Post-truth politics

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Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics[1] and post-reality politics)[2] is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.

Post-truth politics is a subset of the broader term "post-truth," which has historical roots prior to the recent focus on political events. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of facts by relegating facts and expert opinions to be of secondary importance relative to appeal to emotion. While this has been described as a contemporary problem, some observers have described it as a long-standing part of political life that was less notable before the advent of the Internet and related social changes.

As of 2018, political commentators have identified post-truth politics as ascendant in many nations, notably Australia, Brazil, China, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others. As with other areas of debate, this is being driven by a combination of the 24-hour news cycle, false balance in news reporting, and the increasing ubiquity of social media and fake news websites.[3][4][5][6][7][8] In 2016, post-truth was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year[9] due to its prevalence in the context of that year's Brexit referendum and media coverage of the US presidential election.[10][11]



According to Oxford Dictionaries, the Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich first used the term post-truth in a 1992 essay in The Nation. Tesich writes that following the shameful truth of Watergate (1972–1974), more assuaging coverage of the Iran–Contra scandal (1985–1987)[12] and Persian Gulf War (1990–1991) demonstrates that "we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world."[13][14]

In 2004 Ralph Keyes used the term "post-truth era" in his book by that title.[15] In it he argued that deception is becoming more prevalent in the current media-driven world. According to Keyes, lies stopped being treated as something inexcusable and started being viewed as something acceptable in certain situations, which supposedly led to the beginning of the post-truth era. The same year American journalist Eric Alterman spoke of a "post-truth political environment" and coined the term "the post-truth presidency" in his analysis of the misleading statements made by the Bush administration after 9/11 in 2001.[16] In his 2004 book Post-democracy, Colin Crouch used the phrase "post-democracy" to mean a model of politics where "elections certainly exist and can change governments," but "public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams". Crouch directly attributes the "advertising industry model" of political communication to the crisis of trust and accusations of dishonesty that a few years later others have associated with post-truth politics.[17] More recently, scholars have followed Crouch in demonstrating the role of professional political communication's contribution to distrust and wrong beliefs, where strategic use of emotion is becoming key to gaining truth for truth statements.[18]

The term "post-truth politics" was coined by the blogger David Roberts in a blog post for Grist on 1 April 2010. Roberts defined it as "a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation)".[19][20] Post truth was used by philosopher Joseph Heath to describe the 2014 Ontario election.[citation needed] The term became widespread during the campaigns for the 2016 presidential election in the United States and for the 2016 "Brexit" referendum on membership in the European Union in the United Kingdom.[10][11] Oxford Dictionaries declared that its international word of the year in 2016 was "post-truth", citing a 2,000% increase in usage compared to 2015.[9]


Jennifer Hochschild, H.L. Jayne Professor of Government at Harvard University, has described the rise of post-truth as a return to 18th- and 19th-century political and media practices in the United States, following a period in the 20th century where the media was relatively balanced and rhetoric was toned down.[21] (Not so in Britain and elsewhere necessarily; for example, in 1957 scientist Kathleen Lonsdale remarked that "for many people truthfulness in politics has now become a mockery.... Anyone who listens to the radio in a mixed company of thinking people knows how deep-seated is this cynicism."[22])

New Scientist characterised the pamphlet wars that arose with the growth of printing and literacy, beginning in the 1600s, as an early form of post-truth politics. Slanderous and vitriolic pamphlets were cheaply printed and widely disseminated, and the dissent that they fomented contributed to starting wars and revolutions such as the English Civil War (1642–1651) and (much later) the American Revolution (1765–1783).[8]


A Vote Leave poster with a contested claim about the EU membership fee, cited as an example of post-truth politics[23]

A defining trait of post-truth politics is that campaigners continue to repeat their talking points, even when media outlets, experts in the field in question, and others provide proof that contradicts these talking points.[24] For example, during campaigning for the British EU referendum campaign, Vote Leave made repeated use of the claim that EU membership cost £350 million a week, although later began to use the figure as a net amount of money sent directly to the EU. This figure, which ignored the UK rebate and other factors, was described as "potentially misleading" by the UK Statistics Authority, as "not sensible" by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and was rejected in fact checks by BBC News, Channel 4 News and Full Fact.[25][26][27] Vote Leave nevertheless continued to use the figure as a centrepiece of their campaign until the day of the referendum, after which point they downplayed the pledge as having been an "example", pointing out that it was only ever suggested as a possible alternative use of the net funds sent to the EU.[28] Tory MP and Leave campaigner Sarah Wollaston, who left the group in protest during its campaign, criticised its "post-truth politics".[23] The Justice Secretary Michael Gove controversially claimed in an interview that the British people "Had had enough of experts".[29]

