Global Affairs

Is this the era of post-truth politics?

Politicians may be strident in misleading voters but professionals must stand up to expose the lies.

LONDON • Since live televised debates between United States presidential candidates were first staged more than half a century ago, electoral campaign managers insisted on negotiating in advance every technical detail of each confrontation. Everything, from the nature of the questions and right down to the studio lighting, was haggled over, time after time.

Yet in the run-up to tonight's televised showdown - the first of this year's presidential campaign - organisers were confronted with an unusual demand from Mr Donald Trump, the Republican candidate: That what he says and the facts he may use to make his arguments against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton should not be challenged by the TV moderator for accuracy; the debate should simply carry on, even if what Mr Trump says may be untrue.

Welcome to the bizarre new world of "post-truth politics" - an age in which politicians who utter the most brazen of lies not only get away with it, but even contest the right and legitimacy of those who try to expose their falsehoods. Post-truth politics are based on the assumption that reason or facts no longer matter, and that people can be persuaded to vote for a cause on the basis of just mood and innuendo. Few developments are more dangerous and more corrosive to good governance than this post-truth age.

Politicians have, of course, been accused of lying for centuries, and often with good reason. But, as a rule, in countries which have open elections and where politicians fight to lead, lies were traditionally intended to cover up inconvenient or embarrassing episodes; they were short-term expedients, subterfuges.

In today's post-truth age, however, lies are not merely occasional mishaps, but the core of an electoral strategy. And lying is not something one does surreptitiously; it is thrown in the electorate's face.

A classic example of this is Britain's recent referendum on whether the country should stay in the European Union. Those who advocated its departure from the EU started their campaign by proclaiming that Britain paid £350 million (S$616 million) each week as an EU member, a sum that could supposedly be used instead to build up Britain's domestic health service.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The lie was so egregious that Britain's politically neutral Office of National Statistics issued a rare public rebuke to anti-EU campaigners for "undermining trust" in government accounts. Still, the Brexit campaigners continued to use this false figure on all their campaign posters and buses, on the assumption - which ultimately proved to be correct - that the more a lie is repeated, the more it stands a chance of being accepted as truth.

Brexit supporters also used big lies to dominate the narrative of the referendum campaign. They claimed that, if Britain remained in the EU, it would have to accept millions of Turkish migrants by the end of the decade. Every Brit knew that Turkey is not in the EU. Almost every voter also knew that Turkey is highly unlikely ever to become a member of the EU. So, this was pure invention from start to finish.

But it also worked as intended, for the more British government officials and academic experts tried to refute scare stories about Turkish migrants, the more they drew attention to the question of immigration, something which clearly favoured the Brexiters. Ultimately, the entire campaign to pull Britain out of the EU succeeded because it rejected reason altogether. As Mr Michael Gove, a senior British minister, memorably put it, voters "have had enough of experts".

NO SHAME

Mr Trump in the US adds to these tactics a further refinement: He uses lies not merely to promise a fake future, but also in order to recreate a false past. He constantly claims, for instance, that he has opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq, despite absence of even a shred of evidence for this in hundreds of hours of taped interviews Mr Trump gave over the past two decades. He also constantly claims that America's immigration problem was deliberately created by Mexico, whose government apparently had a plot to send its criminals to the US.

However, the moment such big lies no longer serve a purpose, they are dropped without as much as an explanation, let alone an apology. Immediately after winning the referendum, supporters of Brexit simply scrubbed from their website the promise that all the money which they alleged was paid to the EU would now be diverted to build British hospitals. And, when Mr Trump recently decided that there was no longer much point in accusing President Barack Obama of forging his birth certificate, he simply claimed that it was not he but Mrs Clinton who questioned whether Mr Obama was born in the US. Seldom in the history of modern politics have so many lies been told by so many people with so little shame.

A number of reasons account for the rise of post-truth politics. One explanation may be psychology: Plenty of electoral surveys indicate that voters believe stories which reinforce their preconceived ideas. Mr Trump's anti-establishment supporters are ready to believe that the federal government in Washington is capable of any crime. Similarly, British voters who hate the EU were ready to believe that any amount that Britain spends on its EU membership is a waste, so the fact that politicians lied about how much Britain actually pays the EU made no difference.

TIME TO EXPOSE LIES

There is also the phenomenon which one US TV comedian termed "truthiness", namely an assertion or claim which has no basis in fact, but instinctively sounds right and ends up being believed. Ask voters in most Western nations whether they think that the number of immigrants in their countries is rising, that crime rates are soaring or that there are many more fatal car accidents, and you are guaranteed to get a nod of approval; tell them that this is the case, and they are likely to believe an unscrupulous politician. Unsurprisingly, therefore, claims by Mr Trump that America has allowed in "too many" Muslims, or that the US has "no idea" how to fight terrorism fell on fertile ground.

And then, there is the proliferation of media platforms, allowing people to form their own virtual universes, their own echo chambers where they are persuaded to believe the absolute worst about political opponents. If you are an American voter watching Fox News, you are likely to believe anything bad about the centre-left of American politics, including a potential claim that Mrs Clinton eats children for breakfast; conversely, if you watch the MSNBC TV network in the US, you are liable to believe claims that all right-wingers are just closet Nazis. Feeding lies to such audiences is the equivalent of lighting matches in dry forests: It's guaranteed to create a firestorm. And once this firestorm rages, assertions from post-truth politicians suddenly acquire an aura of credibility.

Ask voters in most Western nations whether they think that the number of immigrants in their countries is rising, that crime rates are soaring or that there are many more fatal car accidents, and you are guaranteed to get a nod of approval; tell them that this is the case, and they are likely to believe an unscrupulous politician.

Yet there is plenty that can be done to fight back against this post-truth phenomenon. The rising popularity of fact-checking websites, providing instant analysis of politicians' assertions, is an encouraging sign. So is the fact that professional organisations - scientists, lawyers and various academic disciplines - are increasingly prepared to stand up and debunk claims made by campaigners of whatever stripe.

But ultimately, the mainstream media also has to help by dropping its reluctance to brand false statements from politicians for what they are: just lies. The reluctance is understandable: mainstream media platforms jealously guard their professional reputation, and do not want to appear strident by branding some statements as untruths. Still, the old adage that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts" is as valid today as it was when uttered by the US Senator Daniel Moynihan in the 1960s; lies should be exposed and branded as such in the mainstream media.

For the descent into a miserable post-truth world is far from inevitable. A recent survey compiled by the Institute of Government, a British think-tank devoted to promoting good governance, found that the bulk of British voters still believe politicians try to make government work well, and an overwhelming majority still want real experts involved in government decision-making.

In short, truth and competence still matter. Time for the moderator in today's US presidential debate to make a stand on this point.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'Is this the era of post-truth politics?'. Print Edition | Subscribe