Archive for : March, 2017

The Future of Delusion: Truthiness, Post-Truth, Alternative Facts and Fake News

Such is the “distemper of our times”  [1] that we need to discuss diverse forms of falsehood.

·

I offer this definition of ‘falsehood’: a statement which is untrue. By ‘untrue’ I mean that the statement is not supported by fact and/or by logic. I make no assertion about the motive, coherence or belief of the person uttering the untruth.

·

In this essay, I set aside the relation of falsehood to bullshit.  Bullshit is be no means neglected, however; I have written on this subject before:

What is Bulls–t?

·

I would exclude from the notion of falsehood statements which, regardless of your fervent opinion, are generally recognized to be in dispute: e.g., red wine is/is not good for you. I would also exclude statements which are understood to be based on faith: “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

·

The New Testament reference makes a natural transition to the ‘truthiness’ form of falsehood. Truthiness occurs when someone utters a statement s/he earnestly believes to be true, regardless whether it is or not. Earnest belief is sufficient, for that person, to support the assertion of factual truth. Those who act on their earnest belief they can fly without wings demonstrate, rather conclusively, the insufficiency of that belief to alter the law of gravity. Yet earnest belief, in the form of faith, was said to be enough for Peter to walk on water. Those who proclaim the literal truth of the Old Testament Bible, despite contrary evidence offered by the natural sciences, fit within the truthiness description.

·

Although Stephen Colbert is credited with inventing the truthiness neologism, in fact the word is older than that, as the entry from the OED shows:

Even the original usage, however, contains an element of intentionality – a wish to convey the actual truth.

·

Recall, if not too painful, the exchange with Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to President Trump, when confronted with video evidence of the President mocking a disabled reporter: “You want to go with what’s come out of his mouth rather than what’s in his heart.” Ms. Conway invites us to embrace truthiness when she says that intentions or feelings matter more than evidence. Let us assume, which may require the willing suspension of disbelief, that her sentiments and his sentiments were genuine.

·

An embrace of truthiness invites the question “How far will you go?”: at what point does your belief collapse in the face of evidence? The person attempting to fly without wings ascertains the limit with some immediacy. Those who resist vaccines can persist in their beliefs almost indefinitely, up to the point of serious outbreaks of preventable diseases. Similarly, those who deny climate change may continue to do so even as coastal areas are inundated. No doubt there are those who still believe that President Obama was not born in the United States, although President Trump eventually accepted the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

·

Post-Truth also rejects facts and logic, but in this case the intentionality is quite different. If truthiness is based on an earnest belief, post-truth requires no belief. A post-truth statement is still false, but whether the statement is based on fact or logic is irrelevant, as is whether the statement is itself actually true or false. The ‘proof’ of the statement rests simply and solely in its assertion and repetition.

·

President Trump’s assertion that he won the Electoral College vote “in a landslide” qualifies as post-truth. He is aware that the statement is factually incorrect, as are any who are politically aware. Its actual veracity doesn’t matter. The statement is necessary for Trump’s personal narrative of success. His factually incorrect assertion about terrorist attacks in Sweden also qualifies as post-truth; it supports the narrative about the dangers of immigration.

·

Post-truth is widely accepted among Trump supporters. Selena Zito captured a key distinction in noting:

In a post-truth world it is not necessary that statements be true, just that they support an overall narrative which is accepted.

·

Kellyanne Conway’s use of the phrase “alternative facts” has sparked outrage, derision and hilarity. However, the phrase does not represent a neologism invented by Ms. Conway; it has its roots in English and American common, civil and criminal law and Ms. Conway would probably be aware of such usage as a trained lawyer. The phrase refers to the alternate observations or interpretations that can be offered by witnesses; various witness observations might be inconsistent and/or the motives or purpose of actions may be open to various interpretations. Hypothetical ‘alternate facts’ are often used to test the credibility of expert witnesses.

