Origin of the term
After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective 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’.
Editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to the previous year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States” in that year.
The term has moved from being relatively new to being widely understood in the course of a year – demonstrating its impact on the national and international consciousness. The concept of post-truth has been simmering for the past decade, but Oxford shows the word spiking in frequency this year in the context of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the US, and becoming associated overwhelmingly with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.
A brief history of post-truth
The compound word post-truth exemplifies an expansion in the meaning of the prefix post- that has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match – the prefix in post-truth has a meaning more like ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant’. This nuance seems to have originated in the mid-20th century, in formations such as post-national (1945) and post-racial (1971).
Post-truth seems to have been first used in this meaning in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in The Nation magazine. Reflecting on the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War, Tesich lamented that ‘we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world’. There is evidence of the phrase ‘post-truth’ being used before Tesich’s article, but apparently with the transparent meaning ‘after the truth was known’, and not with the new implication that truth itself has become irrelevant.
A book, The Post-truth Era, by Ralph Keyes appeared in 2004, (detailed review http://www.allthingspresentations.com/post-truth-era-dishonesty-deception-contemporary-life/) and in 2005 American comedian Stephen Colbert popularized an informal word relating to the same concept: truthiness, defined by Oxford Dictionaries as ‘the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true’. Post-truth extends that notion from an isolated quality of particular assertions to a general characteristic of our age.
Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is intended to “reflect the passing year in language”, with post-truth following the controversial choice last year of the “face with tears of joy” emoji. The publisher’s US and UK dictionary teams sometimes plump for different choices – in 2009 the UK went for “simples” and the US for “unfriend”; in 2006 the UK went for “bovvered” and the US for “carbon-neutral” – but this year teams on both sides of the Atlantic chose the same word.
Data, Facts AND Reality
In the 20th century, an industry for facts emerged. Market-research companies began to conduct surveys in the 1920s and extended into opinion polling in the 1930s. Think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute were established during and after World War II to apply statistics and economics to the design of new government policies, typically in the service of one political agenda or another. The idea of “evidence-based policy,” popular among liberal politicians in the late 1990s and early 2000s, saw economics being heavily leaned on to justify government programs, in an allegedly post-ideological age.
In other words, data are produced on demand and their interpretation, and occasional verification, is also the direct result of a specific intention. Of course, the term “fact” isn’t reserved exclusively for numbers. But it does imply a type of knowledge that can be reliably parceled out in public, without constant need for verification or interpretation.
The promise of facts is to settle arguments between warring perspectives and simplify the issues at stake. For instance, politicians might disagree over the right economic policy, but if they can agree that “the economy has grown by 2 percent” and “unemployment is 5 percent,” then there is at least a shared stable reality that they can argue over.
The promise of data, by contrast, is to sense shifts in public sentiment. By analyzing Twitter using algorithms, for example, it is possible to get virtually real-time updates on how a given politician is perceived. This is what’s known as “sentiment analysis.”
An abstract from The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life (https://bit.ly/2ONorAj)
Dishonesty inspires more euphemisms than copulation or defecation. This helps desensitize us to its implications. In the post-truth era, we don’t just have truth and lies, but a third category of ambiguous statements that are not exactly the truth but fall short of a lie. Enhanced truth it might be called. Neo-truth. Soft truth. Faux truth. Truth lite. Through such aggressive euphemasia we take the sting out of telling lies. Euphemasia calls up remarkable powers of linguistic creativity. In addition to golden oldies such as “credibility gap,” “re-framing,” and Winston Churchill’s “terminological inexactitudes,” consider the following examples of post-truthful euphemisms:
- poetic truth
- parallel truth
- nuanced truth
- imaginative truth
- virtual truth
- alternative reality
- strategic misrepresentations
- creative enhancement
- nonfull disclosure
- selective disclosure
- augmented reality
- nearly true
- almost true
- counterfactual statements
- fact-based information
- enrich the truth
- enhance the truth
- embroider the truth
- massage the truth
- tamper with the truth
- tell more than the truth
- bend the truth
- soften the truth
- shade the truth
- shave the truth
- stretch the truth
- stray from the truth
- withhold the truth
- tell the truth improved
- present the truth in a favorable perspective
- make things clearer than the truth
- be lenient with honesty
Eventually euphemisms themselves develop connotations and spawn progeny. As an executive tells employees in a New Yorker cartoon: “I’m not spinning – I’m contextualizing.”
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:
- Improve the technological tools for fact checking. For example, Germany has already asked Facebook to introduce a fake news filtering tool.
- 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. 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.
- Stronger government action. In countries such as the Czech Republic, new units have been set up to tackle fake news. The most important challenge here is to ensure that such state-led efforts are not used as a tool for censorship.
- 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.