William Watkin: The truth about post-truth

Wordsmith and philosopher William Watkin lets the facts get in the way of a good story

Chav, Sudoku, bovvered, carbon footprint, credit crunch, simples, big society, squeezed middles, omnishambles, selfies, vape, tears of joy emoji: these are all the WOTYs since WOTYs began. The Word of the Year is an annual opportunity for the tweedy lexicographers of The Oxford English Dictionary to encapsulate the spirit of the year past. With each of these WOTYs we swell our vocabularies by learning the meaning of an additional word we all already knew the meaning of, so more of a communal one-word conversation on what this year was all about. And what was 2016 all about? Brexit, Trump and Lies, which the OED summarised as post-truth.

Of all WOTYs, post-truth seems the least frothy. “Post-truth,” they say, “is an adjective relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” That’s fine but, obviously, the meaning of post-truth depends on the meaning of ‘truth’.

Philosophically, truth is the obvious, the intuitive, that which we all kind of know to be true already. It is, in other words, all that is simples! Admittedly, over millennia there have been many Twitter-esque storms over truth but the difficulty with truth has never been its proof but its stability. Truth is something to rely on, like my friend Geoff. Only in modern times, philosophers came to the conclusion that, like my predictable friend Geoff, truth was nothing more than the construct of wishful thinking. You see I have no friend Geoff. Post-truthed you! Meaning WOTY 2016 is a hundred years too late! Shame-faced emojis all round at the OED Xmas party when it transpires that post-truth is itself a little bit post-truthy.

Philosophically, truth is the obvious, the intuitive, that which we all kind of know to be true already

Actually this matters not because, as the OED’s definition says, post-truth is less a question of truths than facts. Trouble is, truths and facts are not the same. For example, truths cannot be proven while facts must be. Truths hold true, whatever the facts. Facts, however, let you down when a more attractive new fact comes along.

Even worse, facts require other facts to work out if they are reliable or not. With the rise of the internet we find ourselves wallowing in facts that need more facts to check if they are facts. Such a proliferation of facts means we are suffering from #Factobesity, leaving us too bloated and exhausted to check facts any more. So we just click ‘share’ and this is the problem. The internet has simultaneously provided us with the means of sharing facts in minutes to undermine Trump’s outrageous claims, and at the same time means of spreading fake facts to bolster Trump’s outrageous claims.

It’s a phenomenon aided by the revelation that 60 per cent of Americans rely on social media for their news, leading to the rise in news curation, where each of us becomes an editor of our own journal we share across our filter bubbles of like-minded friends. How many of these news stories do we read beyond the headline? I suspect very few. When we do this, we transform facts from newsworthy to #Memeworthy, worth sharing online irrespective of its ‘truth’.

The outlook for facts in 2017 appears grim but while news memes may be false they can still reveal truths. True, every time we share a news meme we allow alt-right trolls and democracy hackers to harness post-facts to platform a truth that appears as stable now as it was millennia ago when truth was first invented, gifting us a pre-post-truth to end on. People will believe anything is true if it feels truthy and they already thought that. The Greeks had their own WOTY for it, they called it sophistry.

Truth, it transpires, is nothing more than a selfie of our own prejudices – which is bad but at least we all know what it is now that it is gone, which is a consolation of sorts.