It’s real­ly good to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss the impact of tech­nol­o­gy on the wider soci­ety and cul­ture. I’m going to argue today that even while we know post-truth pol­i­tics is hav­ing a ter­ri­ble effect on our polit­i­cal cul­ture and our role as cit­i­zens, it’s curi­ous­ly dif­fi­cult to com­bat it because of a set of beliefs about what pol­i­tics is, and about the Internet and the way it enables ordi­nary peo­ple to have a voice. And these beliefs inter­sect with a pre­vail­ing anti-intellectual anti-elitism which asso­ciates knowl­edge, dis­cern­ment, and truth with snob­bery and power.

The tech indus­try has for a long time enjoyed the rep­u­ta­tion of being the plucky under­dog of cap­i­tal­ism. Silicon Valley’s self-image com­bines the entre­pre­neur­ial start­up with a hip­pie ethos of shar­ing and free stuff. As the wealth of the big tech multi­na­tion­als has come to dwarf that of some coun­tries’ GDP, their top-down pow­er has been con­cealed by a very promi­nent sym­bol­ism of bottom-up. From the cyberutopi­an rhetoric of the 1990s to the lan­guage of inter­ac­tion and engage­ment that dom­i­nates con­tem­po­rary marketing-speak, dig­i­tal cul­ture has been sold to us with the illu­sion that it ben­e­fits the lit­tle guy.

The Internet is under new man­age­ment. Yours,” accord­ing to a Yahoo! ad cam­paign. And Vodaphone’s slo­gan is pow­er to you.” There’s been a per­va­sive assump­tion that any mod­er­ate­ly com­pe­tent indi­vid­ual with a lap­top can become a jour­nal­ist, author, or music pro­duc­er. The Internet has sup­pos­ed­ly dis­rupt­ed tra­di­tion­al indus­tries, lev­eled the play­ing field, and placed the tools of pro­duc­tion, pub­li­ca­tion, and self-expression in the hands of you and I. 

As I argued in my book Get Real, the old straight­for­ward oppo­si­tion between the inter­ests of the peo­ple on the one hand and polit­i­cal and cor­po­rate bogey­men on the oth­er has gone. It’s been replaced by a new mod­el in which elite pow­ers co-opt the voice of the ordi­nary peo­ple in order to legit­imize and con­sol­i­date their sta­tus. Goliath pre­tends to be on the side of David. You can see this maneu­ver every­where, from astroturf—or fake grass­roots mar­ket­ing campaigns—to cor­po­rate green­wash, where fos­sil fuel firms co-opt envi­ron­men­tal activists. You can see it also in pol­i­tics, in the Tea Party, the alt-right, and the blue col­lar right. Elite inter­ests cam­ou­flage as ordi­nary Joe.

Cyberutopian rhetoric is not as ubiq­ui­tous as it was in the nineties and noughties. We know that the old dream of benign con­nect­ed­ness has giv­en way to hatred and abuse online, to a nar­cis­sis­tic cul­ture of self­ies and air­brushed sta­tus updates, to a new real­i­ty of sur­veil­lance and data gath­er­ing on an indus­tri­al scale. Our atti­tude to dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy is gov­erned now by a kind of resigned or pas­sive con­sent. We know we are all addict­ed to our phones yet we are unable to tear our­selves away.

Yet know­ing this some­how does­n’t seem to help. And a sim­i­lar sense of weary aware­ness is accom­pa­ny­ing the rise of post-truth pol­i­tics. As the American elec­tion reach­es its cli­max, broad­sheet think­pieces about the phe­nom­e­non pro­lif­er­ate. There is much sigh­ing and wring­ing of hands. Yet if any­thing, these arti­cles have a nor­mal­iz­ing func­tion. Their mes­sage is that we’ve entered a new era in which the truth is not only under attack, it’s become irrel­e­vant. This is the new real­i­ty,” they seem to say. It’s those who still cling to the val­ue of truth who are fan­ta­sists, and thus the prophe­cy is self-fulfilled.

