Matthew D'Ancona on why this General Election campaign is putting feelings before facts - and how to spot the truth among the soundbites
The run up to the 2017 general election has come to be shaped, and even defined, by the devastating events in Manchester on 22 May. At a recent Waterstones event to promote my book Post-Truth, we observed a moment’s silence out of respect for those slain and injured in the Manchester attack. It was important, I think, to do so.
In the aftermath of the horror, I noticed two divergent responses: first, a sort of aphasia, the silence following an atrocity that stretches the limits of human comprehension; second, a desire to talk rationally and with dignity, to reclaim the right to argue, debate and seek the truth.
This right is the underpinning of any liberal society, and it is the subject of my book. The question I seek to address is this: why is truth under assault as the reserve currency of democracy? How has this happened and what can we do?
The challenge is especially sharp in the thick of an election campaign. We saw in last year’s EU referendum, and in the victory of Donald Trump in the US Election, how emotional resonance is becoming more important than veracity. So what if Brexit fails to deliver a £350m weekly dividend to the NHS? It sounded good at the time. Who cares if Trump is a bigoted braggart, completely unqualified to hold the most powerful office in the world?
American voters responded to his brutal empathy, rooted not in statistics, empiricism or meticulously acquired information, but in an uninhibited talent for rage, impatience and the attribution of blame.
This is the essence of Post Truth. Not lies, falsehood and mendacity, which are as old as human communication itself. What has changed is our response – a response driven increasingly by emotion rather than rationality.
Uncomfortable as it is to admit, it is we who have changed, not the liars.
Many forces have conspired to bring this about, but the most powerful are the decline of trust in our institutions – the traditional sources of authoritative information – and the digital revolution, which has driven us into “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” of the likeminded.
The secret algorithms that pump news into our social media feeds are designed to give us more of what we like – to bolster our existing convictions, rather than to challenge them.
So what if Brexit fails to deliver a £350m weekly dividend to the NHS? It sounded good at the time
Worse, the gatekeepers and referees of the information landscape have lost much of their power. Which is why it is so important in this election to be wary of the claims that you read and hear. Do not assume that something that lands on Facebook or Twitter or arises from a Google search is necessarily true – in fact, apply the same level of scrutiny you would to an allegation made by somebody you didn’t know.
Help is at hand in the growing industry of fact-checking sites and initiatives: the BBC’s Reality Check, First Draft and Full Fact, all of which are assessing the parties’ claims in real time. Do not assume that peer-to-peer recommendation (what your digital “friends” urge you to read) is a guarantee of truth: recover your agency as a citizen and form your own conclusions.
Beware, especially, of politicians who seem to be promising the earth. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. The defining characteristic of populism is the insistence that there are simple solutions to complex problems (building a wall between the US and Mexico, for instance).
True statesmanship begins with an unambiguous recognition that this is not so – that successful public policy is full of nuance, difficulty and challenge. Do not trust those who say that they deserve your vote on June 8 because they have a shopping list of quick-fix answers. They really don’t.
The more I talk to people about these ideas, the more optimistic I become. The public does not want to be infantilised by the political process, and craves leaders who treat them as adults.
But those leaders will not step up to the plate unless we demand that they do so – remorselessly. There is no pendulum that will swing back, restoring truth as the core value in our political discourse. We must raise our voices until we are heard, and a change is made.
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Welcome to the Post-Truth era— a time in which the art of the lie is shaking the very foundations of democracy and the world as we know it. The Brexit vote; Donald Trump’s victory; the rejection of climate change science; the vilification of immigrants; all have been based on the power to evoke feelings and not facts. So what does it all mean and how can we champion truth in in a time of lies and ‘alternative facts’?
In this eye-opening and timely book, Post-Truth is distinguished from a long tradition of political lies, exaggeration and spin. What is new is not the mendacity of politicians but the public’s response to it and the ability of new technologies and social media to manipulate, polarise and entrench opinion. Where trust has evaporated, conspiracy theories thrive, the authority of the media wilt and emotions matter more than facts .
Now, one of the UK’s most respected political journalists, Matthew d’Ancona investigates how we got here, why quiet resignation is not an option and how we can and must fight back.