“All that the sharpest Critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimless-ness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts.”
-Walter Lippmann, . Liberty and the News. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008.
If you are reading this you are very likely to know that Oxford Dictionaries ‘declared “post-truth” as its 2016 international word of the year’. According to the BBC, the OED defines ‘post-truth’ as ‘an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.’
What most media coverage has not necessarily said is that it was blogger David Roberts who popularised the term; in his blog post titled ‘Post-Truth Politics’, published with dateline of April 1st 2010 (the permalink indicates March 30th 2010) , Roberts wrote:
We live in post-truth politics: a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation) (Roberts 2010).
For Roberts, no matter what Democrats did or proposed, Republicans met it “with maximal, united opposition, criticizing it as socialism, tyranny, or appeasement”. This described, indeed, the impossibility of changing perceptions with evidence and to have evidence-based policy.
Since then, the term has escaped the immediate context of US politics to be as widely adopted as ‘filter bubble’. In the UK, ‘post-truth’ was a popular term amongst pundits trying to make sense of the Brexit Referendum before and after it became a reality. In the December 2016 issue of Political Insight [£], Jane Suiter, Director of the Institute of Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University, defined ‘post-truth politics’ as
where appeals to emotion are dominant and factual rebuttals or fact checks are ignored on the basis that they are mere assertions (Suiter, Political Insight 2016:25).
The announcement from the OED has been made public only 7 days after the result of the US election was confirmed. In a post titled ‘Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook’ (Select All, NYMag, November 9 2016), Max Read wrote:
The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news. Fake news is not a problem unique to Facebook, but Facebook’s enormous audience, and the mechanisms of distribution on which the site relies — i.e., the emotionally charged activity of sharing, and the show-me-more-like-this feedback loop of the news feed algorithm — makes it the only site to support a genuinely lucrative market in which shady publishers arbitrage traffic by enticing people off of Facebook and onto ad-festooned websites, using stories that are alternately made up, incorrect, exaggerated beyond all relationship to truth, or all three (Read 2016).
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg responded to the criticism in a press conference, arguing that ‘the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election was ‘a pretty crazy idea’’. In the New York Times Op Ed ‘Mark Zuckerberg is in Denial’ (NYT, November 15 2016) Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, provides an eloquent critique of Facebook’s position and provides evidence of the platform’s role and influence in a time in which almost half of American adults rely on Facebook as a source of news.
As we can see the OED’s announcement couldn’t have had better timing. Though ‘post-truth’ and the proliferation of fake news on a massive social network like Facebook are two distinct yet related phenomena, it seems to me it is essential for Higher Education, and particularly academic publishing, to reflect on its own role within a culture where, to quote Suiter again, ‘appeals to emotion are dominant and factual rebuttals or fact checks are ignored on the basis that they are mere assertions.’
Indeed, on 16 November 2016 BuzzFeed reported that
In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.
Visualised in chart the difference in engagement looks like this:
This is, of course, any teacher’s or librarian’s worst nightmare (some parents are worried too). In the last few days, there’s been an endless series of opinion pieces on ‘post-truth’ in relation to the issue of ‘fake news’ on Facebook and the latter’s role in the outcome of the US election. As I write this, many of these pieces keep appearing in an ongoing basis and it’s hard to keep up. Some have even come from Higher Education and scholarly publishing trenches. Andy Smith, for example, does a good job at outlining recent significant developments contributing to a demise of appreciation for expertise. Clever Library and Information Science scholars have pointed out the importance of critical information literacy and the role that libraries can play in this context.
What I perceive to be lacking in some of these pieces, however, is a willingness to recognise, or at least hypothesise more auto-critically, the role that higher education, and particularly scholarly publishing, has or may have played in contributing to the state of affairs perceived to be caused by ‘post-truth’ politics (with the ‘filter bubble’ and algorithmic relevance and ‘fake’ news at its core). The higher education perspective is justifiably shocked at the lack of appreciation for expertise, critical thinking and evidence-led decision-making. It is interesting however that ‘post-truth’ politics have come to be equated with the lack of appreciation (access, consumption, use and reuse) for trustworthy information, represented paradigmatically by the ‘fake’ news on Facebook.
I am interested in how the term ‘truth’ has been interpreted as an objective value, the extreme opposite to what is ‘fake’. From a journalistic perspective, ‘truth’ seems to be the one produced by ‘mainstream news’. One needs not to be into conspiracy theories to recall the work Walter Lippmann did in the 1920s, when he demonstrated serious flaws and bias in information systems, particularly in the authoritative New York Times. From an academic perspective, the ‘truth’ in ‘post-truth’ seems to be the one defined by scientific discourse. Though Michel Foucault’s theorising of the term ‘truth’ changed over the years and sometimes within the same text, it’s hard not to want to go back to the interview titled The political function of the intellectual (1976), where Foucault defines ‘truth’ as
“a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and functioning of statements […linked] by a circular relation to systems of power which produce it and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which redirect it” (Foucault 1976: 113-114; 14).