Michael Deacon, parliamentary sketchwriter for The Daily Telegraph, summarised the core message of post-truth politics as "Facts are negative. Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic." He added that post-truth politics can also include a claimed rejection of partisanship and negative campaigning.[30] In this context, campaigners can push a utopian "positive campaign" to which rebuttals can be dismissed as smears and scaremongering and opposition as partisan.[20][30]

In its most extreme mode, post-truth politics can make use of conspiracism.[31][32] In this form of post-truth politics, false rumors (such as the "birther" or "Muslim" conspiracy theories about Barack Obama) become major news topics.[33] In the case of the "pizzagate" conspiracy, this resulted in a man entering the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria and firing an AR-15 rifle.[34]

In contrast to simply telling untruths, writers such as Jack Holmes of Esquire describe the process as something different, with Holmes putting it as: "So, if you don't know what's true, you can say whatever you want and it's not a lie".[2]


In 2015 media and Politics scholar Jayson Harsin coined the term "regime of post-truth" which encompasses many aspects of post-truth politics. He argues that a convergent set of developments have created the conditions of post-truth society: the political communication informed by cognitive science, which aims at managing perception and belief of segmented populations through techniques like microtargeting which includes the strategic use of rumors and falsehoods; the fragmentation of modern, more centralized mass news media gatekeepers, which have largely repeated one another's scoops and their reports; the attention economy marked by information overload and acceleration, user-generated content and fewer society-wide common trusted authorities to distinguish between truth and lies, accurate and inaccurate; the algorithms which govern what appears in social media and search engine rankings, based on what users want (per algorithm) and not on what is factual; and news media which have been marred by scandals of plagiarism, hoaxes, propaganda, and changing news values. These developments have occurred on the background of economic crises, downsizing and favoring trends toward more traditional tabloid stories and styles of reporting, known as tabloidization[35] and infotainment.

While some of these phenomena (such as a more tabloidesque press) may suggest a return to the past, the effect of the convergences is a socio-political phenomenon which exceeds earlier forms of journalism in deliberate distortion and struggle. Fact-checking and rumor-busting sites abound, but they are unable to reunite a fragmented set of audiences (attention-wise) and their respective trustful-/distrustfulness. Harsin has called it a "regime of post-truth" instead of merely post-truth politics, with professional pan-partisan political communication manipulating the communication competitively.[36]

Major news outlets[edit]

Several trends in the media landscape have been blamed for the perceived rise of post-truth politics. One contributing factor has been the proliferation of state-funded news agencies like CCTV News and RT, and Voice of America in the USA which allow states to influence Western audiences. According to Peter Pomerantsev, a British-Russian journalist who worked for TNT in Moscow, one of their prime objectives has been to de-legitimize Western institutions, including the structures of government, democracy, and human rights.[citation needed] As of 2016, trust in the mainstream media in the US had reached historical lows.[11] It has been suggested that under these conditions, fact checking by news outlets struggles to gain traction among the wider public[11][37] and that politicians resort to increasingly drastic messaging.[5]

Many news outlets desire to appear to be, or have a policy of being, impartial. Many writers have noted that in some cases, this leads to false balance, the practice of giving equal emphasis to unsupported or discredited claims without challenging their factual basis.[38] The 24-hour news cycle also means that news channels repeatedly draw on the same public figures, which benefits PR-savvy politicians and means that presentation and personality can have a larger impact on the audience than facts,[39] while the process of claim and counter-claim can provide grist for days of news coverage at the expense of deeper analysis of the case.[6]

Social media and the Internet[edit]

Social media adds an additional dimension, as user networks can become echo chambers possibly emphasised by the filter bubble where one political viewpoint dominates and scrutiny of claims fails,[6][8][40] allowing a parallel media ecosystem of websites, publishers and news channels to develop, which can repeat post-truth claims without rebuttal.[41] In this environment, post-truth campaigns can ignore fact checks or dismiss them as being motivated by bias.[32] The Guardian editor-in-chief Katherine Viner laid some of the blame on the rise of clickbait, articles of dubious factual content with a misleading headline and which are designed to be widely shared, saying that "chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity" undermines the value of journalism and truth.[42] In 2016, David Mikkelson, co-founder of the fact checking and debunking site, described the introduction of social media and fake news sites as a turning point, saying "I’m not sure I’d call it a post-truth age but … there’s been an opening of the sluice-gate and everything is pouring through. The bilge keeps coming faster than you can pump."[43]

