Post-truth, or the endgame of postmodernism

Liberal self-flagellation brought about by 2016s geo-political upheavals has taken a variety of different forms but the effects of the so-called post-truth culture have become the signature discontent. This discourse has multiple levels relating ostensibly to the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump. These events, along with other populist movements in West, have shaken the foundation of the social democratic consensus. The rise of ‘outsiders’ like Trump suggest that fact-based credibility is no longer required as a basis for political support. In this context, it is fascinating to see how post-truth anxieties have emerged from philosophical debates concerning the media, its role in a functioning democracy and its ubiquitous integration into our everyday lives. There is a sudden urgency in questioning the construction, dissemination and optimisation of information and knowledge in an era of transformative media. Yet, as an academic in the humanities, it is striking to me how post-truth discourse is evocative of familiar concerns connected the concept of postmodermism.

Postmodern thought interrogates how communications technology has altered not only what we know, but how knowledge is constructed, how we connect to one another, and our relationship to social structures. A central parameter of the digital revolution has been the acceleration in the access to, and flow of, information. The Internet’s utopian promise of a global public sphere however, with networked citizens capable of critical thinking, is a long way from being realised. Indeed, critics might posit that instead the result has been the emergence of a mass of confused, depressed, distracted cultural dupes? The liberal malaise of post-truth discourse is, in one sense, the uncomfortable realisation that citizens are still spectacularly ill-equipped to be able to adequately participate in democracy. You can take your pick as to the simultaneously amusing and terrifying revelations regarding the limits of knowledge  – two of my personal favourites are that 40% of Florida Republican voters think Hillary Clinton is literally a demon and “what is the EU?” was one of the most googled questions the day after Brexit.

It is highly reductive to blame a democratic deficit solely on the media particularly when one considers intricate and longstanding educational, economic, social, cultural and religious factors that influence political awareness and engagement. Furthermore, there have always been apocalyptic pronouncements about the effect of every new technology that comes along. However, the post-truth discourse comprises various angles of critique related to the media: changes in the dynamics of news consumption; the exclusionary effects of social media bubble; the ideological functioning of news organisations; the effect algorithmic formulas dictating information consumption and the mistrust of experts. The idealised democratic role as the fourth estate have come into sharp focus since the election. In a recent New Yorker article on Obama’s reaction to the Trump victory the President laments: 

“the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

Obama summarises post-truth concerns regarding the legitimacy of information, but importantly, the lack of consequences for stating untruths, and the subsequent quicksand into which rational debate sinks, are also alluded to. In the same piece Obama advisor David Simas suggests that social media gives “a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable”. This points to the eco-chamber effect of social media and, along with ugly right-wing populist rhetoric, underlies  the attack on political correctness, the rise of so-called ‘alt-right’ and the spike in incidents of xenophobia and racism. Hillary Clinton, in statement after the election, highlighted the potential of fake news to have ‘real world consequences’. The specific denunciation of fake news, even suggesting governmental intervention, is pointed in providing the democrats with a convenient focus of criticism and mechanism for shift the blame. Along with the potential freedom of speech issues this suggests a lack of self-awareness as to the mood of the electorate, the short-comings of the democratic campaign, Clinton’s problems as a candidate in this populist climate.

Yet, social media, its interactive functionality, its editorialising effect and, of course, its increasing status as a primary site of news dissemination, is destabilising the gate-keeping role of news media. Social media feeds do not differentiate between ‘traditional’ news sources and, shall we say, those with a looser application of journalistic principles, or outright fake news. This is complicated further by the fact that there are different forms of fake news. The Onion, NewsThump, Jonathan Pie, the The Borowitz report are meant to be understood as fake news, satirically sending up the hypocrisies of mainstream news construction. Other sites such as AmericanNews, NationalReport & Newswatch33 create fake stories with different levels of ideological intent. The wholesale production of fake news sites designed to destabilise the Clinton campaign shows how fake news was directly used as political weopon. This is not to mention the significant role that Fox news has played packaging news a partisan infotainment with questionable concern for factualityThat right-wing offence mongers and conspiratorial bottom feeders Brietbart are now inveigled into to the White house is as depressing reflection of the post-truth discourse. An incident like Pizzagate may be a one off flash of rank idiocy but reflects an increasingly ambiguous space the media occupies in the relationship between individuals and knowledge.

