Post-Truth: Lies, Conspiracies, and the Painful death of political discourse

Sam Turnbaugh, Reporter

There were many who predicted the transformative power of the Internet; most saw it as a force for good, a medium offering near-instant access to free information, bypassing the filters of the traditional media. Unfortunately while the “mainstream” media is increasingly sidelined by online sources, we’ve instead been inundated with misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies. The propagation of fake news and conspiracy theories in general discourse is a blight on American civil society and poses and existential danger to our political process.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, Pope Francis just declared that spreading fake news is a sin, and “post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year.

We’re not just talking about (relatively) harmless clickbait here either; make no mistake, fake news is just one part of a global information war. Last year the Swedish Security Service announced that Russia was deliberately using misinformation to inflame what it called “splits in society.” Sweden’s Ministry of Defense has since been tasked with countering foreign propaganda. The United States Intelligence Community, a collection of 16 Federal Agencies, found that Russia was actively engaged in promoting disinformation during the 2016 election.  The European parliament issued a resolution warning that Russia was using online disinformation and paid commenters to undermine democratic institutions.

Others are less concerned with ideology than with simple profit; NBC news reported that teenagers in the impoverished nation of Macedonia were creating their own online domains and pushing provocative fake news stories (“BREAKING: Obama Confirms Refusal To Leave White House, He Will Stay In Power!”) in order to collect ad revenue. One 18 year-old stated that he had made $60,000 in six months by creating fictional headlines during the US elections.

At some point one is forced to ask how anyone can believe any of this. The headlines being peddled by these websites; whether they’re simple clickbait to take advantage of gullible Facebook users or whether they’re ideologically driven misinformation, are so fantastically insane that it seems impossible anyone could be ignorant enough to believe them.

For instance, the fake news site runs “articles” designed to attract right-wing readership, and the facts don’t matter: “Video Leaks Exposing Hillary’s Ties To The KKK… Her Campaign Is Finished” and “BREAKING: Obama Admits to Forging Birth Certificate After This Old Photo Leaks to the Public” both ran during the election. When not covering national politics the site focuses on race-baiting instead. Take for instance the headline: “RACISM: Black Panther Promises To Kill All White Babies”, or perhaps: “Black Man Murders White Family And Burns Their Home… Where’s Al Sharpton Now?”

The website (designed to look deceptively similar to the real ABC News) operates in a similar vein, recently running the headline: “Obama Signs Executive Order Declaring Investigation Into Election Results; Revote Planned For Dec. 19th .”

Perhaps the most frustrating part of this is how easily dismissible it is. A simple Google search would reveal that these headlines are entirely fictional. Anyone fooled by these headlines might be safely reprimanded for failing to do their research, more worrisome are those who refuse to believe that legitimate news sources can’t be trusted, who instead choose to engage in wild conspiracy. At least some of these conspiracy sources, like, appear to be little more than foreign propaganda efforts aimed at attacking the United States and its allies (headlines here include “BREAKING: ‘US used Nukes on Iraq, Afghanistan’”, “The State and Local Bases of Zionist Power in America”, “Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) – Planned Sterilization of Humanity?”, and “The Walls Are Crumbling Down Around the ‘Official 9/11 Story’ – Why?”)

Others, unfortunately, are homegrown. Alex Jones, “the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has become a darling of the American far-right. This is a man who believes that a shadowy New World Order controls our government, that the Sandy Hook shooting and Boston Marathon bombing were staged, and that the government controls tornadoes. Oh yeah, Bush did 9/11 as well.

Naturally, President-Elect Donald Trump is a big fan, who went on Jones’ radio show during the campaign, assuring him, “I will not let you down.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines post-truth as: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

I think that’s understating things. Objective facts are not “less influential” they’re completely ignored. The proliferation of these delusional conspiracy theories and transparently fraudulent headlines seems to signal the end of critical thinking in American politics.

Let’s disregard for a moment the fact the Trump is buddies with a guy who thinks that 9/11 is an inside job and that Hillary Clinton has actual connections to Satan (no joke, look it up), I would be remiss if I failed to mention a more recent example: the theory that Hillary Clinton masterminded a pedophile sex trafficking ring hidden underneath a DC pizza restaurant which ended in a shooting.

The nonsensical delusion of the so-called pizzagate theory (which seems to have, in all likelihood, began as a joke) is impressive in the scope and scale of its rise. Soon it was being speculated that the CIA and the Illuminati were involved as well. Without the existence of any evidence for the fantastical claims made, the theory spawned a hashtag and gained a legion of online adherents, including members of Trump’s transition team. The online conspiracy led North Carolina native Edgar Maddison Welch to the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington to carry out what he described as an investigation with his AR-15 and a handgun. Police responded after several shots were fired, and Welch was charged with multiple firearms violations and assault with a dangerous weapon.

If pizzagate is the direction that American political discourse is moving then we should despair. There is, suddenly, unwillingness or inability among voters, candidates, and elected leaders to differentiate between fact and fiction. It seems to me that once upon a time we changed our political leanings to fit the facts, but these days people are more apt to change the facts to suit their ideology. And there’s no way to ignore this either: This is only happening on the political right.

What’s the solution? That’s hard to say; terrifyingly it’s been found that 2/3 of American adults get their “news” from social media while newspaper readership continues to decline. Meanwhile our political figures, namely our next president and his closest advisers, have been consistently clear that they don’t care about the facts. Further they are openly promoting conspiracy theories, are choosing to ignore information coming from America’s intelligence services, and even seem to believe Russian propaganda lines themselves.

It’s not that there’s any lack of credible journalism in the world, and even casting aside traditional services, the Internet makes it easier than ever to find the unfiltered truth. Instead there just seems that some among us are so obsessed with protecting their own worldview from inconvenient truths that they’ve lost any ability to think critically. There’s no law that can fix that.