As the American comedian Bill Maher described it; “48% voted for Sense and Sensibility and 52% voted for Pride and Prejudice”. Since the morning after Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union, various versions of the term “post-factual politics” have popped up on television, radio, social media, and in newspaper columns. Specifically, the idea has been evoked to describe the impotence of experts and statistics during what was a campaign of emotion. But what does post-factual (or post-truth) politics actually mean and is there even anything new about it?
It is my belief that we are living in a new, myopic, political universe. Mexico sends murders and rapists into America. Thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered as the twin towers collapsed. The UK spends £350 million per week to be in the EU. All of this is believed, but none of it is true. Indeed, there has always been bullshit. Contrary to what we were told, Nixon was a crook, Clinton did have sexual relations with “that woman”, and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were a little over 45 minutes away. Misinformation is impossible to measure or quantify, so what’s so especially deceptive about public life today?
In Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84, a protagonist named Aomame starts to notice subtle but sudden differences in her reality. At first, they are small, such as an uncounted for change in Japanese police equipment, but upon inspection, they become rather significant as the changes are linked to events of which she has no memory. The police in Tokyo have new firearms because of an allegedly infamous gunfight that everybody else seems to remember happening. Aomame investigates by pulling old newspapers out of a public library and in doing so finds herself living in an alternative version of 1984, one in which the USA and USSR have joined forces to develop a permanent base on the moon. She decides to call this new world 1Q84. “Q is for question mark. A world that bares a question” she tells herself. “Like it or not” she reflects, “I’m here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It’s 1Q84 now. The air has changed; the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world with a question mark as soon as I can.”
What sets 2016, or 2Q16, apart from the bullshit of days gone by is that there used to be a public consensus evolving within a shared public sphere. It was easier for new information to change the direction and tone of the conversation for everybody because most of us trusted the same people. Before the internet started to eat journalism, the news which people read was controlled by a relatively refined clique of reporters in each country. On television, on radio and in newspapers, editors focused on delivering information as opposed to today’s emphasis on opinion. Much of what was reported in the past was slanted, but journalists would generally cover the same set of stories with the same set of facts. Today, we hear about breaking news on Facebook, Twitter and via instant smartphone notifications. Traditional outlets are no longer the first to tell us what’s happening and now exist to add detail, analysis, and editorial opinion to current affairs. The result is often ideological entrenchment. News organisations, which no longer focus primarily on delivering news, have a harsh economic incentive to reflect the pre-existing beliefs of their readers, whether those beliefs are based on facts or are not.
For must of us, our experience of news delivery has been cannibalised by Facebook and Google, who now collect 85% of all online advertising revenue, often for ushering users towards other people’s work. Both of these websites employ invasive algorithms designed to feed us the content we are already pre-disposed to like. Facebook, now a primary source of news for over one billion people, provides a particularly efficient form of intellectual insulation. Our Facebook friends are usually made up of the people we went to school with, went to work with or grew up with as part of the same family. They are often predominantly clustered around a familiar geographic location. For instance, the majority of my friends live in cosmopolitan South London and are far from representative of the whole of the UK. The political tone of my Facebook feed manifests itself as a constant cascade of liberal/socialist dissatisfaction, a cosy universe of therapeutic consensus reminding us how right we are and how the wrong the rest of the world is. This new media landscape means that candidates and voters can inhabit realms of their own curation, potentially devoid of any authoritative gravitational pull towards reality.
In 1Q84, Aomame’s first reaction to the realisation of her new altered reality is one of recognition and adaptation. In 2Q16, the world’s most successful populist politicians have adapted by selling competing versions of a future without any hint of compromise to their increasingly absolutist supporters. But with seven billion people all alive at once, any absolutist vision of anything is doomed to disappoint. In the meantime, expect a post-factual political landscape to foster bigotry, ignorance and scapegoating, delaying our efforts to solve the world’s real problems.