·

However, “alternative facts” is not intended to be used when there is no ambiguity in the evidence. Ms. Conway was asked to defend a colleague’s assertion about the size of inauguration crowds, despite unequivocal photographic evidence to the contrary, as well as some straightforward statistics on subway ridership which also conflicted with the colleague’s assertion. Pressed into a corner, she offered the ‘alternative facts’ explanation, the reaction of a legal weasel.

·

This is not to defend “use of the phrase “alternative facts” to describe what are demonstrably falsehoods [2] ” , merely to provide the ‘Hail Mary’ context for her desperate defence. Rather than admit to the false claims of her colleague (and the President), she chose an inappropriate legal defence [3] . Ms. Conway was not in a courtroom, however, she was in a press interview where it is reasonable to conclude that “’Alternative facts’ are just lies [4] ” . The statements were deliberately mendacious.

·

This interpretation is supported by her other falsehoods, such as the references to a non-existent massacre in Bowling Green, Kentucky, or to the claim that President Obama “banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months”. And, indeed, in all three cases, a ‘climb down’ clarification was later issued: wrong statistics were used, or the reference was to terrorists rather than a massacre. However, from mendacious manoeuvres to outright lies is not that large a step.

·

Fake news can be described as “statements fabricated with intent to deceive”. All parts of that description are important. Fake news is not merely sloppy reporting or scholarship, nor is it satire. Explanations offered as theories should be excluded as well. Religious dogma might get a pass, if acceptance is presented as a matter of faith rather than fact.

·

Fake news stories are lies, created and propagated for a reason. The reasons are not necessarily reprehensible. Wartime propaganda – often fake news – might serve a good purpose. But whether the means justifies the end, a lie is a lie.

·

There is nothing new about fake news. Examples are reported as far back as the Emperor Constantine: fake news had him giving vestiges of the Roman Empire to the Pope. The Great Moon Hoax of 1835, asserting life on the moon, was perpetrated by the New York Sun. Yellow journalism and fake news share many characteristics [5] .

·

Recent fake news was political during the US Election Campaign (e.g., Pope endorses Trump, Podesta’s pedophilia pizza parlor). Its ubiquity through re-posting, re-tweeting and media commentaries has had the effect of enhancing its presence, and muddying the waters. Now the term ‘fake news’ is used by President Trump to criticize any news with which he does not agree. Fake news is no longer an understandable concept.

·

Summation

·

It is difficult to wholly trust any source of news. Much damage has been done by fake news outlets and grubby political operatives. The Internet, and the ability of anyone to publish anything on it, has provided a new platform for the dissemination of misinformation. The so-called mainstream media also bears substantial responsibility through the introduction of opinion, speculation and ‘spin’ into articles purporting to be news. A tendency toward sensationalism hasn’t helped. Nor has the tendency to have news programs resemble talk and variety shows.

·

But we have been here before. At the end of the nineteenth century, yellow journalism made extensive use of sensationalism, distortions, inflammatory cartoons, unethical practices and outright lies. Before that pamphlet wars, in which truth was incidental, had raged as early as the 1600s in England and the early American colonies. Many people believed what their ‘side’ told them to believe – just as now.

·

Recovery from this – if that is what we want – will be slow. It is more difficult to restore trust than to lose it. Perhaps I’m unduly optimistic, but I believe that there is a market for reporting of news, distinct from analysis and opinion. I don’t think that television or Internet news broadcasts need resemble variety shows in order to be watched. I think people will tire of journalism based on baubles and seek ‘real’ news rather than fake.

·

 

[1] Peter Newman: The Distemper of our Times, 1968

[2] Wikipedia

[3] She joins distinctive, though perhaps not distinguished, company here.  Recall President Clinton giving a wiggly weasel response: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

[4] Jill Abramson, former Executive Editor, New York Times

[5] An offshoot of the main fake media stream came from historical ‘re-enactments’ of events.  An amusing example is a film of the shelling of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American war, with cardboard cutout ships in a canvas tank: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hz6HEGEAdog