So we read that declin­ing sales are forc­ing news orga­ni­za­tions to become social media news feeds. That they increas­ing­ly pri­or­i­tize traf­fic over the pub­lic inter­est, heat over light. Social media pro­motes echo cham­bers, fil­ter bub­bles, and con­fir­ma­tion bias. Fake news farms gen­er­ate click­bait. Stories are shared whether they’re true or not, because share­abil­i­ty is the goal. Crudeness and prej­u­dice thrive. Nowadays it’s not impor­tant if a sto­ry’s real,” says Neetzan Zimmerman, who used to work for Gawker as a spe­cial­ist in viral sto­ries. The only thing that real­ly mat­ters is whether peo­ple click on it.” 

Even as tech firms swal­low the news­pa­per indus­try, Facebook and oth­er social net­works claim that they them­selves are not media com­pa­nies with jour­nal­is­tic respon­si­bil­i­ty, they are sim­ply tech firms pow­ered by algo­rithms. Facebook sacked its edi­to­r­i­al team this year, claim­ing polit­i­cal bias. If it’s the com­put­ers choos­ing the sto­ries, they can wash their hands of the prob­lem of accu­ra­cy or effect.

Much has been made of the fact that the offi­cial cam­paign to leave the European Union in the UK made use of copi­ous untruths such as that Britain sends £350 mil­lion a week to the EU, and that this mon­ey would be spent on the NHS if Britain exit­ed the union. A few days after the ref­er­en­dum, Arron Banks, UKIP’s largest donor and the main fun­der of the Leave cam­paign acknowl­edged that his side knew all along that facts were unim­por­tant. It was tak­ing an American-style media approach,” said Banks. What they said ear­ly on was facts don’t work’ and that’s it. The remain cam­paign fea­tured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to con­nect with peo­ple emo­tion­al­ly. It’s the Trump success.”

In the Trump cam­paign, noto­ri­ous­ly, only what the come­di­an Stephen Colbert calls truthi­ness” counts—what you feel to be right. Trump thrives on social media ampli­fi­ca­tion, and the out­rage direct­ed at out­ra­geous state­ments pro­duces the kind of polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect hygiene that makes peo­ple long for some­one who will say some­thing real. Progressive indig­na­tion about Trump’s lat­est lies also sim­ply just dri­ves more traf­fic for Facebook and Twitter.

The sit­u­a­tion is reach­ing such a nadir that Charlie Sykes, an influ­en­tial con­ser­v­a­tive radio show host is hav­ing sec­ond thoughts, say­ing in a recent inter­view, We basi­cal­ly elim­i­nat­ed any of the ref­er­ees, the gate­keep­ers. There’s nobody—you can’t go to any­body and say, Look, here are the facts.’ ” He added that, When this is all over, we have to go back. There’s got to be a reck­on­ing on all this.” I for one am not hold­ing my breath.

So why is this kind of thing so hard to com­bat? I believe that under­min­ing every prin­ci­pal defense of fact-checking, evi­dence, and inves­tiga­tive report­ing is a rue­ful sense that the old arbiters have had their day. That dig­i­tal cul­ture enables a time­ly cor­rec­tion in favor of plucky ama­teur jour­nal­ism, the unmedi­at­ed record­ing of expe­ri­ence, and the wis­dom of the crowd. The aban­don­ment of fil­ters and checks on news sto­ries is enabled by the belief that one per­son­’s judg­ment is as good as anoth­er. That we can crowd­source the truth, that algo­rithms pro­duce the best approx­i­ma­tion of real­i­ty. Wikipedia is often held up as the exem­plar of this new kind of truth cre­ation. The busi­ness guru Daniel Pink prais­es Wikipedia’s rad­i­cal decen­tral­iza­tion and self-organization. Yet Wikipedia is care­ful­ly policed by a rel­a­tive­ly small group of edi­tors, and is over­whelm­ing­ly reliant on the aca­d­e­mics whose sta­tus it loud­ly chal­lenges. Even if we no longer believe in the wis­dom of the crowd, tech­nol­o­gy is still accom­pa­nied also by the sense that it’s some­how nat­ur­al and inevitable. 

