Donald Trump has changed the rules of politics and challenged the whole basis of strategic communication, with his disregard for facts and evidence. Trump is not the first politician to succeed by getting away with some distortion, but he has put blatant falsehood at the centre of his strategy for capturing the most important democratic position in the world. So it is no longer possible to say that strategic communication – in politics – has to respect facts and reject knowing falsehood, or pay the price in defeat.
It is the speed of social media that has made the Trump technique possible, of instantly setting the agenda by bewildering opponents and reducing old-fashioned fact-based journalism to flat-footed irrelevance.
The paradox of social media is that its miraculous potential for free speech and open minds has given strength to narrow minds and hatefulness. Some social media outlets regard facts as whatever you want to believe. False or distorted news echoes round them, and the more people react, like them, post angry comments about them, the more their readers believe this is the truth because the volume the internet traffic gives falsehoods the credibility of quantity. The sheer quantity of this internet traffic seems to its consumers to be a validation of what they are reading.
So we are seeing on one hand the development of a news environment in which people can believe what they want to believe, with blind faith, not critical judgement, and on the other we have a new breed of politicians led by the US President, who feed the conspiracies and the falsehoods, and the fears and the hatred, and presumably believe what they believe with as much fervour as the millions of consumers of sites like Breitbart and Infowars.
We have a philosophical and practical problem here: where do we draw the line between true and false, between fair comment and disinformation, between reality and hallucination, between all the complexities and ambiguities of life as it really is, and the brutal simplicities of life as misleadingly described by this new political language?
If there are no truths, only opinions;
if authenticity is no more than believing what you say at the time when you say it;
if credibility is getting others to believe whatever they want to believe in the blizzard of aggressive tweeting and fake news on Facebook and Infowars;
then does strategic communication need to be defined as saying whatever works?
In other words, is dishonesty the only way to fight dishonesty?
Or can we have faith that the majority of people will see through what is verifiably untrue?
There cannot be a healthy society which doesn’t agree a consensus on what is basically true, and what is arguable, and what is demonstrably false. That’s the basis of democratic politics.
We are in danger of slipping into a black hole of undemocratic disrespect for the views of others. Once you accept that nothing is true, that everything is relative, that there are no facts, then any opinion however outrageous or fact-free is as valid as the most thoroughly researched and tested evidence. If there is nothing to judge arguments by, except sound and fury, then democratic choice gets lost amid the noise.
The Oxford Dictionaries, which have declared ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year, define it as ‘…circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’
This seriously under-estimates the problem. A better word than ‘post-truth’ is ‘anti-factual’. Post-truth sounds like a natural process, which cannot be resisted. It can and must be resisted. Trumpism is a declared war on reality, and non-partisan citizens of the real world need to respond to the challenge; or we will find that nothing is true or false, and all we have left are the credibility of quantity and the authenticity of anger.
Language is the most fundamental accomplishment of humankind. It has made all our other achievements possible. We must not allow it to be misused by the enemies of free thinking.
The battle is about more than words, about something even more important than facts, it is about the values that bind our culture. Trumpism rejects the values of respect on which democracy is based – respect for opponents, respect for other views, respect for facts and evidence. With its allies in Russia and among Europe’s extremists, it will put ignorance above intelligence, abuse above expertise, establishing the rule of intolerance, unless it is resisted with plain speaking and accurate facts.