Foucault identifies as a key political problem the need to transform the “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth” to develop a new “politics of truth.” The need to change this “regime of the production of truth” would imply a transformation of the “system of ordered procedures” and the “circular relation to systems of power which produce and sustain it”.
I believe the higher education sector and scholarly publishing, as one of its main mechanisms for the dissemination of scientific, peer-reviewed, trustworthy information, has failed to adapt to the current (no longer new) information ecosystem. In other words, in spite of strong and sustained efforts towards opening access, scholarly publishing has been more preoccupied with the preservation of its own relatively privileged existence and has avoided to systematically engage in transforming or even intervening in a public politics of ‘truth’. Public opinion does not have the same dynamics today than in the 1920s, but Lippmann and Merz’s assessment that “a sound public opinion cannot exist without access to the news” remains relevant today (Lippmann and Merz, 1920: 1).
In Liberty and the News, Lippmann argued that the crisis of democracy was a consequence of the crisis of journalism, which was unable to fulfill its duties properly. For the 21st century, it seems to me we urgently need more academic research into how ‘post-truth politics’, as a crisis of democracy, has also been a consequence of an academic publishing crisis created by both the lack of wider public open access to trustworthy information and the paucity of a wider, more transparent, researcher-led willingness to consider a more thorough critical transformation of peer review and metrics-led ‘research quality assessment’ processes.
The political consequences of this unwillingness to recognise that the ways we choose to disseminate (or, rather, to restrict the dissemination of) peer-reviewed information has still not generally been self-assessed enough by academia. Instead of going to where the public is, it still debates the pertinence, or even worse, the perceived lack of ‘seriousness‘ of academic presence on social media. According to Martin Eve,
“The cost of subscribing to journals has risen by 300 percent above inflation since 1986 while academic library budgets have only risen by 79 percent” (Martin Eve to Noah Berlatsky, 2014).
This is the case of academic libraries, public libraries face even more drastic budget cuts and challenges. Meanwhile, students, members of the public, everyone with access to the Internet and a basic level of literacy is using Google, Facebook, Twitter, the open Web to access information. Rapidly and for free. In comparison to these tools, scholarly databases and library catalogues are (in general) not only expensive and often undiscoverable through the methods users are familiar with. They are also full of friction, poor usability, confusing interfaces and overcomplicated licensing terms.
Angela Cochran wraps up her post titled ‘What We Can Learn from Fake News’ (15 November 2016) this way:
Martin Baron, Executive Editor of the Washington Post, had this thought on the topic:
“People will ultimately gravitate toward sources of information that are truly reliable, and have an allegiance to telling the truth. People will pay for that because they’ll realize they’ll need to have that in our society.”
I guess time will tell if he is correct about that.
I would like to think there is still time for things to change towards a culture of literacy where users ‘gravitate toward sources of information that are truly reliable’. I doubt it. I doubt it because, at least for academic publishing, I see this as one of its fatal flaws. Higher education and scholarly publishing have for too long taken for granted that people will ‘gravitate’ towards them. The economic dimension (the cost of access to Higher Education) cannot be ignored, and we cannot keep assuming that lack of access to educational resources is not also defined by socioeconomic factors. Another aspect is that there are other methods for disseminating evidence-based research that do not depend on restrictive workflows and that to date continue without much official recognition nor reward, and therefore are beyond the reach/practice of those academics lacking the privilege of time and space for non-mandated work.
Traditional publishing has thrived, at the expense of poorer institutions and countries, most academic library budgets and thanks to millions of hours of free researcher labour. An era of what Clay Shirky called ‘algorithmic authority‘ has disrupted, amongst other factors, scholarly publishing’s comfortable reign within the Ivory paywalls of academe. The public are out there, googling, and the information we academics say we wish the public were aware of remains inaccessible or unaffordable to them.
It is time we accept our co-responsibility in fostering a political culture where non-trustworthy information has replaced the authority of evidence-based research. It is time we do more about it. We cannot hope for better times in which ‘people’ will come back to their senses and start appreciating robust scientific thought and processes. Digital literacy and critical research skills in information seeking and assessment are only meaningful if there is access to information in the first place.
We cannot simply sit on our laurels and wait, as we have done for a long time, for the mountain of users to come to us. Crucially, users have needed to be able to afford it (both socially and financially) and we need to recognise that not being able to afford it is one of the key reasons that took us to where we are now.
So ‘post-truth’ is the OED’s international word of the year.
You want to find out what the word means in detail from an authoritative source? You had better start saving up for your OED personal subscription (£215.00 for a year) … *
*Your public library is likely to provide free access to it…