When I was a kid I liked to tell a good lie. My untruths were not malicious or injurious but they were very intentional deceptions. Like every kid, I knew that lying was a bad thing to do but there was a particular thrill in carefully crafting a deliberative fiction that would travel and that would hold. My objective was to have it be believed, and believed by many. The real victory, which was rare, was to have the deception circle back to me, uttered iteratively from second to third to fourth parties until it came home to its origins, returned to the ears of its maker. This was a long time ago and yet, our so-called post-truth era of alternative facts does make it seem as though we are now experimenting with truth in the beta mode: uncertain, crowd-sourced versions of reality.
LIES & BULLSHIT
The lie is often taken as a dirty act, so dishonorable that in polite company it would be understood as an assault to suggest that someone is a liar. When Donald Trump claimed the crowds at his inauguration were “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period” or when he proclaimed that “millions of illegal voters” had cost him the popular vote, journalists and media commentators were quick to check those claims against the facts, but they were loath to accuse him of lies. Trump supporters remained faith-full1 to their man despite no evidence that any bogus votes were cast anywhere in the country, and that there was no sign that his inaugural crowds were anything more than mediocre. Nonetheless, reporters and pundits in the U.S. tended to demure from stating that “he lied.” Instead, the liar had ‘misstated’ the truth or, even more sympathetically, had failed to produce a verifiable fact. A lack of facticity is one dimension of misstatement, but it is the alternative fact2–a deliberately, spuriously concocted alter-truth–that most characterizes what is now being called a post-truth era. It was the alternative fact that caused a run on copies of 1984, Orwell’s3 dystopian saga of a society rhetorically reproduced through ‘newspeak,’ the sine qua non of doublethink.
Where many U.S.-based journalists may shy away from calling a liar a liar, British commentators appear less concerned about that terminological propriety. They use the word4 and then some, and with some distinction. As Laurie Penny elegantly put it in The New Statesman recently, “The liar has a clear idea of what the reality of a situation is, and wants their audience to believe the opposite.” The bullshit artist5, by contrast, “wants to destroy the entire concept of truth, not to deceive but to confuse, confound and control.” So, do we now live among proud liars and accomplished bullshit artists? Undoubtedly both.
Lying and bullshitting are both creative acts. So too, is the news. A science reporter for The New York Times, for instance, must take newly formulated, or found, scientific facts and make them news. She must use her wits to shake the dull chaff from the shiny (newsworthy) grain of fact/s. And in this hewing process the appeal is also fashioned, the linguistic instruments used to make a story a story and to give science its representational shape in words. In this sense, news about, and of, science is always already a simulacra of scientific facts. The news of science is a rendering, coded through language and deposited in epistemic spaces – from hallowed news outlets and jacked-up talk radio screeds to social media silos of our own making. But representation, we know, is never just representation. It is only, as James Clifford (1986) would have it, a “partial truth” that is always and forever caught up in the very invention of what it represents. Alternative facts do not make themselves up, but they do make their way around, seeming to accrete more and more truth along the way. Remember that in Orwell’s work, science, in the conventional sense, had almost ceased to exist. In newspeak there was (or is) no word for science.
Over the last decade or so, about 35% of journalism jobs in the United States have been lost (Boyer 2013). The contemporary news ecology in the U.S. and elsewhere shows signs that journalistic deprofessionalization has increased just as a hyperprofessionalization of hoaxing and fake news has exponentialized. We see fewer journalists working less time and more hoaxers and false news manufacturers working more time and with increasing influence. The bleed between factual news and promotional hijinks appeared as a proleptic foreshadowing to fake news in the Blue Water6 faux terrorist attack that fooled Germany’s most respected newspaper back in 2009. Seven years later, in the late stages of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a fake news maker based in suburban California7, Jestin Coler, set out to “infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right.” Apparently one of the biggest fake news producers in the world, Coler is an unassuming fellow, but one with a talent for shaping stories and sites to suit the eyes and ears of what he calls the “white nationalist alt-right.” A phony FBI murder-suicide8 tied to Hillary Clinton was the ideal vehicle for his creative and monetary aspirations, channeled through an organization that he calls Disinfomedia. Staging reality, as with the Blue Water hoax or with fake murder-suicides may be as simple as creating a handful of websites where content and form mimic the contour of real news while never intending to properly inform. Mediaspheres are permeable–both democratized as well as disinformationalized. But, this is not really new.
