Living in a post-factual world

The rhetoric surrounding the UK’s Brexit and Donald Trump’s US presidency shows we are now living in a post-factual world. How did we get here and how can we get past it – asks Scott Guthrie.

Oxford Dictionaries has announced its Word of the Year 2016 as post-truth describing it as an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

The compound word reached peak use during the UK’s EU referendum and in the run-up to the US presidential election as the image below shows.

When Michael Gove, the pro-Brexit, former justice secretary for the UK, was told by Faisal Islam of Sky News in an interview that “the leaders of the US, India, China, Australia, every single one of our allies, the Bank of England, the IFS, IMF, the CBI, five former Nato secretary generals and the chief executive of the NHS” were all against Britain’s exit, his response captured the zeitgeist: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts.”

post-truth-frequency

Nicholas Barrett, deputy editor of thestrix.com, picked up on this post-factual theme. Writing a comment beneath an FT article on the night of the Brexit vote Nicholas said:

“When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel. When Michael Gove said ‘the British people are sick of experts’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has led to anything other than bigotry?”

The post-factual world is created by attention deficit, unwillingness to pay for news, rise of social media and with it a desire to live within a filter bubble.

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Eight-second attention span

A 2015 Microsoft report shows that people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds. This highlights the affects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.

Attention spans have dwindled this century falling 4 seconds from 12 seconds in 2000. This means we’re led by soundbites, and taglines.

“Make America Great” pulls at our emotional heart strings “Stronger Together” fails to resonate.

We all remember Brexit’s Leave campaign red bus with the slogan: “We send the EU £350m a week let’s fund our NHS instead.” A powerful message, a colossal, round number married to the NHS our sacred national treasure.

Yet within hours of the Leave campaign’s victory Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, told viewers of ITV’s Good Morning Britain he could not guarantee the money would be spent on the health service as promised by Leave campaigners in the fierce battle to convince the British people to opt out of the EU.

nhs-bus

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Loss of journalism

Throughout last century and for the first decade of the 21st Century, we received our news from one of only a few channels.  In the UK we watched one of five free-to-air telly channels. We read a handful of national newspapers – browsed through the classified ads in regional newspapers and listened to the radio.

Journalists held politicians accountable. They competed with each other to ask questions and raced to report on facts to us their readership.

At the bedrock of true journalism lie facts and the truth about the facts.

Journalism is a discipline of verification. It relies upon core concepts – transparency, humility, and originality.

The main editorial principle of AAP, Australia’s associated press news agency remains “accuracy and speed, but accuracy above speed.”   

But effective and thorough journalism costs money. And we don’t like paying for our news. The Reuters Institute for the study of journalism Digital news report 2016 says : “Most consumers are still reluctant to pay for general news online, particularly in the highly competitive English-speaking world” where just 9% of consumers say they are prepared to pay anything to receive news online.

We prefer to get out news for free from our social media newsfeeds.

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Rise of social media

According to the Pew Research Center report in the U.S. Facebook is the number one source for political news. Six-out-of-ten American Millennials use the social media platform for their political news every week. Generation Xers use it only slightly less; half turning to Facebook for weekly political news.

I wrote about this in a Facebook Instant Articles explainer article in 2015.

It’s not only for politics or in the US where consumers turn to Facebook for news content. A report on the world digital news from Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows 41% of respondents, representing 12 countries including the U.S., use Facebook to read and share news during any given week. And traffic from Facebook to publishers has also increased: the report found a 42% growth in Facebook shares of news content in January 2015 from a year earlier.

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Digital echo chamber

We’re now living in the social age. And there is a revolution. It’s a revolution enabled by social media. But it’s not a technological revolution so much as it’s a social revolution.

We’ve always had opinions and shared those with family around the kitchen table and friends at work or afterwards in bars.

This has changed. Social media is an amplifier. It allows us to coalesce around ideas and seek out like-minded people on a global scale.

The issue with this is twofold:  

(1) We seek out people like us. Those who reinforce our beliefs rather than those who challenge them. We, therefore, talk in an echo chamber.

(2) This is exacerbated by the second issue: It’s the algorithms of Google, Twitter and Facebook et alia who ultimately decide what we see in our newsfeeds. This perpetuates the idea that everyone is thinking the same as us.

The Wall Street Journal recently built a tool that illustrates just how radically this has allowed for us to self-select the bubbles of our facts. Red Feed Blue Feed creates two custom news feeds based on the exact same topic from conservative and liberal news sites on Facebook, and displays them side by side.

The Red Feed Blue Feed “shows how easily one can become insulated inside a stream of news that confirm our assumptions and suspicions about the world, just by algorithmically tailoring the people and pages we follow” writes Tobias Rose-Stockwell.

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Beyond the post-factual era

To move past this post-factual era we need to listen more, meet people with different mindsets to us and be prepared to pay for effective verification of facts.

The Dalai Lama says “when you talk you are only repeating what you already know. But when you listen you may learn something new.” So listen more and listen widely.
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C.G Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist said: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Learn from this. Mix with people you wouldn’t ordinarily mix with. Talk and listen to those with different and difficult points of view.
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Understand that quality journalism based on verification is a skill and skills need to be paid for.
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About the Author Scott Guthrie

Scott Guthrie works with companies to drive business growth in the social age through strategic insight and technical know-how. Read my full bio here.

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