What suddenly seem like prescient questions of how information is consumed, processed and utilised have been at the forefront of postmodernist thought since the term was coined. The concept of the postmodern, apart from striking fear into the hearts of humanities undergrads everywhere, came to the fore in the latter half of the 20th century deployed as malleable term to describe and analyse transformations and challenges to the assumed certainties in socio-political organisation and cultural practice. Critics of the term decry its rhetorical convolutions, lack of empirical grounding and pseudo-intellectual vagaries yet there hardly any field that has not undergone some form postmodern interrogation. Although postmodernism has never gone away, through the 2000s its theoretical slipperiness became somewhat passé and in the aftermath of 9/11, the war on terror and then the financial crash such cerebral abstractions may have appeared to push the limits self-indulgence. 

Postmodernism, to me, was always a philosophical tool for thinking about the ways in which human experience and cultural expression were not just influenced, but fundamentally reconfigured, primarily by computerised communications technology. The emergence of the internet, social media, the political and economic tumult of past few years, and the consequence for global society and individual experience, all have various reference points in seminal postmodern writing: Lyotard’s “incredulity towards metanarratives”; Barthes and Foucault on the “death of the author”; McLuhan’s “the global village”; Baudrillard’s “simulation and hyperreality” reflect elements of post-truth discourse, particularly in relation to the mediation of society. Indeed Trump, the narcissistic reality TV star with the itchy twitter finger, is ripe to be discussed through the prism of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.

A central element of postmodern theorisation relates to the bombardment of media images which has the effect of annihilating criteria with which to discern the value or veracity of what one consumes. Truth is decoupled from any concrete foundation and becomes merely the dominant ideological claim in a given context. As a result, the individual becomes increasingly alienated from a clear sense of personal identity and objective knowledge. Although, I have been, and remain, ambivalent about postmodernism (to the point of oscillating between thinking it is vitally prescient and pretentious anti-philosophy), it is striking how the tenets of post-truth discourse are recycling unease about mediation and the collapse of a tangible sense of the truth. In the aftermath of the US election Trump ‘surrogate’ Scottie Nell Hughes, the ‘news director’ of the ‘tea party news network’ delivered the ultimate postmodern statement: “There’s no such thing as facts” (sic). Such a statement suggest there is no longer a battle over a binary position of what is true or false, real or unreal; instead individualised subjectivity is the benchmark criteria by which knowledge is defined. In the cynical swamp that is realpolitick every utterance is assumed to be an ideological gambit.

Speaking as someone who spends a large portion of their life and work online, and has unwittingly shared a misleading meme and fallen for a fake news story, it difficult not to be concerned about the diminishing criteria by which truth can be defined in our mediated society. The democratising potential of social media may have unwittingly revealed fundamental flaws in democracy. As the legacy of postmodern critique suggests the pre-internet era was not a moral utopia of political or journalistic virtue. Indeed, like the politicians who are bemoaning the corrosive influence of fake news, it’s convenient for the traditional media to blame the phenomena when their own contribution to the misinformation and the status of Trump should be accounted for. We may however, have somewhat lost control of the personal and social extension of ourselves that mediated technology provides. In this regard Marshall McLuhan’s maxim “The Medium is the Message” seems prescient as ever. The content of fake news is less important than understanding we are engaging on a platform that obliterates the distinction from fake and real. The stupidity and offensiveness of Trump’s 3am tweets are less important than the fact that there exists a platform by which the traditional media, as a conduit between state and citizen, can be bypassed. And there is something deeply worrying in the realisation that the next leader of the free world is not even interested in the aspiration to truth. In one sense, we are only just coming to terms with this, but in another it the culmination of the postmodern condition.