And most impor­tant­ly, I believe we’re not mak­ing progress in com­bat­ing post-truth pol­i­tics because we are buy­ing into this false anti-elitism. According to this nar­ra­tive, polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions, the gov­ern­ment, and the left, are the ene­my of ordi­nary working-class peo­ple. This pow­er­ful right wing myth cre­ates the con­di­tions for dem­a­gogues like Trump to pros­per. And it’s the same false anti-elitism which claims that the Internet fos­ters oppor­tu­ni­ties for cit­i­zen jour­nal­ists to take on the big jour­nal­is­tic behe­moths, for cit­i­zen hack­ers to crunch the data from WikiLeaks, and speak truth to power.

The vast major­i­ty of peo­ple sim­ply lack the time and exper­tise to hold the big pow­ers to account. And any­way, it’s a myth that knowl­edge con­fers pow­er, as aca­d­e­mics around the world are dis­cov­er­ing in the age of the neolib­er­al uni­ver­si­ty. Experts were once influ­en­tial, but their sta­tus is now dwarfed by that of the super-rich. The anti-elitism that we are see­ing every­where in right-wing polit­i­cal speech­es and the tabloid press pre­tends that this trans­for­ma­tion has­n’t hap­pened. It deflects an urgent cri­tique of pow­er onto a spu­ri­ous attack on author­i­ty. Right-wing anti-elitism co-opts the left­’s oppo­si­tion to finan­cial and cor­po­rate dom­i­nance and con­verts it into oppo­si­tion to those who are edu­cat­ed. To lis­ten to Trump, or Conservative Party speech­es in the UK, now it’s as if the top 1% did­n’t own half the world’s wealth. As if CEOs did­n’t earn 300 times the salary of the aver­age work­er. No, it’s the lib­er­al met­ro­pol­i­tan elite that’s the real men­ace. As Michael Gove, a British politi­cian said dur­ing the Brexit cam­paign, People have had enough of experts.” 

Likewise, many inhab­i­tants of Silicon Valley still talk as though jour­nal­ists and aca­d­e­mics are still pow­er­ful. Truth is asso­ci­at­ed with experts, and experts with elites. So to take a stand against the wilder asser­tions of Trump or the Brexiteers is some­how to den­i­grate those sec­tions of the pub­lic, deplorables” in Hillary Clinton’s mis­judged com­ment, who appear con­tent to believe lies if they sound com­pelling enough.

If this is the age of post-truth pol­i­tics, it’s also an age in which false con­scious­ness has become the biggest taboo. The 21st-century cit­i­zen con­sumer, we’re told, is savvy and empow­ered, even while we know that peo­ple are rou­tine­ly mis­in­formed. Nobody is pre­pared to say that those who vote for Trump are act­ing against their best inter­ests, even though the blue col­lar right con­ceal their under­min­ing of work­er pro­tec­tions and their tax cuts for the rich. People aren’t stu­pid” is the com­mon refrain. Yet, as the Slovenian super­star the­o­rist Slavoj Žižek points out, to bemoan the fact that peo­ple don’t real­ize they’re being lied to is to fail to under­stand that we’re liv­ing in an era in which polit­i­cal hege­mo­ny oper­ates through irony and cyn­i­cism. One knows the false­hood very well,” Žižek writes, and still one does not denounce it.” In this era, out­rage just sounds…superior.

Likewise, post-truth pol­i­tics is also prov­ing stub­born­ly resis­tant to cri­tique. Because the prob­lem with pol­i­tics is not so much that it’s fake but that it’s false­ly authen­tic. Politics used to be con­duct­ed through rhetoric. Although rhetoric was a tool of per­sua­sion, the public—albeit a small sec­tion of the public—was schooled in decod­ing rhetor­i­cal tech­niques. But then came the rise of PR, mar­ket­ing, focus groups, and spin. The prob­lem with all this was not so much the fak­ery but that pol­i­tics as a clash of com­pet­ing world­views was replaced by an attempt to appeal to the real cen­ter ground.

This pan­der­ing to the elec­torate then evolved into the pol­i­tics of authen­tic­i­ty. Having an ide­ol­o­gy is now dis­missed as tox­ic trib­al­ism. Ministers wear hard hats and hi-viz jack­ets, and hold press con­fer­ences in trac­tor fac­to­ries. And around their own kitchen tables they talk about hard-working fam­i­lies and get­ting off ear­ly in the morn­ing, and pol­i­tics as a mat­ter of what works, as sim­ply get­ting the job done.

