Nora Biette-Timmons reflects on the Bullshit and Post-truth Politics public lecture held on Thursday 30 January, where the way in which bullshit has taken over the worlds of business and the political arena was discussed.
Realistically, if you’re reading this particular piece on the LSE Department blog, chances are you have at least a passing familiarity with the ever-increasing levels of political bullshit we’ve seen over the last two years. It’s been just a little over a year since President Trump first told CNN reporter Jim Acosta that he was “fake news.” (Those thirteen months have allowed more than enough time for the pejorative to become integral to our Trump-era lexicon.)
It’s been more than a year and a half since Russian-based operatives shared literal ‘fake news’ on millions of American Facebook feeds, changing the narrative of the 2016 election and, some claim, swinging the vote in favor of Donald Trump.
In addition to this, less than two years ago Brexiteers began claiming that the UK would spend £350 million more on health care every month once it left the confines of the European Union. (The problem with Brexit, according to journalist Matthew D’Ancona, was that, despite the hopes of experts, “statistics didn’t rule the day except for this one….the fact that it was completely nonsense didn’t matter.”)
These three headline-grabbing incidents are all indicative of the recent troubling increase of obvious falsehoods taken as fact in politics.
D’Ancona was a part of a panel discussing the related concepts of “bullshit” and “post-truth politics,” hosted on 30 January 2018 by the LSE’s Department of Government, and attempted to explain the providence of these phenomena, and what can be done to mitigate the harm they’ve done and minimise their future damage. The panelists covered a range of types of bullshit – from business jargon and practices that have little practical utility, to more philosophical concepts like hyper-reality and social performativity — but unsurprisingly, the cross-section of bullshit and global politics dominated the conversation.
What was perhaps surprising was the fact that the panelists did not dwell in pessimism, hopelessness, or helplessness. Amid their — admittedly dire — prognoses, their contributions pointed toward a pair of ways to move the conversation about our new normal “bullshit” politics away from its myopic stasis. The first was practical: increase scrutiny and/or regulation of our media and communications channels. The second was rhetorical: eliminate the supremacy of facts in elite political discourse.
The first suggestion has been repeated in other contexts, but is worth exploring further. Panelist Tanya Filer, who works on the democracy and conspiracy project at Cambridge, found widespread use of automated Twitter bots as far back as the general election in Argentina in October 2015. These were the same technologies observed working in Trump’s favor during the 2016 campaign — all that was different with Trump, Filer said, “was simply the media reporting of it, rather than the actual phenomenon.”
Since bots and algorithmic manipulation are problems that exists across the social media universe — a sphere that knows no national boundaries — D’Ancona suggested that regulating this type of communication must be left to the tech giants themselves, or some sort of supranational organisation. When pressed on why we should trust social media behemoths to regulate themselves, when they’ve proved to be willfully blind to the problem until very recently, D’Ancona admitted that his suggestion was perhaps a “triumph of hope over experience.” He went on, though, to express worry that allowing this to become an area of oversight for national governments would risk the emergence of a “ministry of truth” or control. Filer, for her part, joked about what has, to a certain degree, already happened: that Facebook could become that truth regulator, rather than the Government itself.
A more localised but equally important part of this suggestion was the panelists’ joint call for teaching media literacy. “Our children will have to not just be citizen journalists but citizen editors,” D’Ancona predicted, and because “the web encourages confirmation bias and reduces accountability,” media consumers will have to be ever more able to decipher what is actual truth — and what just sounds like it could be true. André Spicer, a business professor, said that, though he applauds recent pushes for better STEM education, literary subjects are equally important. “The humanities train you in subtleties,” he said — a necessity for media literacy.
The panel’s second recommendation for bettering the “post-truth” political situation seems, when taken at face-value, to be counter-intuitive. We ought to “move beyond facts alone,” Filer said; “Facts are not enough!” D’Ancona declared. But an over-emphasis on facts and statistics has made political discourse both boring and elitist, an insider’s technocratic enterprise. To eliminate the influence of those personalities that have capitalised on the frustration this phenomenon has created, people seeking to dial down toxic “post-truth” rhetoric must stop depending on facts to win political allegiance.
This “doesn’t mean sacrificing veracity to theatricality, but it means more than rapid rebuttal,” D’Ancona said.
Additionally, politics is an inherently emotional exercise, a fact that many mainstream politicians have ignored, and which, in turn, populist leaders have capitalised upon. According to Filer, we’ll only be able to combat “bullshit” if we “open up a space for the expression of emotion in politics.”
In that sense, preventing politics from becoming irrevocably damaged by “post-truth” politics doesn’t mean pushing facts harder; it means understanding that people vote based on emotions and opinions. Facts, as Filer put it, cannot offer comfort.
Nora Biette-Timmons is a journalist and a masters student in Comparative Politics in the Department of Government at LSE. You can find her on Twitter: @biettetimmons.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.