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Fast and Furious Information: The Role of Facts in an Era of “Post-Truth”

The idea that people can make responsible decisions purely by recognizing facts is the biggest misunderstanding of modern western democracies. Yet, media affairs in recent years reveal that the amount and the quality of information do not necessarily make us more competent decision-makers.  By declaring an era of “post-truth,” self-proclaimed prophets try to convince us that an ultimate change has occurred which has turned “truthful facts” into confusing gibberish. But nothing fundamental has changed. It is simply more visible how people make sense of a truthful event: that it is a complex matrix of socio-cultural determinants, emotional involvement and spatio-temporal context that creates “the truth.” Only if we refrain from an essentialist perspective and take into account the full scope of components involved in the “truth-making” process can we raise relevant conclusions about facts.

Journalists face structural pressure concerning the performance and attractiveness of news; publics are so overwhelmed by a multitude of information that they have no capacity left for their critical evaluation. Rapidity and “clickability,” the ability of digital information to become viral, have become essentials of contemporary journalistic practice. Hunting for social media “likes” goes far beyond the spheres of infotainment. Even formerly respectable newspapers and magazines are pushed to prioritize hype at the expense of quality news service, which is precisely what happened in the “Piggate affair.” According to an unauthenticated resource, the former British Prime Minister David Cameron allegedly engaged in obscene behavior with a dead pig during his student years at the University of Oxford. After the hoax spread, the involved journalists were not able to provide any reliable information source. Further on, they denied any responsibility for the false news saying that they had “merely reported” what the source gave them and that they “don’t say whether we believe it to be true.” They claimed that the responsibility for evaluating the news was on the side of the public. Yet, the public suffers from the same deficiencies as journalists. Is there any room left for facts?

Katharine Viner, the editor in chief of the News & Media section in The Guardian, is looking for an answer in her article “How technology disrupted the truth.” Tackling the question of facts in digital media, Viner refers to the political situation of recent years as “post-truth” [1]. She contemplates the development of journalism with particular attention to two significant topics: “Brexit” and American “Trumpism.” “Brexit”, says Viner, “was the first major vote in the era of post-truth politics: the listless remain campaign attempted to fight fantasy with facts, but quickly found that the currency of fact had been badly debased.” Various post-Brexit analyses have emphasized the ignorance of British voters, who followed populism instead of rational debate. Yet, most of the populist slogans were debunked shortly after the referendum as totally detached from reality (the increase in the National Health Service budget being an eloquent example [2]). The amount of facts in the era of “post-truth” is so vast, that we can hardly distinguish those bearing relevant information from the delusional ones. Viner ends her analysis with a rather pathetic exclamation: “Journalists of the world, unite! And make news of high quality and ethics!” Only if all the news creators are self-aware and honest, she claims, we will have journalism that is “truthful” instead of “post-truthful.” However, by assuming the possibility of objective truth, this kind of idealism neglects an important aspect. The truth is inherently contextual.

When British economists before the Brexit referendum stated that to leave EU would be economic suicide, Justice Secretary Michael Gove likened them to the scientists of the Third Reich [3]. The argument originally perceived as scientific fact was thus polluted. By putting it into the new, ideologically-laden context, Gove was able to turn “facts” into dogmatic assertions. Thus, while reporting about events like this, we can by no means talk about “revealing truth.” More likely we could point to “the construction of a truthful event.” The role of facts here is co-constitutive, but not decisive. That is what cultural sociologists Alexander and Jaworsky stress in their book Obama Power. Following political career of Barack Obama from January 2009 till November 2012, the authors examine a positive twist of public opinion before Obama’s second election. However, they do not focus on the classic indicators like demography, economic growth or political program. Instead, they interpret the entire event as a performance. Within a performance, it is not facts that determine election results – it is the ability to convince voters that the candidate is an authentic and sincere person who strives for the higher good of society. Performance gets its mobilizing power through a complex matrix including acting skills and the utilitarian goals of a candidate as well as an immersion of the public within the performance, stemming from the specific socio-cultural context of the time. The “truth” thus depicted is not a transcendental value in a Platonic universe – it comes in a particular time and space as the result of synergy between the producer and the receiver of the information.

The assumption that people can make rational decisions on a common ground of known facts lies at the very core of western democratic societies. However, lately, we have been witnessing a growing confusion regarding the validity and reliability of facts, especially in relation to digital media. The broadly disseminated term “post-truth” tries to alarm us before an alleged dawn of a “fact-less” era, supposedly preventing us from more “truthful” knowledge. Yet, by doing this, it actually diverts us from understanding that the truth of facts is not essential but deeply contextual. It stems from successful emotional transfer, from the immersion of the public in the performance. Only if we abandon the simplistic distinction between truth and falsehood are we able to trace complex networks of how and by whom the sense of truth is de/constructed and de/interpreted. That will make us, in the end, more competent to make our own decisions.

Jan Váňa is a PhD student of Sociology

Article was proofread and edited by Nadya Jaworsky

References

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[1] Viner, Katharine. 2016. ‘How technology disrupted the truth.’ in The Guardian [online] [cited 2017, March 17]. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth.

[2] McCann, Kate and Morgan, Tom. 2016. ‘Nigel Farage: £350 million pledge to fund the NHS was ‚a mistake‘.’ In The Guardian [online] [cited 2017, March 17]. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/24/nigel-farage-350-million-pledge-to-fund-the-nhs-was-a-mistake/.

[3] Mason, Rowena and Asthana, Anushka. 2016. ‘Cameron: Gove has ‚lost it‘ in comparing pro-EU economists to Nazis.’ in The Guardian [online] [cited 2017, March 17]. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/22/cameron-gove-has-lost-it-in-comparing-anti-brexit-economists-to-nazi-experts.

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