The term post-truth pol­i­tics” was coined by the blog­ger David Roberts as ear­ly as 2010 in a col­umn for Grist mag­a­zine. Roberts described how the Republican Party was manip­u­lat­ing the truth to fool American vot­ers. I think there’s a false sense that post-truth pol­i­tics is real­ly new, and this is because the Internet has a way of eras­ing the past and we’ve all sort of lost our com­mu­nal mem­o­ry, our sense of history.

Post-truth pol­i­tics is not a time­less phe­nom­e­non, but we’ve for­got­ten that the polit­i­cal right and pow­er­ful inter­ests have been dis­tort­ing the truth over the last three to four decades. But they’ve been dis­tort­ing the truth not by advo­cat­ing right-wing pol­i­tics in a par­tic­u­lar­ly per­sua­sive way, but by say­ing The mar­kets, they’re just com­mon sense. Markets obey nat­ur­al laws like grav­i­ty or Darwinian evo­lu­tion. We’re not act­ing ide­o­log­i­cal­ly, we’re just doing what works.” And sure­ly this was what Iraq was all about. The New York Times jour­nal­ist Ron Suskind report­ed in 2004 that an aide to George Bush had spo­ken dis­mis­sive­ly of jour­nal­ists liv­ing in the reality-based com­mu­ni­ty. Iraq was of course jus­ti­fied on the basis of expe­di­en­cy, not ide­o­log­i­cal intent.

Crucially, Roberts also crit­i­cized Barack Obama for claim­ing to be prag­mat­ic, bipar­ti­san, beyond ide­ol­o­gy. I agree with Roberts. Post-ideological pol­i­tics is the coun­ter­part to post-truth pol­i­tics. The belief that the pub­lic has true, fixed opin­ions and we sim­ply need to find out through research and inter­views what these true opin­ions are is, I think, mis­tak­en, and it con­tributes to the ero­sion of truth in polit­i­cal culture.

I think peo­ple are and should be per­suad­ed. That is what pol­i­tics is all about. Ideology is not real­i­ty, it’s per­sua­sion. But it’s an open­ly declared set of beliefs. It’s an open­ly declared process of per­suad­ing peo­ple. The fetish for authen­tic­i­ty there­fore in pol­i­tics is even more fake than spin, because it mas­quer­ades as unmedi­at­ed truth.

And a sim­i­lar sleight of hand can be found every­where else in our cul­ture. Chain cafés pur­port to be arti­sanal one-offs. Craft goods are now mass-produced. Faux mid-century sofas are art­ful­ly scuffed. And a lot of this is down to the rise of the dig­i­tal, our Instagram-filtered world.

Likewise, the creed of open access and the sheer abun­dance of data, all this pro­duces the illu­sion of trans­par­ent real­ism in our view of dig­i­tal cul­ture. Despite the per­va­sive cul­ture of unre­al­i­ty online, with which we’re all familiar—the meat pup­pets, click­bots and filters—the Internet retains the rep­u­ta­tion of authen­tic­i­ty. Because it’s so easy to look up a fact on your phone, it feels like we’re drown­ing in infor­ma­tion. But facts and infor­ma­tion are dif­fer­ent to truth. Often, facts con­ceal the truth or are a smoke screen for it. Truth is about inter­pre­ta­tion, pri­or­i­tiz­ing what’s impor­tant, see­ing things in per­spec­tive. It’s about com­mu­nal norms which are under­pinned by an ecosys­tem of pro­fes­sion­al prove­nance and institutionally-verified evi­dence. Truth is about author­i­ty, and it takes a lot of hard, care­ful work. It’s what humans can do and machines can’t.

