A ‘Post-Truth’ Society and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Romin W. Tafarodi

 

“Factual truth,” claimed the philosopher Hannah Arendt in the late 1960s, is “political by nature.” Facts are used to justify opinions, and conflicting opinions can be legitimately held about the same facts. “Freedom of opinion is a farce,” she argued, “unless the facts themselves are not in dispute.” At the same time, facts can be inconvenient for political life, which centers on debate over differing opinions. Truth is, after all, resistant to debate. “Unwelcome opinion,” Arendt pointed out, “can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies.”

 

The first two decades of the 21st century have forced a reconsideration of the role of truth in politics. Most notable has been the popularization of the term “post-truth” to not only characterize the politics of the era in nations such as the United States, Great Britain, South Africa, Russia, and Germany, but to describe a wider cultural retreat from a single shared reality into separate and incommensurable tribal worlds of social credo and emotional faith.

 

Accordingly, it came as little surprise in 2016 when “post-truth” was named word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary. “I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time,” predicted company president Casper Grathwohl. And so it has.

 

In the same year that post-truth earned its lexical honors, fake news came of age in the U.S. with the election campaign of Donald Trump and the arrest of Edgar Maddison Welch, who traveled from North Carolina to Washington D.C. to fire his AR-15-style rifle inside the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. Welch had come to rescue children who, according to a social-media-driven conspiracy theory, were being held hostage and sexually abused inside the restaurant. The claim, as it turned out, was completely false and politically motivated.

 

The following year, 2017, was notable for the addition of a neo-Orwellian phrase to the post-truth glossary. It began on Jan 21, with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claiming of Trump’s inaugural ceremony, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.” The claim was promptly fact-checked and cast into doubt. Nonetheless, indefatigable Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer on television the next day, claiming he was simply providing “alternative facts.”

 

 

Alternative facts? Spicer’s numerical claim was either true or false. There was little room for relativism or a multiplicity of facts. To many, Conway’s defense was evocative of the “reality control” of 1984 “doublethink.”

 

The stubborn persistence of birtherism, climate change denial, rejection of evolutionary theory, the anti-vax movement, and more recently, the belief that 5G technology or Bill Gates is to blame for the coronavirus pandemic all suggest that alternative facts are more than a matter of disingenuous political expediency. Here’s the tragic irony of the post-Web-2.0 information age. Never before has our species enjoyed so much direct access to the plenitude of facts about ourselves and our world – both past and present. And never before have we been as willing to avoid these facts in favour of belief-confirming, gratifying, or convenient fictions. Why?

 

The technological answer is that the proliferation of the internet and the World Wide Web it supports, the reconstitution of social groups into wired social networks, the “produser” explosion of participatory media and user-generated content, the algorithmic personalization of news and information, and the penetration of mobile information and communication technologies have together led to a fragmentation of media audiences into a vast array of homogeneous cultural reproduction circuits.

 

These are the so-called echo chambers, silos, or filter bubbles of the contemporary digital world. Within these separate and self-contained communities, claims about reality are not believed so much according to credentialed, authoritative vetting or provenance. Instead, they are accepted because of the receiver’s relationship to or affinity with those who are sharing or endorsing the claim. Social scientists refer to this as “particularized trust” – which is essentially the faith we place in members of our own tribe, real or virtual. The erosion of trust in authorities and experts over the past half-century has only intensified the epistemic solidarity and insularity of the tribal in-group.

 

The freedom to live in parallel realities defined by “alternative facts” has been put under considerable strain of late by the exigencies of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas politicised differences over the causes and consequences of climate change have long persisted because of the remoteness or abstractness of the facts, the immediacy of infection, illness, and death caused by the novel coronavirus ensured that it could not be plausibly denied. The singularity of shared reality returned with a vengeance as we were all reminded of the limits to neoliberal pluralism’s “freedom to believe.” Worse, acting on false beliefs has affected everyone – not just members of our own tribe – in this crisis of globally shared risk by potentially intensifying or prolonging the pandemic.

 

 

The forced return to what legal scholar Lawrence Lessig calls the “facts held in common” has affected even those at the very top. President Trump, a man not known for his allegiance to the truth, pivoted sharply from referring to the pandemic and criticism of his response to it as the Democrats’ “new hoax” to describing it as “the worst attack” ever on his country by an “invisible enemy.”

 

Similarly, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was initially quick to dismiss COVID-19 as nothing more than a “little flu,” boasting that Brazilians wouldn’t be affected because they already possessed the antibodies to prevent it from spreading. The controverting spike in both cases and deaths in his country eventually forced Bolsonaro to admit that he was “sorry for the situation” and plead that he is not a “miracle worker.”   

 

Heeding a post-truth world of misinformation, disinformation, and parallel realities, the World Health Organization’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on February 15 that, “we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous. That’s why we’re also working with search and media companies like Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Tencent, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and others to counter the spread of rumours and misinformation.”

 

Big tech, for its part, has attempted to rise to the challenge. Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube issued a joint statement in March pledging to combat “fraud and misinformation about the virus” on their platforms and “elevate authoritative content.” In April, Facebook intensified its efforts to remove false or misleading information about COVID-19 that could result in “imminent physical harm” and began warning people who may have received it. In May, Twitter announced that it would begin applying warning labels to tweets that contain disputed claims about the virus with a “propensity for harm.”

 

 

The spread of false information continues to hamper the unity of our collective response to the crisis around the world. Conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, unproven claims of miracle cures or preventions, and myths about its effects and how it is transmitted continue to find sympathetic or susceptible audiences in our highly stratified mediascape. This is especially true for social media networks.

 

According to a study by researchers at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published in April, 88 percent of instances of spreading misinformation about COVID-19 in their sample appeared on social media platforms, and the remainder on television, news publications, or other websites. This is troubling in a context in which 68 percent of American adults get their news through social media, according to a Pew Research Institute survey.

 

Even so, we should not lose sight of the larger lesson of the pandemic for the post-truth era. Social fragmentation and political polarization in a sea of divisive misinformation has its natural limits. When the jagged edges of a single, shared, global reality start cutting into our lives and cutting short the lives of those we love, and the stubborn facts of an uninvited calamity do not yield to our desire to see things otherwise, we are forced to rediscover that we were standing alongside everyone else all along.

 

“We may call truth that which we cannot change,” wrote Arendt. “It is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” There will be plenty of opportunity for opinionated debate over how best to manage the ravages of the pandemic, as the recent anti-shutdown protests and counter-protests in the U.S. and elsewhere give evidence to. But let the current sobering crisis at least invite us to find common ground with others over the facts that deserve our opinions.

 

Author Bio:

Romin W. Tafarodi is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

--GDJ (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Geralt (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Gage Skidmore (Wikimedia.org, Creative Commons)

--Whitehouse.gov (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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