IF you believe that economics and politics should be based on evidence, then you should think again. In today’s political times, it no longer matters whether or not something is true, but whether it is believed by the right people. Across supposedly information-rich and enlightened Western democracies, it appears popular trust in expert opinion and established institutions has tumbled. But is it possible to live in a world of data but no facts?
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel may have been on to something when she recently pointed out: “It has been said that we are living in post-factual times. Supposedly that means people are no longer interested in facts – they follow only their feelings.”
Welcome to the post-factual, post-truth, anti-intellectual era where politicians and journalists rely on assertions and statements that “feel true” but have no basis in fact or reality. As the campaign of Donald Trump has demonstrated, this practice involves a selective use of facts and lenient dealings with matters of truth – questioning institutions and received wisdom, and not appearing to feel any discomfort about back-pedalling.
From all indications, the fundamental values of progressive democracy – enlightenment, evidence-based information, respect and decency – are no longer self-evident, let alone sought after. If civic life in a democracy depends on a certain amount of common ground, then post-truth politics and narrowcasting (where people tune in to news channels and cable news chatter that reinforce their ideology and views) have managed to restrict opinion and sow cultural discord – creating comparatively small audiences or targeted consumers in micro-communities who view the world through the prism of the biased and contentious information presented to them.
Only recently, the American actor Denzil Washington insightfully quipped: “If you don’t follow the news, you are uninformed, and if you do, you are misinformed.” Of course, Mr Washington is raising serious questions about the credibility and biasness of America’s media in particular, while also highlighting the staggering magnitude of Donald Trump’s social vulgarity and emotional ineptitude. I suspect the coverage of this particular election cycle will be analyzed for years to come.
We probably don’t know for sure when the “factual” times began, but we certainly know when it ended: in 2016 – the year of fake news, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. In this post-truth world, naked facts seem worthless politically and economically – often taking a back seat to romanticism and sentimentalism in politics.
While some justify the end of the “factual” era on the rise of unfettered crony capitalism, others base it on the filter bubble of social media – much of it based on a lack of scientific communication. Everybody has an opinion today: wrong or right, it doesn’t matter, as long as a social media outlet exists to express it.
A few weeks ago, The Economist raised eyebrows when it wrote in a piece entitled “Art of the Lie”: “Post-truth has also been abetted by the evolution of the media. The fragmentation of news sources has created an atomised world in which lies, rumour and gossip spread with alarming speed. Lies that are widely shared online within a network, whose members trust each other more than they trust any mainstream-media source, can quickly take on the appearance of truth. Presented with evidence that contradicts a belief that is dearly held, people have a tendency to ditch the facts first. Well-intentioned journalistic practices bear blame too. The pursuit of “fairness” in reporting often creates phoney balance at the expense of truth. NASA scientist says Mars is probably uninhabited; Professor Snooks says it is teeming with aliens. It’s really a matter of opinion.”
In another piece by Vincent F. Hendricks for Quartz Magazine, the writer laments: “Today, savvy politicians are harnessing the anger and fear that certain demographics feel over economic woes and immigration, and channeling those emotions into a narrative that argues stronger borders will solve most any problem. For the purposes of a political campaign, it doesn’t necessarily matter if these narratives are true. An appealing story may get likes and upvotes on social media regardless, and the social validation of a given narrative can be turned into votes. But believing something doesn’t make it so – and a lot of people believing the same thing doesn’t make something true either.”
Trump’s victory, no doubt, has changed the world. His entire campaign made use of the “feelings barometer” – pushing the limits of what can be said and selling his followers a concoction of falsehoods and conspiracy theories. Like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and other rights populists, Donald Trump won by getting feelings right and facts wrong, and treating the factual evidence presented by his opponents with jocularity . If the rise of the populists is a sign of democracy’s strength and functionality, then God help us all.
For comments, write to Clementsoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.