Post-truth, the believability of fake news and the irresponsibility of butterflies

‘Post-truth’ Oxford Dictionary word of the year 2016. Though the dictionary provides a definition, there is actually no consensus relating to the precise concept of post-truth. The essential features include an apparent readiness to accept exaggerated or seriously inaccurate material as fact due apparently to its congruence with one’s emotional state/needs at the time. This acceptance can persist despite repeated and coherent rebuttals.

The concept, which has actually been around for a few years, achieved renewed traction following the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as the forty fifth president of the USA. During both campaigns various types of information, material and interpretations were presented which could readily be challenged but continued to have currency and force. There also emerged websites devoted to deliberately inaccurate, fictional narratives sometimes of a scurrilous nature – thus the notion of fake news. The public found itself variously amused and appalled when at one stage we had Donald’s fake tan, fake security leaks, fake news – everything welcome in Trump’s America except possibly fakirs.

It is both simplistic and condescending to dismiss the people in small town and rural Britain who opted largely for Brexit and those in America’s rust belt of declining heavy plant and industry as illiberal, ill- educated, prejudiced or even learning impaired. There are enormous dangers in denigrating fellow citizens who chose to vote in a different way.

In both nations large sections of the population came to be in retreat from themselves – not hiding but priding in the stereotypes others thrust upon them. Here at least they had the comfort of sympathetic others. Many of these people appear to have felt abandoned and unheard – no longer able to trust the media that derided and lambasted them and which, finally and crucially in the dynamics of the outcome, sought to tell them what to do and how to think. It would be wrong to minimize what they did and to relegate the outcome to a mere protest vote. It was, on my analysis, something much more radical and fundamental – a despairing cry for their autonomy even possibly survival. It did not in essence differ from those in the intelligentsia horrified by how they saw their world deciding to abandon the old order and start again with the creation of utopias.

In situations such as this, attacks on their position, advice on consequences or critical appraisals spontaneously convert to confirmation of that same position – the source of the material defining it as unsafe. That is simply more from the elite they are trying to oppose. Being again dismissed has little chance of making people believe that they are not being dismissed. The reaction can be very much, so what if the outcome could be worse, even calamitous for others – their own situation could hardly worsen. Their sense of self would however be validated.  It is reminiscent of the death of Willy Loman in Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ which is both accelerating and exhilarating. There is a levelling effect in disaster. More historically during the English Civil War in 1640’s there was actually a political movement which came to be called the Levellers espousing ideas of popular sovereignty, equality in law extended suffrage etc.  Of course there is nothing new in alienation from the political, economic or social elite – in a world where it is reportedly calculated that just eight people have more wealth than half of all the world’s poor. Frequently the effectively disenfranchised have no real alternative – no one in any mainstream party is there to listen to their various cries. There is an associated loss of authoritative sources thus one comes to place trust in individuals, the mainstream dislike of whom is an additional validation of their credibility.

Elections are about public opinion and in democracies are part of the concept of a social contract between rulers and the ruled. This was a notion that emerged in the form it is presently understood during the Age of Enlightenment, that wonderful crystallization of ideas, individualism and reason that blossomed in the late 17th but more fully in the 18th century – a timespan sometimes referred to as the long century. Here the key names with which many will be familiar are Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in that order of birth rather than significance. Hobbes died when Locke was 47 and Locke died when Rousseau was just 7 years old.  Of course Socrates, who had earlier versions of many of the same thoughts, died 399 BC. Plato in the Republic also has an implicit social contract theory.

The idea of public opinion often dressed up as reputation was alive and well in Shakespeare. It has its expression in the Christian Bible. In the 1730’s and 40’s coffee houses were meeting places in London where all manner of ideas including radical ideas could be discussed. They became known as penny universities. Charles 2nd sought to have them suppressed. The invention of printing and the spread of literacy also had a role.

This was of course at a time when a single text such as Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ could have enormous impact with its celebrated definition of the life of man in a state of nature as, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Now we collectively suffer from information overload leading instead to a sense of intellectual emasculation and a retreat into a familiar simplicity. We learn the pointlessness of knowledge when confronted by the possibilities of a convivial and confirming communication which transmogrifies countervailing information to proof we were right all along. Media coverage too creates competing versions of reality into tribal groupings each with its own experts or priests, as the can come to be known, so that the idea of a single right response is effectively debunked.

Nowadays such ideas are presented more succinctly as the ‘echo chamber’ in which one is reinforcingly exposed only to one’s own views and prejudices. This is nothing new – my side, team, school, race, gender, party is correct and all right thinking people agree. It all begins so early. Recent research by psychologists demonstrated that allocation to a group on the flimsiest of grounds such as matching shirt colour allows children to show enduring favouritism to the new group and associated antipathy to the outsiders. We all appear to come to live in a world of auto-confirmation in which an invisible force field of selective perception aided by circular rebuttals comes to protect us from the heresy of thought.  World religions have always behaved like this with the additional weaponry of eternal damnation which allows them to become reinforced in their beliefs by attacks upon them.