The digital culture allows anybody with a computer and access to the internet to post their opinions online and mark them as fact which may become legitimized through echo-chambers and other users validating one another. Content may be judged based on how many views a post gets, creating an atmosphere that appeals to emotion, audience biases, or headline appeal instead of researched fact. Content which gets more views is continually filtered around different internet circles[clarification needed], regardless of its legitimacy. Some also argue that the abundance of fact available at any time on the internet leads to an attitude focused on knowing basic claims to information instead of an underlying truth or formulating carefully thought-out opinions.[44] The internet allows people to choose where they get their information, allowing them to reinforce their own opinions.[45]

Polarized political culture[edit]

The rise of post-truth politics coincides with polarized political beliefs. A Pew Research Center study of American adults found that "those with the most consistent ideological views on the left and right have information streams that are distinct from those of individuals with more mixed political views—and very distinct from each other".[46] Data is becoming increasingly accessible as new technologies are introduced to the everyday lives of citizens. An obsession for data and statistics also filters into the political scene, and political debates and speeches become filled with snippets of information that may be misconstrued, false, or not contain the whole picture. Sensationalized television news emphasizes grand statements and further publicizes politicians. This shaping from the media influences how the public views political issues and candidates.[45]

Dissenting views[edit]

In an editorial, New Scientist suggested "a cynic might wonder if politicians are actually any more dishonest than they used to be", and hypothesized that "fibs once whispered into select ears are now overheard by everyone".[8] Similarly, Viner suggested that while social media has helped some untruths to spread, it has also restrained others; as an example, she said The Sun's false "The Truth" story following the Hillsborough disaster, and the associated police cover-up, would be hard to imagine in the social media age.[42] The journalist George Gillett has suggested that the term "post-truth" mistakenly conflates empirical and ethical judgements, writing that the supposedly "post-truth" movement is in fact a rebellion against "expert economic opinion becoming a surrogate for values-based political judgements".[47]

Toby Young, writing for The Spectator, called the term a "cliché" used selectively primarily by left-wing commentators to attack what are actually universal ideological biases, contending that "[w]e are all post-truthers and probably always have been".[48] The Economist has called this argument "complacent", however, identifying a qualitative difference between political scandals of previous generations, such as those surrounding the Suez Crisis and the Iran–Contra affair (which involved attempting to cover-up the truth) and contemporary ones in which public facts are simply ignored.[3] Similarly, Alexios Mantzarlis of the Poynter Institute said that political lies were not new and identified several political campaigns in history which would now be described as "post-truth". For Mantzarlis, the "post-truth" label was—to some extent—a "coping mechanism for commentators reacting to attacks on not just any facts, but on those central to their belief system", but also noted that 2016 had been "an acrimonious year for politics on both sides of the Atlantic".[49] Mantzarlis also noted that interest in fact checking had never been higher, suggesting that at least some reject "post-truth" politics.[49][50]

David Helfand argues, following Edward M. Harris, that "public prevarication is nothing new" and that it is the "knowledge of the audience" and the "limits of plausibility" within a technology-saturated environment that have changed. We are, rather, in an age of misinformation where such limits of plausibility have vanished and where everyone feels equally qualified to make claims that are easily shared and propagated.[51]


Post-truth politics has been applied as a political buzzword to a wide range of political cultures; one article in The Economist identified post-truth politics in Austria, Germany, North Korea, Poland, Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.[3]


In December 2016 "postfaktisch" (post-factual) was named word of the year by the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (German language society), also in connection with a rise of right-wing populism[52] from 2015 on. Since the 1990s, "post-democracy" was used in sociology more and more.


Amulya Gopalakrishnan, columnist for The Times of India, identified similarities between the Trump and Brexit campaigns on the one hand, and hot-button issues in India such as the Ishrat Jahan case and the ongoing case against Teesta Setalvad on the other, where accusations of forged evidence and historical revisionism have resulted in an "ideological impasse".[6]

South Africa[edit]

Health care and education in South Africa was substantially compromised during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki due to his HIV/AIDS denialism.[53]

United Kingdom[edit]

An early use of the phrase in British politics was in March 2012 by Scottish Labour MSP Iain Gray in criticising the difference between Scottish National Party's claims and official statistics.[54] Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy also described an undercurrent of post-truth politics in which people "cheerfully shot the messenger" when presented with facts that didn't support their viewpoint, seeing it among pro-independence campaigners in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, and Leave campaigners in the then-upcoming EU membership referendum.[55]

Post-truth politics has been retroactively identified in the lead-up to the Iraq War,[7] particularly after the Chilcot Report, published in July 2016, concluded that Tony Blair misrepresented military intelligence to support his view that Iraq's chemical weapons program was advanced.[56][57]

