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A post-truth world

Posted on by Phillip Lee

Last month, Oxford Dictionaries declared their ‘word of the year’ to be post-truth, defining it as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.”

The issue of where people, in the internet age, obtain their information from is one that has concerned me for many years.  With the increasing prominence of social media giving a voice to anyone, there is a growing trend to use the word expert as a term of insult and their views dismissed based on that fact alone. 

Dr Google (as it became known) placed GPs at the forefront of this trend.  Patients would type their symptoms into the website, often choose the worst-case scenario and then come into the surgery to give the doctor their diagnosis.  Thankfully, in this case, most people accept that nine years of training and years of hands-on experience means that this is one expert whose views are worth listening to.  But this is fast becoming the exception rather than the rule.

The people who put together this newspaper are trained professionals.  They spend years learning how to investigate and verify a story.  But there are now fake news websites whose sole purpose is to disseminate stories that bear no relation to fact.  In other words, they are being paid to lie.  Did the Pope endorse Donald Trump for President?  Of course he didn’t.  But millions of American voters thought he did because one fake news site convinced enough people to repeat the lie on social media.  With more people using social media as their source of news, this is not just worrying, it’s also dangerous.  One post, calling Zika a hoax, was shared over 500,000 times. In comparison, a video from the World Health Organization was only shared 43,000 times.

In his book, The Organized Mind, psychologist Daniel Levitkin, gives an example of a community that wanted to build a passenger airplane from scratch.  To do this they set up a work area in their town and let anyone who, in good faith, thought they could contribute come along and help build the plane – no expertise necessary.  When completed they drew lots for who would pilot the craft.  Would you fly in it? 

Of course, this story is fictional. But it is a close analogue to what Wikipedia does, with its basic principle of equal status for all good faith editors.  Unlike with scientific publications or traditional encyclopaedia, you cannot know if an article has been prepared by an expert in their field or an opinionated amateur.

This is important.  Our children are increasingly using the internet to help them with their education.  They are using social media to obtain their picture of the world.  We all bear responsibility for valuing good information, teaching our young people to do so too, and showing them how to sort the wheat from the chaff.  For their protection, if nothing else, we must fight back against a post-truth world.

 [P.S.  In the interests of fairness, Collins Dictionaries chose Brexit, not post-truth, as their word of the year – but I thought we had heard enough of that for 2016!]

 Merry Christmas and best wishes to you all.