Oxford Dictionaries has announced its Word of the Year 2016 – post-truth. The use of the phrase increased by 2,000 percent over last year, and is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The Pope is supporting Trump? Clinton is selling weapons to the Islamic State? The new normal is apparently to freely fabricate stories that will be published as news on Facebook and shared without scrutinizing sources of claims presented as facts. A revival of good old honest propaganda.
It is unacceptable that Facebook circulates obvious lies. It has been criticized for influencing the election result in the U.S., but how reasonable is that criticism? Do we really want Facebook to take on the role of editor, deciding what we should and should not read? Facebook claims that its role is “only” to act as a technology platform, and I tend to agree. It is shortsighted to ask Facebook as a channel to regulate the content. The internet giant has also already taken a massive step in the direction of stopping post-truth posts, i.e., lies. It may be the easy thing to do, but it is not good enough to be blaming Facebook when the unbelievable happens and a demagogue and populist is elected as the American president.
First and foremost, a real democracy enables freedom of speech. Only in an open dialogue can we debate, convince, and understand others.
Second, we need to be on our guard against fake news. It is frightening to read in The Washington Post of a man boasting about how his fake news stories helped to make Trump’s election victory possible.
Third, those who have clicked on, read, and shared articles based on inaccuracies need to consider their own responsibility. How do we get better at seeing through the propaganda? The dilemma is probably that we believe, or want to believe, what we are sharing.
So where were we all, those of us who questioned and had arguments contradicting the propaganda used by Trump and the Brexit supporters? Unfortunately, being right is not enough. You must also make the effort to express yourself in the right way, and using the right channels, so that the arguments can be received where they can make a difference. Long, logical, and factually correct texts in elitist publications for those who already agree are not valid additions to the debate for everyone.
Propaganda is not a new phenomenon. We now need to take responsibility and counter emotional arguments and fears in the right format and in the right arenas. We cannot blame technology or expect it to steer the discussion about what our society should look like.
Instead of post-truth, let’s get to work and “post the truth.” If we are serious about wanting to defend our liberal and open worldview, we must counter the propaganda with arguments that make an impact. We all have a responsibility – media and journalists, politicians, colleagues and friends – to find the right forum, even if it is Facebook, and to express ourselves in a way that will make a difference.
Yes, it is hard with only 140 characters. But who says democracy is easy? We did not take part. Not really. Were we too snobby?