Bullshit is having a moment. A spate of new books, including Newsnight presenter Evan Davis’s Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It, Buzzfeed correspondent James Ball’s Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, and political journalist Matthew d’Ancona’s Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back are all premised on the notion that we are in a new era.
What is that era? Thanks to – among other things – the democratising effect of the internet, the resultant decline in deference to experts, rising scorn for the political establishment, the tendency of social media to lock us in our echo chambers where our ill-founded opinions are confirmed rather than challenged, the blurring of fact and fiction online (a problem recognised in 1995 by the late journalist John Diamond who wrote: “The problem with the internet is everything is true”), we live in a post-truth era.
But what is post-truth? In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose post-truth as its word of the year, defining it as shorthand for “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
In this era, Donald Trump may posture as the guy to drain the swamp (by which he means the Washington establishment), but for the writers of these books he is a creature from an even worse swamp, rising from toxic filth to slime the civilised world with his untruths. Each author suggests Trump is worse than a liar. In this, they follow Harry G Frankfurt’s distinction in his prescient 2005 philosophical study On Bullshit: “[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.” Viewed thus, Trump is the personification of bullshit.
A story related by d’Ancona clinches the point. One day, Trump’s butler Anthony Senecal read his boss’s book The Art of the Deal. It detailed how the tiles in the nursery at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s West Palm Beach club, had been personally made by Walt Disney. Is that really true, the butler asked the billionaire. “Who cares?” replied Trump. Who cares indeed: if truth is a commodity, it is one that has crashed in value, but not before Trump astutely dumped his shares in it.
The point of all three books is to argue that we should care. We should care that we have allowed Trump and others to push us into the post-truth trough. We should care that among the 50 top performing fake news stories of 2016 on Facebook was not only the lie that President Obama had banned reciting the pledge of allegiance in US schools, but also the hilarious story headlined: “Pro-lifers declare: ejaculation is murder, every sperm cell is a life”. We should care that we are living at a time in which, as d’Ancona argues, we prioritise the “visceral over the rational, the deceptively simple over the honestly complex”.
Below, we summarise how Davis, d’Ancona and Ball explain how we got mired in bullshit, and how we might emerge, ideally smelling sweeter.
Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It, by Evan Davis
Presenter of BBC2’s Newsnight and venture capital show Dragons’ Den. Formerly BBC economics editor and Radio 4 Today programme co-presenter. Spends downtime, according to my admittedly rudimentary fact check, with his pet whippet Mr Whippy.
What’s the big idea?
Western societies have become rather like the Soviet Union “in being characterised by a pervasive tendency of those in authority to overstate their case. They bombard us with messages that are disconnected from reality as we see it. In the Soviet case it was the reality that was shameful; in ours, it is the communicators.”
But it won’t do merely to excoriate the communicators – be they Trump, Tony Blair, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage or that voice on the other end of the line telling you “Your call is important to us.” We are to blame, argues Evans. “The more we lap it up, the more it flows; the less attention we pay to facts, the more non-facts will be deployed. Even Donald Trump – the man with little self-doubt, who carved out his own, unique election campaign and who specialised in eschewing expert advice – gave the crowds what he thought they wanted.”
How did we get here?
What Trump thought his electors wanted, Davis argues, was something that showed he appears to care about his voters’ sufferings. When he said the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) “has destroyed our country”, for instance, “it matters not a jot whether that is correct”.
Davis’s key point is that humans are not merely rational and so are susceptible to post-truth seductions. In this analysis, he follows Nobel memorial prize in economics laureate Daniel Kahneman who in his 2011 bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow distinguished between two human modes of thinking, system one and system two – the former to do with intuitive, non-rational processing of information, the latter more akin to how Sherlock Holmes solves crimes.
Naturally, Davis argues, bullshitters and other persuaders seek to sucker us with psychologically sophisticated appeals to system one: hence the deployment of the bandwagon effect (we don’t want to be left behind, so if advertisers can convince us everybody else is buying a product, we are more likely to do so too); hence the persistence from the early 1950s to today of canned laughter; hence, too, the cuddly emotional pitch of the successful Innocent smoothies brand, to whose business model Davis devotes several pages. It’s not so much that we can’t handle the truth, as we’re not captivated by appeals to it.
How do we get out?
Davis argues that there are limits to the appeal to our non-rational selves. Indeed, we may have reached peak bullshit precisely because many professional persuaders have focused too much on the message rather than the quality of what they are trying to flog us, be it vacuum cleaners or party manifestos. “In short, they’ve become deluded by their own skill and deluded by their own science and have taken bullshit way beyond the optimal level.” He compares the bullshit industry to dog-breeding, where the science has been taken to such a level that now animals are ill-adapted to natural functions like breathing.