We need, I think, to resolve our ambiva­lent atti­tude to author­i­ty. To remem­ber what we val­ue about those jour­nal­ists and hold­ers of knowl­edge we have come to refer to as gate­keep­ers. And I believe the same is true about pol­i­tics. That we need to rein­state the val­ue of polit­i­cal author­i­ty. The job of politi­cians is to set out their plat­form of beliefs for us to choose from, not to regard indi­vid­ual peo­ple’s thoughts as truth that we sim­ply need to dis­cov­er and appeal to. And I think this well-publicized cul­ture of polar­ized opin­ion and these very divi­sive, con­fronta­tion­al debates between Trump and Clinton both serve as a sort of smoke screen for the fact that we’ve lost ide­o­log­i­cal polar­i­ty in our cul­ture. The exis­tence of real demo­c­ra­t­ic, cred­i­ble alter­na­tives that we could choose from as voters. 

This is going to be dif­fi­cult, because those old knowl­edge gate­keep­ers are taint­ed. But algo­rithms aren’t a solu­tion, and in-house arbiters at tech multi­na­tion­als aren’t either. There are of course some admirable fact-checking orga­ni­za­tions and web sites and inves­tiga­tive blog­gers, but they’re woe­ful­ly under-resourced, and the chal­lenge is always for them to influ­ence the wider pub­lic opin­ion. The blur­ring of truth in the media and in polit­i­cal cul­ture, I’ve argued, pro­duces an envi­ron­ment in which finan­cial pow­er and the real elite inter­ests can manip­u­late peo­ple, and all iron­i­cal­ly in the name of tak­ing down elites. 

There is some truth in the asso­ci­a­tion between knowl­edge and estab­lished priv­i­lege. Historically, the two have often gone hand in hand. The media has at times been close­ly inter­wo­ven with polit­i­cal pow­er and has been reluc­tant to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo. But there’s no intrin­sic rea­son why those with knowl­edge or exper­tise should be rich. We need to come up with a new democratically-mandated process for relig­itimiz­ing and rein­vent­ing the Enlightenment val­ues of judg­ment and exper­tise. And col­lec­tive­ly, as a soci­ety, we need to come up with fund­ing mod­els that enable them to sur­vive. The big ques­tion is whether this process will be top-down or bottom-up. Thank you.

Sergio Maistrello: Thank you. We have time for a few ques­tions, if you have any.

Audience 1: When you talked about jour­nal­ism and the sort of ero­sion of that, isn’t the fact that in Brexit, there was a huge influ­ence by the papers, the so-called jour­nal­ists, both in the Times, The Daily Mail, and the Express, total­ly for Brexit, which had noth­ing to do with dig­i­tal and every­thing to do with old-fashioned journalism?

Eliane Glaser: Yeah, and that’s a real­ly good point. And I think that in a way, the hype about tech­nol­o­gy tak­ing over does under­es­ti­mate the resid­ual pow­er of the right-wing press—and it is the tabloid right-wing press. What I would argue is that what that tabloid right-wing press, the line they take is against met­ro­pol­i­tan elites. So The Daily Mail (who’s the kind of prime exam­ple of this in the UK) explic­it­ly attacked the met­ro­pol­i­tan elites, you know the experts, the opinion-formers, the com­men­ta­tors, the jour­nal­ists. And that that attack on peo­ple who do the hard work of curat­ing infor­ma­tion dove­tails quite neat­ly with a cer­tain strain of think­ing about the net, and about pol­i­tics, which is about def­er­ence to the ordi­nary per­son. So I think that absolute­ly, in a way the tabloid press, they’re the sort of last dying ves­tiges of the influ­ence of the main­stream media. So it’s kind of unfor­tu­nate that the last ves­tiges are tak­ing that line. But I do think that they are in sync with the new polit­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal think­ing, which is attack­ing experts. 

Euan Semple: I dis­agreed with most of what you said, apart from the last sen­tence that we need a new demo­c­ra­t­ic process that cel­e­brates the Enlightenment val­ues of judg­ment and exper­tise. That’s all cyberutopi­ans are look­ing for. Now, I did agree with you in the sense that assum­ing that California and Silicon Valley can be held respon­si­ble for work­ing our this new form of civ­i­liza­tion I think is naïve. But I also think author­i­ty in its cur­rent guis­es has lost trust, hence the com­ment about the tabloids. I think we’ve all seen those in author­i­ty, those we’re meant to trust, hav­ing frankly let us down, as have insti­tu­tions over the last cou­ple of decades, per­haps. So I don’t think it’s to do with tech­nol­o­gy, I think it’s to do soci­etal changes. And I do thor­ough­ly agree that we do need to work out a bet­ter way of doing it.

