The people are angry. That’s the core argument of post-election analysis across the board. Democrats are angry at the Electoral College (rigged!), Republicans are angry at basically everything, including each other. White voters are angry at non-whites. Coastal elites are angry at rural Americans (racists!). Working class Americans are angry at globalization.
Combine all the anger and anxiety in American society with the combustible nature of social media communication and cable news hysteria and you end up with an electorate that is making decisions based on emotions, yes, but an overdose of misinformation. People are emotional, but they have rarely in human history been so overwhelmed by falsehoods masquerading as facts.
The Oxford English dictionary trolled a Brexiting United Kingdom and a Trump-electing America by declaring that the word of the year is “Post-Truth,” which they define as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Here is the irony of the explosion of communication vehicles that has led to a correlated explosion of misinformation: people used to say “that candidate will say anything to get elected!” as an epithet that would demean and damage the accused candidate. Today, saying anything to get elected has become the winning campaign strategy. President-elect Donald Trump understood this phenomenon better than any other candidate: facts don’t matter to voters overwhelmed with lies.
Even as recently as 2004, the term “flip flopper,” meaning someone who said what was convenient at convenient times, was used to destroy the credibility of then presidential candidate John Kerry. If Americans of 2004 cared about candidates who changed their policy positions to suit the moment, how is it that in 2016 we elected a candidate who lied outrageously to suit the moment?
The reality is that the post-truth era has arrived and Americans’ cognitive biases have overwhelmed their ability to stop, reflect, and think “this sounds crazy, and maybe I should look into this more.” The most successful falsehoods play on the pre-existing biases. Millions of people wanted to believe that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump or that Hillary Clinton murdered someone, despite the obvious implausibility of these headlines. The effectiveness of misinformation is so pronounced in Western society that the Russian government employs people to make baseless comments and tweets as propaganda to influence voters, and it works.
Facebook, Google and others now seem to have just discovered that they are the platform and purveyor of huge amounts of false information. Millions of Americans get the bulk of their news from these and other digital channels. Many more supplement social media with cable news, whose desire to be first to report a story far outweighs their responsibility to be accurate. Social media platforms, search engines, cable news, and any other institution that becomes a primary channel of news for American voters has an absolute responsibility to provide users with information about the veracity of news reports. Popularity, quantified through the number of likes and shares, should not be the only measure of success and visibility of news content on social media platforms. This isn’t an assault on free speech. Fake news doesn’t need to be suppressed, but it should be identified as fake for the sake of American society.
This doesn’t absolve voters and the population at large from their personal responsibility to ask themselves, “what if I’m wrong about this?” Free and open societies like the United States don’t always need to agree on issues, but functional societies do need to agree on a basic set of facts and insist on some level of accuracy in how they are conveyed. If we want to get back to some level of normal governance in this country, Americans of all political views must rediscover doubt and seek the truth. Until then, we will be living in a post-truth America.