Pam Frampton: Life in the post-truth age


Published on November 19, 2016
Pam Frampton

Oxford Dictionaries announced its word of the year for 2016 this week and it wasn’t “enlightened,” “optimistic” or “visionary.”
Nope, the Associated Press has reported from London that this year’s honour goes to “post-truth,” as in “post-truth politics” — a place where fact holds little currency and much more trade is done in lies and embellishment. And, at least some of the time, we know the difference and don’t seem to care.

Oxford Dictionaries 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,” and says the use of the term “rose 2,000 per cent between 2015 and 2016, often in discussions of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and the campaign of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump.”

American author Ralph Keyes knows all about post-truth, and says while it’s not new, it’s something that’s becoming disturbingly normalized.

In his 2004 book, “The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life,” Keyes writes, “In the post-truth era, borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction. Deceiving others becomes a challenge, a game, and ultimately a habit.”

Post-truth has become all too acceptable in politics. Just look at the recent U.S. presidential election, during which Donald Trump made several bold promises that he is now backing away from.

Closer to home, there’s the provincial Liberals’ campaign promise to scrap an impending HST hike and then breaking that promise once elected. And, before them, the Tories’ reassurance that they were prepared for any unforeseen Muskrat Falls cost overruns with a contingency fund.

“I think over-promising during political campaigns, then reneging on one’s promises is a plague that’s always been with us,” Keyes wrote to me this week via email from Yellow Springs, Ohio.

“Donald Trump has just ratcheted it up to a new level with his outrageous claims about what he will do as president (Build a wall! Make Mexico pay for it! Deport 11 million immigrants! Repeal Obamacare! Lock her up!) only to have to walk-back part or all of those commitments in the light of reality now that he’s been elected president. The scary thing for me is not that voters didn’t recognize how often Trump made stuff up but that so many of them didn’t seem to care. That epitomizes the post-truth era.”

The Internet is a perfect incubator for post-truth proliferation. In this cut-and-paste online world, lies and myths can propagate easily, both innocently and with intent.

Faux news abounds, with websites that are actually propaganda distributors masquerading as news. For editors who spend a lot of time checking facts, it’s getting tougher to distinguish legitimate sources from spin sites.

Google “Barack Obama birth certificate” and among the top 10 is an article headlined “10 Facts That Suggest Obama’s Birth Certificate Is Fake ...” on the website Mr. Conservative.com, an apparently satirical site not overtly labelled as such, where anyone can submit content.

A blog asserting the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin has 616,999 page views, even though that piece of cloth has been proven to be a forgery.

We seem to have become indifferent to glaring differences between what we have been told and what turns out to be the truth, even after it has been revealed to us.

After Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government was found in contempt of Parliament in March 2011 for refusing to give opposition parties information about budget spending, Canadians turned around and gave Harper a majority government two months later.

“Society would crumble altogether if we assumed others were as likely to dissemble as tell the truth,” Keyes warned in his 2004 book. “We are perilously close to that point.”

Twelve years later, I ask him, “Are we there yet?”

“If not there, we’re awfully close!” he replied. “I hope that the egregiousness of dissembling in our recent election will wake people up to the price we pay for making so little distinction between truth and lies, but I’m not counting on it.”

Still, wouldn’t it be great if 2017’s word of the year is “discernment”?

Pam Frampton is an editor and columnist at The Telegram. Email pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton