You know the feeling when something gets caught in your eye? It could be an eyelash that has loosened, or a cold wind hitting your visual nerve. It’s not a pain that really hinders you from seeing. Nevertheless it is irritating. You look in the mirror to find this little something and get rid of it.
This is the kind of irritation I have been experiencing whenever I hear the word “post-truth.” And I’ve been hearing it a lot. It’s inescapable on social media feeds and in international news reports. It dominated an event my organization, Democracy International, recently co-hosted in Spain. At home in Cologne, Germany, I hear the word “postfaktisch” (the German version of “post-truth”) on talk shows and read it in the press, where commentators often say “postfaktisches Zeitalter”—“era of post-truth.” The German Association for Language named “postfaktisch” its word of the year for 2016, following the Oxford Dictionaries, which chose “post-truth” as its word of 2016 internationally.
The problem is that all this usage hasn’t made “post-truth” any more helpful, or accurate, in describing our current situation. So let me post the truth about post-truth: We don’t understand the phrase well and we don’t use it correctly, so its ubiquity is giving us the wrong idea about the problems our democracies face.
Or to put it more bluntly, the signature feature of the post-truth era is that we can’t even get post-truth right. Which is why we should ditch the term—as soon as possible.
Post-truth stands for a very broad claim that very large numbers of people no longer base their judgments on facts but on unsupported beliefs, bogus conspiracies, and their emotions. The trouble with such a claim is that “post-truth” is itself—forgive me—a post-truth.
It enhances a largely rhetorical and artifical societal divide between two camps—the supposed “establishment” and the supposed “populists”—who are purportedly battling for all kinds of power, including the power to decide what is true. And that’s bunk.
The “establishment” and “populists” in societies inevitably draw from social, financial and educational elites—like the billionaire, Ivy League-educated populist who just was elected president of the United States. This artificial divide in our “post-truth” world then is used to attack and discredit other democratic constitutions, which is why you hear yelling against the “liar’s press” and the “lamestream media.” And that in turns fragments dialogue, where democracy needs dialogues, especially in the digital public realm where most of us now have a voice.
To see “post-truth” do such damage is especially irritating when the term itself is phony. It assumes there had been some clear “truth,” shared and accepted, at some earlier point. Is there anything such as “truth”? From Aristotle to Immanuel Kant to Friedrich Nietzsche, philosophers have thought deeply about the question of “what is truth.” Generally speaking, “truth” is a statement about what is perceived as real. Truths, or facts, can be empirically verified, but the degree of verification varies. There is the hard-core truth that the earth revolves around the sun, proven by natural science. But many truths are more difficult to prove. For example, which medicine really helps to cure a disease? Or, exactly how high is unemployment and what are its causes?
The truth is that truth is always contested. Facts can always be challenged and interpreted differently. If shared by many in a society, truths turn into societal beliefs.
What may be different about this moment is that the battle for truth feels larger—given our globally connected world—and thus especially bitter. In my work supporting campaigns and activism in favor of greater democracy around the globe, I keep observing two camps that are fragmenting in Western societies. One camp involves those who previously had the power to make public statements about truth. They were “gatekeepers” or “guardians of truth.” Many politicians, journalists, scientists, and influential intellectuals belong to this camp; the traditional media (TV, radio, print) have been their instruments. For decades this camp was acknowledged and respected, though more and more, this camp is scolded as the “establishment.” And this is the camp that uses the word “post-truth.”
The other camp has evolved through the power of social media. Such media are democratic in that they give a voice to everyone, regardless of gender, origin, age, education, or status. We all can participate in making statements about how we perceive the world. This has brought about a pluralism of facts. There is no selection and little censorship. The so-called “populists” are one people among many offering their own truths through new media, claiming many wrong facts to be true. They find followers for fake news, distorted facts, hate speech, and conspiracy theories. Such people must be condemned and combatted.
But does this behavior justify calling the moment we’re in right now an “era of post-truth?”
Not at all. We are simply seeing the democratization of competing claims, and in the process that contest is becoming much broader (and, in ways, more dangerous). But while there is peril in this moment, there is also great promise. The social media channels that have divided us into camps allow us to communicate. But we need to build a smarter digital public realm and include everybody in the debate on what is true.
The debate is inevitable. The thing to worry about is not falsehoods—but isolated falsehoods, that can be repeated without conversation or contest. And it’s now clear that creating a true digital public realm starts with disempowering the private internet companies—Facebook, Google, Twitter, and their ilk—that have gained far too much power and influence.
Such companies should not have the power to define algorithms that allow us to filter contrary opinions or put us in a bubble. They do not have the right to narrow our views, and to fragment us into camps.
The channels of digital communication belong in the public realm. But who should manage such a realm, which crosses all sorts of national borders?
Why not the United Nations?
The U.N. is hardly the perfect solution, but in our globalized world, it’s the institution best equipped to define rules and to create structures in the public sphere. That’s a digital analog of its mission in the physical world. And I see the U.N. as taking a firm hand, actually maintaining and administering the public servers. The private data of the world’s people should no longer be on private servers; they also shouldn’t belong to states. The best solutions are international, inter-governmental structures like the U.N.
In this new digital realm, social media platforms should exist, and people of all camps would exchange their statements on how they perceive the world. Journalists should play the role of facilitators of dialogue, making sure that every person is taken seriously and has a say. Journalists would also examine and question the claims of truth made by different camps.
Today, the internet has its “darknets,” the term for overlay networks that can only be accessed with certain authorizations or via gated ports. What we need is a “brightnet”: This is the term I’ve come up with, inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment, to describe social platforms that enable us to critically question our assumptions, to respectfully talk with others, and to commonly decide on what is true.
After all, there is no “post” in this new digital age we need to build. It is profoundly an age of truth. And the avant garde will be those who commit their intelligence and energy to this new, inclusive project of giving people around the world more ways to debate and discover what is true.