I’ve seen a lot of comments saying something to the effect of, “post-truth isn’t anything new; call it what it is: propaganda!” Or, “post-truth is just a bullshit buzzword for disinformation!” While I understand the impetus behind the “post-truth = propaganda” line of thought, as a librarian interested in how people interact with information, I think it’s important to clarify that they do not actually describe the same phenomena.
As a point of reference for future writing on the topic (and to kill a few hours on the reference desk), consider what follows a helpful glossary on post-truth, propaganda, bullshit, and other contemporary terms of art. Some commentary follows.
bullshit (n.): a statement or statements grounded in a “lack of connection to a concern with truth” (Frankfurt, 2005)
disinformation (n.): (1) intentionally misleading semantic information; (2) misleading semantic information that has the function of misleading (Fallis, 2015)
fact (n.): an obtaining state of affairs
information (n): “a difference that makes a difference” (Bateson, 1972)
knowledge (n.): justified, true belief
misinformation (n.): inaccurate or misleading semantic information
propaganda (n.): “[semantic] information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view” (Source: Oxford Dictionaries Online)
post-truth (adj.): relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. (Source: OED)
semantic information (n.): well-formed, meaningful data (Floridi, 2015)
testimony (n.): an act of communication that is intended to communicate information
true (adj.): a proposition is true just in case it corresponds to an obtaining state of affairs (i.e., a fact)
truth (n): (1) an affirmation that corresponds to fact(s); (2) a set of true propositions
Your sense of identity–who you are as a person–is probably somewhere near the most important thing to you. I mean, it is you. How you understand yourself is…pretty much what it means to even have a self. And that sense of who you are is pretty much identical to the sum total of all the things you believe. Your beliefs about yourself, about other people, about life, love, the future, the past, the universe…taken together, your beliefs about these things define who you are. Of course, some of the things you believe are true and correspond to facts about the way the world really is; some of the things you believe are false and do not correspond to reality. Oh yeah, and some of the things you believe to be true are actually false and some of the things you believe to be false are actually true. We aren’t perfect. But, we all tend to acknowledge our own fallibility to some extent, and we all have a great big grey area in the middle; a great big grey question mark in the middle of you. These are the beliefs you haven’t decided are true or false. You’re probably more used to calling them questions.
So, there’s you. A huge set of beliefs you think are true, beliefs you think are false, and beliefs you just haven’t made up your mind on. Now, comes the question: should you try to have more true beliefs than false beliefs? If you say “yes” then it seems you have an obligation to learn. This impetus to pursue true beliefs and avoid false beliefs is pretty much the foundation for all of Western intellectual history (and most other cultures’ intellectual traditions as well). But, how do we know what’s true and what isn’t? Well, over time we’ve come up with means for justifying why we believe something to be true. That is, why we ought to believe it. And when we have a true belief that we can further justify to ourselves and others as being absolutely true, that’s when we say we have knowledge. Knowledge refers to those beliefs we have that we feel completely justified in believing to be true.
This is where cultures clash. Not in valuing true beliefs over false beliefs, but in agreeing on standards for justification. On what counts as knowledge. “I know it because God told me in a vision.” “I know it because I saw it with my own eyes.” “I know it because this book says so.” “I know it’s true because thousands of tests have confirmed it.” “I know it because that’s how we’ve always done it.” And so on. There are countless ways people have put forward to justify what they believe to be true. But, what (almost) every means of justification has in common is that justification relies on our acquiring information. Whether God’s voice, sensory perception, words on a page, patterns of bones, celestial phenomenon, stories about our ancestors, etc…it’s all information.
