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 It’s been replaced by a new mod­el in which elite pow­ers co-opt the voice of the ordi­nary peo­ple in order to legit­imize and con­sol­i­date their sta­tus.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.

Discussion

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


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.