His suggestion is that “bullshit can captivate and entrance us for a time, but good sense normally prevails in the end”. If we are at peak bullshit, the corollary is we must hit the downward slope sometime soon. Trump’s rhetoric has a use-by date: “Even for those for whom it has been a refreshing change, it will probably wear out quickly. Indeed it might expire quite quickly, depending on the success or failure of the substantive results with which it becomes associated.” For instance, if US citizens wind up footing the bill for the wall with Mexico that Trump has insisted would be paid for south of the border.
But maybe Davis is wrong. Maybe we haven’t reached peak bullshit, but are merely at the top of a minor foothill and, if we look ahead, we will see there are more peaks of bullshit looming. It is, I’m afraid, possible.
“Don’t believe these phoney numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5% unemployment,” said Trump during his victory speech after the New Hampshire primary. “The number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42%.” The assertion that 30% or more Americans want to work and are deprived of a job defies, Davis argues, expert opinion and casual observation. You could only get the unemployment figure above 30% by including students, those looking after a home and carers. Davis charitably argues that Trump was intending to make a serious point about the high level of disguised unemployment in a theatrical and memorable way. Even if what he said was untrue.
Brexit bull: The leave campaign argued that Britain sent £350m in membership fees to the EU each week and if the UK left the EU that money could swell NHS coffers. Not true: Britain had negotiated a discount, paying only £285m a week. Nor was it clear that those fees could be channelled straight into health services. It was not only, as Davis puts it, “one of the most famous lies in British politics”, it was also the moment we started to worry in the UK that the truth had become irrelevant in political discourse.
Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, by Matthew d’Ancona
Guardian political columnist and former editor of the Spectator. He had an epiphany last year when he was recovering in hospital from a perforated ulcer compounded by abdominal sepsis: “I marvelled at the medical science that had brought me back from the brink: because the brink is a place where ‘experts’ – so often reviled these days – are just what you need.”
What’s the big idea?
Post-truth came into being long before Trump, d’Ancona concedes. Anthropologists say we have been lying since early humans organised themselves in tribes. But in the 20th century humanity went shamelessly beyond just lying. French postmodernists argued there was no such thing as truth and objectivity, only power and interests. Unwittingly, the likes of Jean-François Lyotard were paving the way for Trump’s senior aide Kellyanne Conway.
You remember Conway. Earlier this year, her colleague, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, told the media that, contrary to photographic evidence, the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was the largest ever. The following day Conway went on NBC’s Meet the Press where host Chuck Todd told her that Spicer’s claim was a falsehood. “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” she replied. “Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.” That Conway had the brazenness to use that oxymoron is symptomatic for d’Ancona of how we live now: in the post-truth world there is no stable verifiable reality, just an endless battle to define it.
How did we get here?
The post-truth era was made possible by Sigmund Freud. In psychoanalysis, claims d’Ancona, the imperative is to treat the patient successfully, irrespective of of the facts. This approach has gone beyond the privacy of the consulting room to infuse our whole culture. So what, you might argue? D’Ancona suggests the risk is that an ever-greater proportion of judgments and decisions will be banished to the realm of emotion: “Sharing your innermost feelings, shaping your life-drama, speaking from the heart: these pursuits are increasingly in competition with traditional forensic values.” Truth, in other words, is not just the first casualty of war, but for d’Ancona the leading victim of the spread of therapeutic culture’s values.
How do we get out?
Not long before his death, writes d’Ancona, George Orwell tried to clarify the meaning of his dystopian novel 1984, which imagined a society in thrall to a diabolical overseer called Big Brother wherein even the truths of mathematics can be replaced by “alternative facts” such as 2 + 2 = 5. “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: don’t let it happen,” said Orwell. “It depends on you.”
What this means for d’Ancona is that to keep the good things about our civilisation, we must fight. “This is not a battle,” writes d’Ancona, “between liberals and conservatives. This is a battle between two ways of perceiving the world, two fundamentally different approaches to reality. Are you content for the central value of the Enlightenment, of free societies and of democratic discourse, to be trashed by charlatans – or not?”
During a February press conference, Trump said he had achieved “the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan”. NBC’s Peter Alexander pointed out Obama had won more electoral college votes in 2008. Trump said: “I was talking about Republicans.” Alexander retorted that George HW Bush had won more votes in 1988, and asked why, if the president was going to make such phoney claims, anyone should trust him. “I actually, I’ve seen that information around,” blustered Trump. “But it was a very substantial victory, do you agree with that?”
