Post-truth pol­i­tics

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a spe­cial­ist on cul­ture and de­vel­op­ment. Email feedback to col­umns@glean­ and Daniel Th­waites is an at­tor­neyat-law. Email feedback to col­umns@glean­

HOW MANY Ja­maicans get their news pri­mar­ily from so­cial me­dia? And what is the qual­ity and con­tent of that news? I don’t have the an­swer to that ques­tion, but I think it would be worth find­ing out.

For one thing, we know that peo­ple search out what they al­ready agree with, so they likely end up in an echo cham­ber of views they al­ready hold when they spend time on­line. Plus, web­sites like Face­book have al­go­rithms that de­liver to users more of what they have al­ready said they like, pretty much lock­ing them in a room with ev­ery­one sing­ing the same Sankey.

So­cial sci­en­tists have stud­ied what hap­pens when peo­ple of like mind get put to­gether with­out any op­pos­ing ideas. They be­come more ex­treme, more en­trenched in their views, more likely to think that their way of see­ing things is the only le­git­i­mate way of see­ing them.

Face­book and other so­cial-me­dia plat­forms, it turns out, are ex­cel­lent for spread­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion, in­ac­cu­ra­cies, and out­right lies. And if that’s done in a story with a catchy head­line and pre­sented as if it’s from a rep­utable news source, it can go vi­ral and have real-world ef­fects and im­pact.


Pro­duc­ing fak­ery is, of course, quite easy, whereas gen­er­at­ing real news is dif­fi­cult and hard work. That would at least partly ex­plain the pro­lif­er­a­tion of garbage, and ‘click­bait’ from the Left and the Right de­signed to drive up your blood pres­sure and make you very an­gry. Chances are that if you’re an­gry, you will click on it, in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther, and then, fully en­raged, for­ward it on to your friends and neigh­bours.

Per­haps this is why me­dia watch­dog Me­di­aMat­ters is send­ing around a pe­ti­tion ask­ing Face­book to fix its “fake news prob­lem”. With ev­i­dent alarm, it points to a re­cent Pew poll show­ing that 62 per cent of Amer­i­cans now get news on so­cial me­dia. Face­book is the most pop­u­lar place, with one-quar­ter of the earth’s pop­u­la­tion giv­ing it eye­balls.

In fact, just the other day, Face­book was send­ing out in­cor­rect in­for­ma­tion that peo­ple had died, giv­ing some peo­ple the novel ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing no­ti­fied of their own death by a so­cial-me­dia page.

The great satirist Mark Twain had a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence back in 1897 and fa­mously quipped, “The re­ports of my death are greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.” Now a satir­i­cal news­pa­per has made the point to Mark Zucker­burg with their own head­line: ‘Mark Zucker­burg – Dead At 32 – De­nies Face­book Has Prob­lem With Fake News’.

These trends were very ev­i­dent to me dur­ing the lead-up to the USA’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. I hap­pen to know peo­ple pas­sion­ately Demo­cratic and oth­ers equally pas­sion­ately Repub­li­can, and it’s fair to say that they live in dif­fer­ent


One of the most alarm­ing fea­tures of their dis­con­nect is that they be­lieve com­pletely dif­fer­ent facts about the po­lit­i­cal world, and the set of be­liefs hardly have any over­lap. It’s ac­tu­ally quite easy to imag­ine a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween de­cent peo­ple from ei­ther side where nei­ther would make any sense to the other.


This is part of the pack­age that the Ox­ford Dic­tionary is get­ting at when it chose the word ‘post-truth’ as the Word of the Year. ‘Post-truth’ is 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 driv­ing no­tion be­hind it is that the old-timey cen­tral idea of ‘truth’ has be­come ir­rel­e­vant.

In other words, who cares about the facts? It’s how I feel that’s im­por­tant.

That strikes me as a very dan­ger­ous thing. It’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to have, even in the hotly con­tested po­lit­i­cal arena, some things that they can all agree upon.

I thought of this when I came across a video of Aud­ley Shaw danc­ing on a po­lit­i­cal stage re­cently. Mi ah beg un­nuh ... check it out. You just have to like the guy. Full of vibes. Aud­ley put down some skank­ing!

I think all Ja­maicans, re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sion, can agree that Aud­ley is a mas­sively en­ter­tain­ing dancer. And I think once we’ve es­tab­lished that fact be­yond dis­pute, even in elec­tion pe­ri­ods, great struc­tures of mu­tual un­der­stand­ing can be built on that foun­da­tion.

How­ever, it is ev­i­dent that much of our pol­i­tics has be­come post-truth as well. Aud­ley should’ve been danc­ing to a tune named ‘I Dou­bled the Min­i­mum Wage’, ‘De Dol­lar Stop Slide’, or even ‘1.5 With­out New Tax’, but those weren’t the tunes. And even though he’s a mag­nif­i­cent dancer, I wonder if Aud­ley truly be­lieved any of those state­ments as he was mak­ing them. Or was he just danc­ing a jig for cam­paign en­ter­tain­ment?

Those are ques­tions you can re­solve for your­self.

The larger is­sue is that nowa­days, peo­ple have to make even more of an ef­fort to break out of the si­los and in­for­ma­tion bub­bles they live in, not less. The in­for­ma­tion su­per­high­way, as it used to be called, is de­cep­tive. It can, in fact, be a tiny dirt road if you don’t take de­lib­er­ate steps to en­gage with ideas that may seem un­fa­mil­iar.

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