No one any longer seems to ask themselves what is the worst thing that could happen if I am wrong and how could I compensate for this. Nor do people appear to wonder what would constitute evidence that they are wrong. When I was in practice as a psychologist I routinely used a technique borrowed from anthropology called Analytic Induction. In this, starting point views or positions is less relevant since the process is of seeking disconfirming evidence. Thus it would not matter if I begin by thinking that a client is limited intellectually or gifted if I then test the proposition.

The policies of political parties like the creeds of the religious are inherently prescriptive requiring adherents not thinkers and locking the subscribers into the unholy temptations of temporal triage. The approach is one laced with intolerance of ambiguity and the narrative has the flavor of ideologies which are their own evidence of rightness. The generally agreed definition of Boko Haram is ‘western education is forbidden’. The benefits of science are reconfigured so that inoculations become a plot to sterilize their population.

Social media with its absence of accountability, editorial principle or viable approaches to accuracy checking has all the characteristics of the irresponsibility of butterflies from chaos theory in which a butterfly flapping its wings on one part of the world can trigger a set of small unintended consequences ultimately resulting in a hurricane in another. The greatest challenge facing education is teaching the young not just how to assess the content of such media and the internet but that it is necessary.

The question arises as to whether modern psychology has anything to offer to this discussion apart from the example of its own apparent fragmentation. There are at least three major positions of which I am aware that have direct implications for the issues here. The first is Pierre Janet’s notion of ‘dissociation’ as it emerged in the mid nineteenth century though better represented in my thinking in the later work of Carl Jung. Secondly there is Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance theory from the second half of the 1950’s and the thirdly Daniel Kahneman’s work which is sometimes abbreviated to the title of one of his books ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ and in essence for which he won the Nobel prize for economics in 2002.

Dissociation is best thought of as a continuum of levels of detachment from mild e.g. daydreaming through a range of coping mechanisms to a separation from reality probably caused by some severe trauma. In the context of trying to understand the post-truth concept an example might help. I could not let a child starve to death in front of me while I ate heartily but cognitively I am aware that many millions are experiencing just that fate across the world but out of my sight. Though I give to charities my giving never comes even close to leaving me with only enough for my own and my family’s survival. The fact is of the starving millions – my reaction is separated or dissociated from this. Jung recognized that this mechanism is necessary for our conscious worlds to continue. In what I see as a related way Seneca, writing about Stoicism, said “It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable”.  Without a mechanism not just for compartmentalizing but for keeping the compartments separate we would readily be overwhelmed – then we could help no one not even ourselves.

Festinger was interested in the complexity of attitudes, beliefs and behavior. He introduced the important Principle of Cognitive Consistency. His cognitive dissonance theory, while not without its critics, has an enduring quality and appeal to it. Cognitive dissonance is a sense of discomfort or distress when our internal monitoring recognizes inconsistencies among our beliefs, thoughts or behaviours – that is to say violations of the Principle of Cognitive Consistency. The conflict is uncomfortable so has to be dealt with. While this has some similarities with Orwell’s ‘double think’ the essential difference seems to be that, from my recall, in ‘1984’ the double thinkers were not distressed about it. Festinger outlines various mechanisms by which the sense of discomfort is reduced or eliminated including redefining the cognitions, changing an attitude or acquiring new or different information that rationalizes the conflict. The American humorist H.L. Mencken once wrote, “the most common of follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind”.

The third of my nominated positions is the fascinating indeed Nobel prize winning work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman with his much publicized summary of his own life work, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’.  Investigating the systematic errors and biases in human thinking, Kahneman and his now diseased early collaborator and friend Amos Tversky identified more than twenty cognitive biases or unconscious errors of reasoning that commonly impact the conclusions people draw. They identified two systems embedded in human thinking and argue that each of these systems is always at work. System 1 can be characterized as automatic and fast. It is intuition based and occurs without our conscious awareness while System 2, of which we are consciously aware, is slower and effortful involving what we more often think of as our thinking or rational selves at work. The errors generated by System 1 covertly but influentially feed into System 2 distorting the outcome.

So what has this all got to do with post-truth and the irresponsibility of butterflies. It is my contention that the ideas from the above three positions provide us with mechanisms that allow for an understanding of what happens when people reach conclusion including how to vote which seem to ignore or sideline the more factually based material. To what extent is news including evaluation what is fake news an essentially System 2, slow process and making the actual decision about who to vote for a System 1 fast thinking, intuitive response.

It may be more accessible for most people to think of System 1 as the pre or subconscious at work though in Kahneman and Tversky’s work emotions are not the basis for the cognitive distortions. The response of continuing to support a particular person, party or position is often very fast. It is like a mother’s claim that her son or daughter could not have committed an atrocity. It can require an enormous amount of input to shake this resolve if indeed it proves possible at all. Even if a change of view occurs it is likely to be rather partial – he or she must have been forced by someone, been brainwashed, had a breakdown, been on drugs etc. The mechanisms of cognitive dissonance and the guardian force of dissociation are here at work. The decision about what to believe or which way to vote while appearing to be made in System 2 is heavily influenced by the heuristics involved in System 1.

“…that in the big lie there is always a force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie …”

Adolf Hitler – ‘Mein Kampf ‘(1925)

So there we have it – the flawed concept of post-truth becomes a fine example of itself. We are in danger of living in a world of Chinese whispers in which no one ever thinks to ask the originating source what they actually said.


Billy Conn