On 16 June last year, then Ukip leader Nigel Farage unveiled a poster of a huge queue of Syrian refugees alongside the headline “Breaking Point”. Even Boris Johnson, the leave campaign’s most famous spokesman, declared himself “profoundly unhappy with it”. What was being insinuated was “that those who come to the UK are a bunch of freeloaders, depriving indigenous Britons of school places, housing and healthcare,” writes d’Ancona. But he points out that these insinuations have been “comprehensively debunked” by Essex University sociology lecturer Neli Demireva who argues that “migrants tend to be highly-skilled on average, contribute substantially to the economy, and do not compete with natives for social housing. Moreover, there is no evidence that crime rates have been on the rise as a result of new immigration waves.”)
Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered The World, by James Ball
Currently a special correspondent for Buzzfeed news, Ball has written for the Guardian and the Washington Post. During the 2010 Chelsea Manning leaks, he worked for WikiLeaks. As Ball disarmingly puts it in his introduction: “If you’re looking to call me an MSM [mainstream media] shill, the evidence is all there.”
What’s the big idea?
We mustn’t just focus on new technologies in explaining the rise of bullshit. We should follow the money. Old media outlets are suffering falls in ad revenue, which results in fewer reporters, which results in a journalistic ecology wherein regurgitating what politicians say is more cost effective than digging into what they’re saying. Fake news sites take this economic imperative to its conclusion: if a story is going to be unchecked or exaggerated, why not just make it up altogether and reduce production costs to next to nothing? The end result of this ecology, Ball argues, is that we give no more weight to the BBC or the New York Times than to a Facebook status or American Patriot Daily.
Even major news sites have sponsored links at the foot of their stories, often linking to fake or hyped news. As a result, Ball, argues: “Traditional media boosts and profits from fake news even as it tries to fight it.”
As a result of the decline of what Sarah Palin once called the “lamestream media”, we become more and more susceptible to dangerous lies peddled online. Last December for instance, police arrested a man wielding an assault rifle who entered Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington, which was the target of fake news reports that it was operating a child abuse ring led by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief John Podesta.
How did we get here?
Next, Ball turns his attention to our complicity. One bad habit we have is sharing articles on social media without checking their veracity. Ball cites a study analysing links posted using the sever bit.ly, which displays statistics on how many users have ever clicked. It found that for 59% of those links, not a single person had ever clicked through, meaning that of those who shared or commented on the attached Facebook or Twitter post, most had read nothing except the headline. This, for Ball, typifies how information is consumed: we form an opinion based on summary or summary of summaries. We have become, Ball suggests, passive consumers of bullshit.
How do we get out? There’s no single solution, argues Ball, but lots of little things all of us can do. We must learn how statistics work, treat the narratives we believe as sceptically as those we don’t, try not to succumb to conspiratorial thinking. One tip for the media is that fact-checking may cause more problems than it solves. Why? Consider what happened when Sean Spicer claimed 78 terror incidents had received less coverage than they merited. When news outlets meticulously checked this story, argues Ball, they “created a highlights real of attacks connected to extreme Islamic terror, while being unable to definitively debunk the claim”. Another striking tip, at least for politicians including Jeremy Corbyn and Trump, is to lay off laying into the media. “For most politicians, attacking the media looks weak … polling evidence shows a majority of the population across multiple democracies are looking for a strong national leader.”
Trumped up: Trump once claimed that on 11 September 2001, he witnessed firsthand Muslims cheering as the Twin Towers fell after the terror attacks. “I watched in Jersey City, NJ, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down,” Trump told a rally. Later Trump cited a Washington Post story to corroborate his claim, but one of its authors, the New York Times’s Serge Kovaleski, retorted that the article did not stand it up. At a later rally in South Carolina in November 2015, Trump mocked Kovaleski, argues Ball, “by imitating a condition the New York Times reporter has which limits the movement in his arms”. Wildly jerking his arms and pulling grotesque facial expressions, Trump said: “He’s going like, ‘Uhhh, I don’t remember, oh, maybe that’s what I said.” Kovaleski said he had tried to find out if any Muslims had celebrated the attack and reported that he had been unable to prove that point.
Brexit bull: Last year, Vote Leave issued an online poster that said: “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU”. Not really, counters Ball: Turkey is being considered for EU membership but the process of joining requires 35 prerequisites to be met, and at the time of the EU referendum it had met only one. No matter: the poster alluded successfully to an influx of new immigrants and, Ball argues, helped make some Britons more sceptical about remaining in the EU.
To order a discounted copy of Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It by Evan Davis (Little Brown, £20), Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back by Matthew d’Ancona (Ebury Press, £6.99) or Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered The World by James Ball (Biteback Publishing, £9.99), visit bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.