Where is truth-truth found in a post-truth world?

AND the word of the year is “post-truth”. What a disappointment to “hygge” which had turned up for the glitzy awards ceremony wearing a cuddly but expensive hand-knitted jumper. “Alt-right” missed out after going to so much trouble polishing its jackboots. “Brexiteer” was overlooked too even after all that effort with those badly drawn placards, but never mind.

Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” as its international word of the year, reflecting a “highly-charged” 12 months in politics.

Brexiteer booed that it was all a fix, and hygge – that frankly annoying Danish word that embraces cosiness and comfortable conviviality – cried into its coffee and had a consoling mouthful of cake.

The word ceremony is always a fun event. Sadly, there is little to cheer in the winner, defined as “an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals”. There has certainly been too much of that going on this year.

Alt-right, by the way, refers to “an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterised by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content”.

I only started to spot this word during the US election, and confess that it caused confusion at first. There was a time when anything preceded by “alt” was used to indicate vaguely left-field concerns – such as “alternative comedy” or “alt-country” for country music that followed a different path. Now the far right has goose-stepped away with “alt”.

As to the winner, well some say that we now live in a “post-truth world” – a place where lies and poisonous rumour run twice around the globe while stuffy old truth is still lacing its sensible shoes.

An obvious point here is that “post-truth” and “alt-right” refer in a sense to the same phenomenon: the rise of the right by new means.

Exactly how much social media was or was not responsible for the US election result remains an open question. But there is no doubt that more and more people receive their news via Facebook – a social sharing site that didn’t set out to convey news, and doesn’t employ journalists to sieve the headlines.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook maintains that the result was not the fault of his website, but everyone agrees that fake news is on the rise.

Now, fake news is different to biased news in that it doesn’t pretend to be true or real, but sets out to do harm by spreading false rumour. I have sworn myself off use of the T-word today, but the US election saw plenty of false news shared as if it were true.

One defence Facebook puts up is that as people share with the like-minded, these post-truth rumours only go to those who already believe them. False news, by this line of argument, doesn’t change minds.

That sounds like a slippery defence, yet it is true that Facebook sharing creates a bubble of the like-minded. People who largely agree with each other share evidence of why their beliefs are the correct beliefs. And in this chummy atmosphere they perhaps forget to look out of the steamed-up window at the wider world.

Originally today I was going to devote this blog to the Stop Funding Hate campaign against the Daily Mail, which claimed a victory after persuading Lego to stop promotions with the Mail. My feelings are conflicted here: I dislike the Mail, along with the Express and even the Sun; such newspapers in general present a view of the world I do not share.

Yet having newspapers that offer a variety of opinions is an important part of democratic life. You don’t have to agree and you certainly don’t have to buy them, although reading what the ‘other side’ thinks can be useful and illuminating.

The campaign against the Mail comes from a social-media bubble where like-minded people gathered in agreement and declared that “something must be done”. Nothing wrong with that, but it remains an inconvenient truth that millions of people buy the Mail, and millions more look at its website.

I have never bought the Mail and never will, although I have read my mother-in-law’s copy occasionally.

The Mail’s truth isn’t my truth, but silencing those we disagree with seems to be an odd sort of liberalism. Where do we go in search of truth-truth? Who knows. I still favour the BBC and the Guardian, but plenty of people of all persuasions disparage those two nowadays.

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