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 It’s been replaced by a new model in which elite powers co-opt the voice of the ordinary people in order to legitimize and consolidate their status.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.
State of the Net 2016 home page
Elites, right wing populism, and the left; Eliane commenting after Donald Trump's election