Does truth matter in the age of Post-Truth?

British journalist and author Matthew d’Ancona on whether the truth really matters to brands and agencies.

“Post Truth” was elevated from theory to brand when Oxford Dictionaries selected it as word of the year in 2016. The accompanying definition was helpful, too: “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

This gets right to heart of the matter, and captures its novelty. Lying is as old as human communication. But Post Truth is about our changing response to falsehood, our increasing readiness to accept it.

What pushed this notion to the heart of political debate was the dual shock of the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election. In both cases, facts seemed to have been elbowed out of the way by emotions, evidence ignored in favour of instinct, and credentials subordinated to show business.

Arron Banks, the sharp-witted businessman who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign, was correct in his analysis: “The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You’ve got to connect with people emotionally.”

After considering a run at the presidency for decades, Trump intuited the same shift in popular behaviour.  Let’s face it: he was never a sympathetic candidate. The opinion polls showed that the American people were perfectly aware of his character flaws.

But he communicated a brutal empathy to them, rooted not in statistics, empiricism or meticulously-acquired information, but an uninhibited talent for rage, impatience and the attribution of blame.

When Kellyanne Conway, senior aide to the President, spoke of “alternative facts”, she captured perfectly this new epistemology. In the Post Truth era, what used to be called reality is absolutely fungible. The point is not to determine the truth by a process of rational evaluation, assessment and conclusion. You choose your own reality, as if from a buffet.

Though this diagnosis was prompted by geopolitical drama, it has implications across the spectrum of information and communication. In the 50 or so events I have taken part in since publishing my book, across Europe, I have been struck by the number of people who express alarm at the speed with which truth is losing its primacy in other areas: in the proliferation of pseudo-science, the astonishing spread of conspiracy theories old and new, and the horrific revival of Holocaust denial.

The social basis of Post Truth is the collapse of trust in traditional institutions: all else flows from this single, poisonous source. A society’s institutions act as guard-rails, the bodies that incarnate its values and continuities. To shine a bright light on their failures, decadence and outright collapse is intrinsically unsettling.

Post-Truth has flourished in this context, as the firewalls and antibodies (to mix metaphors) have weakened. When the putative guarantors of honesty falter, so does truth itself.

Second, digital technology has become the all-important, primary, indispensable engine of this change. In the early years of the online revolution, it was optimistically assumed by many (myself included) that the Internet would inevitably smooth the path to sustainable cooperation and pluralism. In practice, the new technology has done at least as much to foster balkanisation and a general retreat into echo chambers.

As Eric S. Raymond famously predicted, the Cathedral is yielding place to the Bazaar. And there are profits to be made from the production line of clickbait hoaxes – unscientific medical claims, crackpot theories, fictional sightings of UFOs or Jesus. The disincentives to publication are (to date) marginal, and the ease of production enticing. For those on social media, anonymity dramatically reduces accountability. The buzz of the hive sends the falsehood fizzing into cyberspace to do its work.

This has huge implications for branding and marketing. If anything can be said, by anyone, and trust is scarce, how is loyalty to be nurtured? We live in a culture both addicted to change, and terrified of it. We crave novelty, but disdain it. How to build a stable business model for anything in such a context?

I believe we are in the foothills of an extraordinary journey of discovery, full of dangers and opportunities, in which the only certainty is that complacency is not an option. 

Matthew d’Ancona is author of 'Post Truth: The New War on Truth' and 'How to Fight Back', a columnist for the Guardian and Evening Standard, and a Trustee of the Science Museum Group.


Last updated 01 May 2024