The phrase became widely used during the 2016 UK EU membership referendum to describe the Leave campaign.[10][11][7][23][58] Faisal Islam, political editor for Sky News, said that Michael Gove used "post-fact politics" that were imported from the Trump campaign; in particular, Gove's comment in an interview that "I think people in this country have had enough of experts..." was singled out as illustrative of a post-truth trend, although this is only part of a longer statement.[11][58][59] Similarly, Arron Banks, the founder of the unofficial Leave.EU campaign, said that "facts don't work ... You've got to connect with people emotionally. It's the Trump success."[30] Andrea Leadsom—a prominent campaigner for Leave in the EU referendum and one of the two final candidates in the Conservative leadership election—has been singled out as a post-truth politician,[30] especially after she denied having disparaged rival Theresa May's childlessness in an interview with The Times in spite of transcript evidence.[42]

United States[edit]

In its original formulation, the phrase "post-truth politics" was used to describe the paradoxical situation in the United States where the Republican Party, which enforced stricter party discipline than the Democratic Party, was nevertheless able to present itself as more bipartisan, since individual Democrats were more likely to support Republican policies than vice versa.[20] The term was used by Paul Krugman in The New York Times to describe Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign in which certain claims—such as that Barack Obama had cut defense spending and that he had embarked on an "apology tour"—continued to be repeated long after they had been debunked.[60] Other forms of scientific denialism in modern US politics include the anti-vaxxer movement, and the belief that existing genetically modified foods are harmful[61] despite a strong scientific consensus that no currently marketed GMO foods have any negative health effects.[62] The health freedom movement in the US resulted in the passage of the bipartisan Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which allows the sale of dietary supplements without any evidence that they are safe or effective for the purposes consumers expect, though the FDA has begun regulation of homeopathic products.

In a review for the Harvard Gazette, Christopher Robichaud—a lecturer in ethics and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School—described conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of elections and politicians, such as the "birther" idea that Barack Obama is not a natural-born US citizen, as one side-effect of post-truth politics. Robichaud also contrasted the behavior of the candidates with that following the contested result of the 2000 election, in which Al Gore conceded and encouraged his supporters to accept the result of Bush v. Gore.[21] Similarly, Rob Boston, writing for The Humanist saw a rise in conspiracy theories across US public life, including Birtherism, climate change denialism, and rejecting evolution, which he identified as a result of post-truth politics, noting that the existence of extensive and widely available evidence against these conspiracy theories had not slowed their growth.[41]

In 2016, the "post-truth" label was especially widely used to describe the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, including by Professor Daniel W. Drezner in The Washington Post,[11] Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian,[10] Chris Cillizza in The Independent,[32] Jeet Heer in The New Republic,[63] and James Kirchick in the Los Angeles Times,[64] and by several professors of government and history at Harvard.[21] In 2017, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others, have pointed out lies or falsehoods in Trump's statements after the election.[65][66][67][68] Former president Barack Obama stated that the new media ecosystem "means everything is true and nothing is true".[69]

Environmental politics[edit]

Although the consensus among scientists is that human activities contribute to global warming, several political parties around the world have made climate change denial a basis of their policies. These parties have been accused of using post-truth techniques to attack environmental measures meant to combat climate changes to benefit industry donors.[70] During the course of the most recent 2016 election, the United States has seen numerous climate change deniers rise to power, such as new Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt replacing Barack Obama's appointee Gina McCarthy. In Australia, the repeal of carbon pricing by the government of Tony Abbott was described as "the nadir of post-truth politics" by The Age.[4]


Both technology companies and governments have started to make efforts to tackle the challenge of "post-truth politics". In an article for the journal Global Policy, professor Nayef Al-Rodhan suggested four particular responses:[71]

  1. Improve the technological tools for fact checking. For example, Germany has already asked Facebook to introduce a fake news filtering tool.
  2. Greater involvement and visibility for scientists and the scientific community. The UK, for instance, has a series of Parliamentary committees at which scientists are called to testify, and present their research to inform policy-making.[72] Similarly in Canada, the role of Chief Science Advisor was re-established and each department with even a small scientific capability was required to develop a policy for scientific integrity.[73]
  3. Stronger government action. In countries such as the Czech Republic, new units have been set up to tackle fake news.[74] The most important challenge here is to ensure that such state-led efforts are not used as a tool for censorship.
  4. Securitizing fake news. It is important to treat post-truth politics as a matter of security and devise global efforts to counter this phenomenon. In March 2017, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE, and the Organization for American States issued a Joint Declaration on "Freedom of Expression and Fake News, Disinformation and Propaganda" to warn against the effects of fake news but, at the same time, condemn any attempts at state-mandated censorship.[75][76]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]