Naomi Oreskes9 and Eric Conway (2010) have written that the propagation of untruths, or the production of ‘doubt,’ has long been a corporate strategy to ensure increased profit and the continued manufacture of dangerous products, from cigarettes to carbon emissions. Perforating the veracity of scientific fact is a product in itself, they argue. It is something that can be marketed in a double sense: as a narrative in which doubt thrives, and again, as a material product (for example, tobacco) that, through the creation and dissemination of the deceptive narrative, will also be sold. In their book, Oreskes and Conway set out to unravel how a tiny handful of scientists were able to produce decades of uncertainty around the harms of chlorofluorocarbons, tobacco and carbon emissions. But their story does not end with the construction of scientific skepticism. It resolves instead with the distribution of those lies through media outlets whose journalists have been trained—rightly or wrongly—to “tell both sides of the story.” (As though there were ever only two sides). In this way, a mountain of fact may be made to appear next to an eroded pebble of disagreement. Even in the attempt to provide objective balance, as the ethics of journalism demand, truly genuine truthly equilibrium has, as Noam Chomsky has shown for decades, never been fully achieved.
One of the distinguishing features of post-truth and post-factual times is the abrogation of professionalized news production to the agglomeration of social media newspeak. An argument can be made that as we buzz about in our hives of social media, we are each enrolled in the manufacture of news: the design and dissemination of news, facts, or factishes, truths or its partialities. Have we all become citizen journalists as we tap out our reposts and retweets? It is possible that we have collectively neglected professional news journalism to the point where expert media cannot insulate us from trolling liars. Worries about actual and potential public gullibility has meant that companies like Facebook are now posting primers on how to spot fake news. (Beware of headlines with too many exclamation points they say!!!!!!). But if a general dupability has overtaken our mediated lives, one wonders when it was, if ever, that anyone really believed that all of the posts on Facebook or the tweets rolling off of our screens represented the truth with a capital T.
THE TRUTH IN EMOTION
The term post-truth was beatified in 2016 as the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year10. Post-truth is a condition, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Post-truthiness depends on a referent to objectivity, but most importantly it requires an emotive appeal, an ability to mold feelings, beliefs and to re-curve public consciousness in ways that serve its makers. Conversely, truth requires its paradoxical inverse. Truth needs the lie. Reality demands irreality and fact can only exists against falsehood. But post-truth is a game of complicities, a willingness to believe in the thing being claimed. This is both an epistemological and ontological proposition. Post-truth requires multiple epistemologies of the world and perspectival difference. Post-truth also demands, as Marilyn Strathern (2004) and Annemarie Mol (2003) might point out, multiple ontological forms of the ‘facts’ inhabiting worlds (in the plural). Distinct epistemes view facts in distinct ways. Multiple worlds produce multiple ontologies of facts. Post-truth may be most instructive in the ways that it surfaces that combination of truth creation.
Post-truth is also an affective condition where sentiment and faith converge upon the putative objectivity of fact. Science studies have demonstrated again and again how facts are not without their affective dimension in both their construction and diffusion; post-truthiness makes that abundantly clear. In post-truth worlds, the agent of deception is part of a dynamic oscillation between The Real (or facts as they are concluded as such in the present) and The Unreal. The liar knows the truth. And in this way she is also part of truthmaking, as well as its undoing. This is where Clifford’s partial truths meet with Strathern’s “partial connections.” Truth is constituted, re-constituted and enacted in relation to various other realities, facts and verifiable events. This is a project of moving one enactment through the next.
SOCIAL THEORY & POST-TRUTHISHNESS
Perhaps post-truth is not novel, but in “fact” the constitutive ground of western social theory. The Enlightenment project was, as we well know, a program that sought out reason against faith, lauding the rational rather than the theological. Scientific methods and the empirical gaze were developed to surface the workings of physical phenomena and in so doing, unravel the metaphysical truths that had obtained over the centuries. If truth had been attributed to god/s, it now ebbed toward the intellectual pursuits of men, moving from the unseen acts of deities to the replicable experiments of science. New kinds of truth were emerging.
The idea that there could be another truth, that there was more than one truth, enabled the rationality project. In the early days of 19th century social theory, for example, were all kinds of truths variously deduced and exchanged. Emile Durkheim had his formulations of total social facts and saw society webbed through its collective unconscious. Gabriel Tarde saw another truth of nodal individuals (and their interests) compelled, nonetheless, to enroll in some form of the social contract. Alternative truths can be multiplied infinitely across academic spheres of debate. Science studies and feminist epistemologies–such as standpoint theory (Hartsock 1987) and situated knowledge (Haraway 1991)–have been both the great inheritors, as well as key drivers, of truth’s disassembling. And, as Bruno Latour duly acknowledged in his essay11 comparing matters of fact to matters of concern, “factishness” has an insidious doppelganger in, for instance, climate change denial rhetoric. When was the moment that deconstruction became destruction or that undermining scientific certainty became an act of “adding even more smoke to the smoke (2004: 228)?” Have the last several decades of intellectual life been nakedly impartial in their razing of truth?
Our post-truth age may simply affirm that epistemic continuity never really existed or it may magnify how assemblages of disassembled truths have come to figure Real World imaginaries. What may sting most is the recognition that facts are so perilously frail, interpreted and emotive. But this is also a time to pause on the hyphen in the midst of post-truth, to balance for a moment on this gesture toward a time after the fact, where truth is found in the beta mode.