Dishonesty in politics is nothing new; but the manner in which some politicians now lie, and the havoc they may wreak by doing so, are worrying.
WHEN Donald Trump, the Republican presidential hopeful, claimed recently that President Barack Obama “is the founder” of Islamic State and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, the “co-founder”, even some of his supporters were perplexed. Surely he did not mean that literally? Perhaps, suggested Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, he meant that the Obama administration’s rapid pull-out from Iraq “created the vacuum” that the terrorists then filled?
“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” replied Mr Trump. “He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.”
Mr Hewitt, who detests Mr Obama and has written a book denouncing Mrs Clinton’s “epic ambition”, was not convinced. “But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them,” he pushed back.
Again, Mr Trump did not give an inch: “I don’t care. He was the founder. The way he got out of Iraq was, that, that was the founding of ISIS, OK?”
For many observers, the exchange was yet more proof that the world has entered an era of “post-truth politics”. Mr Trump appears not to care whether his words bear any relation to reality, so long as they fire up voters. PolitiFact, a fact-checking website, has rated more of his statements “pants-on-fire” lies than of any other candidate—for instance his assertion that “inner city crime is reaching record levels”, which plays on unfounded fears that crime rates are rising
The truth is out there
The effectiveness of such tools, the use of such filters and the impact of such sites depends on people making the effort to seek them out and use them. And the nature of the problem—that the post-truth strategy works because it allows people to forgo critical thinking in favour of having their feelings reinforced by soundbite truthiness—suggests that such effort may not be forthcoming. The alternative is to take the power out of users’ hands and recreate the gatekeepers of old. “We need to increase the reputational consequences and change the incentives for making false statements,” says Mr Nyhan of Dartmouth College. “Right now, it pays to be outrageous, but not to be truthful.”
But trying to do this would be a tall order for the cash-strapped remnants of old media. It is not always possible or appropriate for reporters to opine as to what is true or not, as opposed to reporting what is said by others. The courage to name and shame chronic liars—and stop giving them a stage—is hard to come by in a competitive marketplace the economic basis of which is crumbling. Gatekeeping power will always bring with it a temptation for abuse—and it will take a long time for people to come to believe that temptation can be resisted even if it is.
But if old media will be hard put to get a new grip on the gates, the new ones that have emerged so far do not inspire much confidence as an alternative. Facebook (which now has more than 1.7 billion monthly users worldwide) and other social networks do not see themselves as media companies, which implies a degree of journalistic responsibility, but as tech firms powered by algorithms. And putting artificial intelligence in charge may be a recipe for disaster: when Facebook recently moved to automate its “trending” news section, it promoted a fake news story which claimed that Fox News had fired an anchor, Megyn Kelly, for being a “traitor”.