Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

A post-truth world?  

Morland - The Times, 23 January 2017

Anne Applebaum: ‘You are about to read a newspaper article. Do you care whether all the facts in it are true? If so - what could convince you that they are or are not? A friend? A neutral website? Someone in authority? If you aren't really sure, then welcome to the world of fact-checking. In the past several years, as it has become easier to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories on the Internet, politically neutral fact­ checking websites have sprung up in response. The Post itself created an early version, the "Fact Checker" column, led by Glenn Kessler, which awards up to four "Pinocchios" for dubious statements made by politicians from both political parties, depending on their level of outrageousness. (…) Nevertheless, there are limits to what fact-checking can achieve. Those who have tried to measure the impact of fact-checking have found that there are many kinds of audiences, and that fact-checking affects each of them differently. All people are more likely to believe in "facts" that confirm their pre-existing opinions and to dismiss those that don't. But those with unusually strong opinions - those who are more partisan - are less likely to change their views, more likely to claim that fact-checkers themselves are "biased," and even more likely to spread their views aggressively to their friends. This has always been the case, but social media now multiplies the phenomenon: In a world where people get most of their information from friends, fact-checking doesn't reach those who need it most. (…) These problems aren't exactly new: The question of what is propaganda and what is truth has plagued politics since polities began. But the nature of information in the social media age means it keeps getting easier for politicians, partisans, computerized "bots" and foreign governments to manipulate news, and it keeps getting harder to correct this. Fact-checkers are, for the moment, one of the best solutions. But they work only for people who want them to work, and that number may be shrinking.’

Every year Oxford Dictonaries select a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest during a year: the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. In 2016 the winner was post-truth. ‘After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 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”. The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics. Post-truth has gone from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary, now often used by major publications without the need for clarification of definition in their headlines.’

Explaining the choice, Casper Grathwohl, the president of Oxford Dictionaries, told The Times: “It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse. Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source, and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time. We first saw the frequency really spike this year in June with buzz over the Brexit vote and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination. I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.”

Oxford Dictionaries has noticed a short, quite unique development. ‘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, 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.’

According to Wikipedia the concept of post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics) is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeal to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of "secondary" importance. (…) Political commentators have identified post-truth politics as ascendant in Russian, Chinese, American, Australian, British, Indian, Japanese and Turkish politics, as well as in other areas of debate, driven by a combination of the 24-hour news cycle, false balance in news reporting, and the increasing ubiquity of social media.'

Wikipedia’s definition of truthiness: ‘truthiness is a quality characterizing a "truth" that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively "from the gut" or because it "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.'

The editorial board of The Washington Post was quite clear in "The Post’s view" on 31 December 2016: truthful facts are necessary within a democracy. '… as we have learned over and over again, keeping a democracy in good order requires constant attention and a lot of tedious maintenance. What the founders presented us was a Republic – “if you can keep it,” in the famous words attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Essential to keeping it is a well ­informed and reasonably educated electorate, respect and regard for one another, and, above all, faith in our government to treat us fairly and deal with us truthfully. All of these things are threatened or undermined as we enter the new year.'

In this section James Comey, the FBI-boss which was sacked by Donald Trump in 2017, is quoted. Comey tries to explain in his book A Higher Loyalty why the truth is important in excercises of leadership. The book was hailed by the New York Times.

In this section of Hereditas Historiae Irène Diependaal likes to share some essays and comments she has found in international newspapers. The copyright belongs to the authors/newspapers. The contents don’t reflect Irène Diependaal’s personal opinion. She is sharing the articles because they are a supplement to her academic research as carried out in the period 1997-2002. She was working with some important remarks made already in 1867 by the journalist Walter Bagehot, including the importance of ethical leadership. She didn’t continue those media studies since then, but is still keeping an eye on some important developments and its reflections in the international press. As part of this personal history, she also likes to share an essay by Frank Rich, published in 2000 in New York Times Magazine. This essay was one of her sources of inspiration. The other source of inspiration was a book by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel on the rise of 'journalism of allegation and assertion' at the expense of an older culture of verification (Warp Speed, 1999). The detailed contents of Irène Diependaal's essay on the impact of new journalist practices for the Dutch journalism on monarchy and royalty - published in a much used handbook for students in journalism published by Amsterdam University Press (2000) - are out of date. Therefore it is not te be found on this website or in print. However, Irène Diependaal likes to draw attention to the essay by Frank Rich and the studies by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in general because their pioneering work already depicted an important development in the relationship between constitutional affairs and the media. 

The famous article by C.P. Scott - “Comment is free, but facts are sacred” -  is also part of this section. As the introduction by the editorial board of The Guardian explained in 2002: it is the ultimate statement of values of a free press and continues to underpin the traditions of the Guardian newspaper today. Katherine Viner, the present Editor-in-chief of The Guardian combines all lines in one article on the crisis in journalism, the post-truth world and its consequences in general, but with with a focus on her mission for The Guardian to bring solutions. 'Our lives are increasingly atomised, but you can see the pleasure that comes from communal or civic participation. People long to help each other, to be together, to share experiences, to be part of a community, to influence the powers that control their lives. But in everyday life, such togetherness is hard to achieve: workplaces in the era of the gig economy no longer offer a solid place to gather; religion has declined; technology means that we often communicate via screens rather than face-to-face. This is a dangerous moment: these are fertile grounds for authoritarianism and fascistic movements, and it’s no surprise that people feel anxious and confused. The desire to belong can just as easily find a home in dark places; new ways of participating can just as easily be used to foster hate.'  Katherine Viner therefore wants to leave the left-wing stance of The Guardian and wants to create a new kind of newspaper based on the traditions of the Guardian itself but also with an eye for people who would never have been reading The Guardian before. 'To do this, the Guardian will embrace as wide a range of progressive perspectives as possible. We will support policies and ideas, but we will not give uncritical backing to parties or individuals. We will also engage with and publish voices from the right. In an age of tumultuous change, nobody has a monopoly on good ideas.'

New York Times, 5 December 2017

Anne Applebaum,“Fact-checking in a ‘post-fact world”. Washington Post, 19 May 2016. Quotation Casper Grathwohl: The Times, 16 November 2016. The quotations from Oxford Dictionaries ( and Wikipedia were retrieved on 2 December 2016.  The Post's View: The Washington Post, 31 December 2016. The full text is to be found in this section of Hereditas Historiae. C.P. Scott and Katherine Viner: the edited texts are to be found in this section of Hereditas Historiae.