, You’re OK”, and “Anyway, it’s your opinion, and everybody is entitled to his/her own opinion” typify the era when the erstwhile criteria for “truth” have crumbled away.

The advent of the revolution in information technology has created a global village,10 making the world and its parts more accessible to one another. In this sense, “truthing” would have become easier as direct communications could be made between the sender and the receiver, and the message decoded and “fact-checked”. But the big business planners at Bretton Woods11 succeeded in crafting a world economy at the GATT-WTO Uruguay Rounds of talks and created Globalization.12 Technically, globalization is the reduction of the world’s economies into a single global economy within the framework of neo-liberalism under, at that time, a world monopolar power. Its new altar is the market, the world market. And its new idol is money and capital.

Globalization does not respect any national territory or boundary; it does not respect any culture or national identity. It has brought about the demise of the language of truth, love, justice and liberation in development discourse. For as long as the market and capital thrive. Any opposition to this global control is met with force, all forms of force, such as outright violence and violencia blanca. In this sense, globalization has co-opted the gains and promises of the global village. 

Globalization needs, and needs to create and nurture, a global culture in order to be powerfully entrenched in nations, even if world poverty and hunger increase. Post-modernism fits well into this new social arrangement obtaining in the world. By rejecting elitism, Postmodernism encourages cultural flattening: there is no central authority but only an insistence on “‘self-conscious, self-contradictory, self-undermining statement’.

Since few people trust their convictions or believe the world can change for the better, irony is the only option.”13 It does not accept purity but promotes hybridization as new combinations of genres, styles and media. It is eclectic and goes for surface effects: “‘overwhelmingly vivid’ but lacking in depth and ‘affect’”.14 And, finally:

“Language and representation are no longer said to reflect or express reality; there are no truths, only interpretations. ‘There is nothing outside the text’, and ‘it is language which speaks, not the author’. ‘Meanings’ happen between audiences and freely circulating signs, and are not produced by a reality that exists prior to its representation. ‘The dissolution of TV into life, the dissolution of life into TV’ … perhaps remains the clearest example of how our lives are infiltrated by simulacra (copies without originals).”15

This Postmodern culture is a happy bed for globalization. With the loss of universal values in favour of the particular, the old question: Is this good? has no meaning. The Postmodernist question that makes sense is: Who/What is it good for?16 Now you can start counting your money, your profits and the self-accumulation of your capital. 

WACC, what will you do now?

In your campaign for communication right to be accepted universally as fundamental human rights, who will believe you, when even the concept of human rights is being challenged by this culture of “post truth”, “alternative right” whose bed is Postmodernism?

When you advocate that, in order for communication right to be fulfilled, the rights to access to communication technology should be equally exercised by all, especially by the poor and the indigenous peoples, who will go with you when communication technology is owned by a globalized few and sold to the majority?

What in fact is Truth to you now, WACC? How is it different from fact, or from reasoned fact or from a summary of a concatenation of facts, when in fact everyone is entitled to his own opinion? Do you understand now why Pilate asked: “What is truth”?17

Indeed, Facebook has attempted to operate a fake news filter in time for the German elections:

“The 2016 United States presidential elections saw the emergence of Donald Trump as the country’s new head of state. However, that election was hounded by a slew of fake and unreliable news which greatly misinformed the voting public. With the federal elections looming in Germany, Facebook will try to live up to its promise of eradicating hoaxes once and for all, by rolling out its fake news filter in the country. Starting today, Facebook users in Germany can now report stories that they deem to be false and mark these as ‘disputed’ news. The flagged items, as per TheNextWeb, would then be sent to Berlin-based non-profit media entity Correctiv, “the first [independent] investigative newsroom in Germany,” with an explanation of the possible inconsistencies of the story. As announced previously, Facebook would also warn users before they share a fake news story, while also reducing the online visibility of disputed materials by making them appear lower in the news feed.”18

In trying to liberate media and the people from Post-Truth, trolls, Alt-Right and from the bed of Postmodernism, some guidelines have been designed to help students and young people “better evaluate information from the web”.19 Students and young people should raise these questions when reading online: “(a) Who created this?, (b) Why did they create it?, (c) Whom is the message for?, (d) What techniques are being used to make this message credible or believable?, (f) What details are left out and why?, and, (e) How did the message make me feel?20

It might be well for WACC to gather together those voices that seek the Truth beyond Post-truth. In that all-rounded conversation, they might be able to articulate a new way of Truthing, and, for the sake of communication rights as fundamental human rights, a new Ethic in the Cyberworld for the real world. ν

Benjamin E. Alforque, MSC is Director for Training and the Spirituality of the Heart Department, Communication Foundation for Asia, Sta. Mesa, Manila, Philippines.

Notes

1. Nathan Pippenger, Know-Nothing Nation, in The Chronicle Review, January 15, 2017 on-line issue; also Henry Farell’s Facebook and Falsehood, in Chronicle Review, January 15, 2107 online.

2. The Chronicle Review, “The Post-Truth Issue”, January 15, 2017, on-line.

3. Cf. en.wikepedia.org/wiki/Internet_troll

4. US journalist reports on ‘Duterte’s army of online trolls’, in INQUIRER.net US Bureau/12:37 AM January 19, 2017.

5. See for example, Philippine newspapers on-line, like the Philippines Daily Inquirer, or The Manila Times.

6. Safiya U. Noble, “Google and the Misinformed Public”, in the Chronicle Review, January 15, 2017, online.

7. Time Magazine Covers The Alt-Right, Posted on April 18, 2016 by Luke Ford, The Billionaire and the Bigots. How Donald Trump Brought White Nationalists Out of the Shadows, by Alex Altman, Time, April 25, 2016.

8. Ibid.

9. Daniel Rodgers, When Truth Becomes a Commodity, in The Chronicle Review, January 15, 2017 online.

10. Eric McLuhan, son of Marshall McLuhan, suggested that his father got the concept from Wyndham Lewis’s America and the Cosmic Man (1948) and James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (1939), see his “The source of the term ‘Global Village’, in McLuhan Studies, 2/2, under Marg Cameron, Web Master @ 1996 Marshall McLuhan Studies. M. McLuhan developed this phrase in his The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962) and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Critical Edition, (Columbus: McGraw Hill Publishing, 1964). Cf. also an earlier interview with Nicolas Tesla with Colliers Magazine (1926) when he said: “When wireless is perfectly applied, the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain.”

11. In 1944, some 44 nations signed the Bretton Woods Conference to reconstruct the world economy of WW II.

12. Cf. Various definitions of Globalization, e.g., Fr. Henriot, Pope St. John Paul II, among others.

13. Glenn Ward, Understand Postmodernism, (Ohio: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1997), p. X-XI.

14. Ibid., loc. Sit.

15. Ibid., p. XII.

16. Ibid., p. 256.

17. John 18:38.

18. Khristian Ibarrola, Facebook to operate fake news filter in time for German elections, in INQUIRER.net/12:29 PM January 17, 2017.

19. Meghan Bogardus Cortez, K-12 educators find they must teach students to better evaluate information from the web, in Putting a Focus on Media Literacy in the Digital Age, Internet.

20. Op. cit., loc. Sit.


May 13, 2017
Categories:  Media Development

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