Glaser: Yeah. I mean, I agree with most of that, actu­al­ly. But I think what’s hap­pened is, I think we’re in a com­plete mess about author­i­ty and hier­ar­chy. And I don’t think that we’ve found a way out of it. And I think that author­i­ty is kind of irrev­o­ca­bly taint­ed, as I said. So some­how we’re going to have to come up with some sort of new sys­tem for com­ing up with communally-agreed stan­dards of truth. 

But I think that what has hap­pened— I mean, you’re right that the author­i­ties have let us down. But I think there’s also been a con­cert­ed attack, an orga­nized attack, from the right, on author­i­ty fig­ures, on aca­d­e­mics, for good­ness’ sake, on jour­nal­ists. You know, the most kind of embat­tled mem­bers of our cul­ture. And the pur­pose of this is to redi­rect pow­er which should be direct­ed at finan­cial pow­er, the ren­tier econ­o­my, all the kind of big bogey­men that was also bored of crit­i­ciz­ing the bankers, the financiers, hedge fund man­agers, and so on. That all of that anger against finan­cial inequal­i­ty, and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty which is get­ting worse, has been redi­rect­ed against edu­ca­tion, and against intel­lec­tu­al­ism and knowl­edge. And we kind of have to just stand up and say sor­ry but those things need defend­ing. And it used to be that the right, actu­al­ly, would defend those sort of con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues, and they’ve now become the great mod­ern­iz­ers. So I do think there’s a case for pro­gres­sives to kind of redis­cov­er those val­ues and rein­vent them. Because oth­er­wise knowl­edge and the things that we val­ue will be destroyed, and we’ll just end up in a real­ly unequal soci­ety, and nobody will be con­cen­trat­ing on that because we’ll all be crit­i­ciz­ing big gov­ern­ment, politi­cians, and uni­ver­si­ty lecturers.

Audience 3: This morn­ing when I was lis­ten­ing to the pre­vi­ous pre­sen­ta­tion, I sent €50 to Wikipedia. So, talk­ing about bottom-up. Is the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the nation and shared prop­er­ty from bot­tom, be a sort of say, guar­an­tee for how this process is going to go on, or not? In oth­er words, shall we buy a share of Twitter in case it’s going to be on sale?

Glaser: Yeah, I mean crowd­fund­ing is kind of emerg­ing as the only pos­si­ble solu­tion to the removal of top-down fund­ing and state fund­ing. I think the prob­lem with crowd­fund­ing— Well there’s…a num­ber of prob­lems. Firstly you need very well-orchestrated pub­lic­i­ty cam­paigns to cre­ate the kind of mass take-up for your cause. So, viral phe­nom­e­na are well-publicized, but that cam­ou­flages the fact that they’re very rare. That’s one prob­lem. I mean, Wikipedia has a monop­o­lis­tic posi­tion. But as I’ve argued in my paper, that monop­o­lis­tic posi­tion is actu­al­ly well-earned because it is real­ly accu­rate. But the rea­son why it’s real­ly accu­rate is that it’s real­ly care­ful­ly mon­i­tored, and it depends on ver­i­fied sources which come from you know, embat­tled and dying acad­e­mia. So actu­al­ly, the net is feed­ing off the last, the dying ves­tiges of knowl­edge civ­i­liza­tion. But we’re not fund­ing that. We’re not keep­ing that going. So yeah, crowd­fund­ing has emerged as a pos­si­ble solu­tion, but I just don’t think it’s pos­si­ble to real­ly orches­trate the kind of mass sup­port for crowd­fund­ing these ini­tia­tives. And also I have oth­er prob­lems with crowd­fund­ing which are about the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of human rela­tion­ships, but that’s kind of anoth­er story.

Further Reference

State of the Net 2016 home page

Elites, right wing pop­ulism, and the left; Eliane com­ment­ing after Donald Trump’s election

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