Now, there are too many different kinds of information to go into every kind, so I’ll just focus on one of the most important kinds of information: semantic information. Contrasted to sound waves hitting your eardrums or light waves reflected from objects, semantic information is well-formed and meaningful. It’s usually (though not always) information we gather from words. And, believe it or not, the vast majority of the things you believe are believed on the basis of other people’s words. How do you know your own birthday? Did you watch it yourself? How do you know the capital of a country you’ve never visited? How do you know that Donald Trump was elected POTUS? Did you count all the votes yourself? You know these things because you trusted someone’s testimony. Really, most of your beliefs–most of your very sense of identity–comes down to how much trust you put in the testimony you’ve gathered from people, books, magazines, websites, signs, graffiti, whispers, songs, poems, and so on.
Trust is hard. Not everyone who gives us information was careful in how they gathered it. They might give us false information: misinformation. Others may give us false information in order to deceive us: disinformation. Some give us false information in order to manipulate us: they lie to us. Some seek to control us by giving us a biased supply of carefully-selected (true) information mixed with disinformation; we call that propaganda. Other times, when people tell us something, they have no regard for the truth one way or the other; they’re bullshitting us.
All the while, we’re just trying to figure out what the truth is so we know what to believe. Over millennia, some information evaluation methods have become deeply entrenched: superstition, tradition, scriptural evidence, divine revelation, gut feelings, etc. Other information evaluation method have been proposed as replacements: direct observation, empirical experiment, logical inference, etc. We still debate over how to “reason” about the information we gather. But, whether it is the scientist making measurements or the priest consulting scripture, the aim is still the same: we want to know the truth.
And this is where the post-truth era comes in. In a post-truth world, the goal of information gathering is not to maximize true beliefs. The goal is to reaffirm sentiments, feelings, emotions. The very concepts of misinformation, disinformation, lying, and propaganda are irrelevant to the post-truth information gatherer because these concepts all require that we believe that true beliefs are more valuable than false beliefs. That’s what post-truth denies. So, to say that “post-truth is just propaganda” is to misunderstand both. Post-truth is not about the people giving us information. It’s about popular attitudes towards accepting information. Previously, we cared if what were told was true and we developed means (some better than others) of determining who to trust. But, in the post-truth environment, all that matters is how we feel about what we’re told. Truth doesn’t matter. And, by definition, if the truth doesn’t matter, then all we’re left with is bullshit.
Finally, don’t make the common mistakes of thinking that post-truth media consumption is a new phenomenon, or a uniquely right-wing phenomenon, or even a phenomenon rooted in ignorance. It was the rejection of post-truth sophistry that got Socrates sentenced to death, you know. More recently, it was post-truth that motivated Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and Foucault’s post-structuralism and Derrida’s deconstructionism and Rorty’s neo-pragmatism and so on. I mean, it isn’t your right-wing, racist uncle reading Of Grammatology or lining up for the Judith Butler lecture; post-truth understandings of the world have been prominent in intellectual circles for some time. If anything, the current post-truth zeitgeist is nothing more than an affirmation of post-modern sensibilities. I’m not trying to make a blunt “critical theory is why Trump got elected” claim. I don’t think that’s true; post-truth really only applies to a small group of people and even then only to varying degrees. I’m just saying that post-truth media consumption is not considered a problem in some intellectual traditions (e.g., post-structuralism).
Okay. I’m done ranting. My overall point is that if we’re going to address the so-called “post-truth era” then we need to share a common language. We need to understand how information, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and bullshit all play into how people decide what to believe. And we need to understand that post-truth doesn’t care about any of that. And, like I said earlier, post-truth thinking isn’t even an all or nothing deal. Almost everyone has post-truth moments where they set truth aside in favor of something else (sentiment, feeling, convenience, etc.). We need to acknowledge that post-truth attitudes towards the media and towards expertise and towards politics are what people are really concerned about. That’s a hell of a mindset. How do you convince someone who thinks all media is corrupt, that all politicians are conspiring, that the only thing you can trust is what you already believe, that contradictions don’t matter, or that expertise is based on feeling? I’ve got ideas, but I don’t think ideas alone are going to change things.
Stuff I cited
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
Fallis, D. (2015). What Is disinformation? Library Trends 63(3), 401-426.
Floridi, L. (2015). Semantic conceptions of information. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/information-semantic/