27.2.17

Is the rise of social media the main cause of post-truth?





Voted word of the year in the UK and the US for 2016, “post-truth” is a term that has not left people’s mouths or keyboards. A concept in which feelings trump facts, where truth itself becomes irrelevant, its 2000% spike in usage since 2015 is worrying. Defined as appealing to people’s emotional and personal beliefs instead of objective facts to shape public opinion, post-truth has been very prominent in 2016. The consequences of this are obvious; Brexit and a Trump vote cannot be denied by either side as part of a post-truth era. Yet surely the causes of this phenomenon are still to be debated; one hypothesis being the rise of social media.

Firstly, it is important to make the case that knowledge has not always reached people the way it does today. Living as a young generation in a technology-saturated world at times makes us forget this. Along with new ways of talking to people has come the temptation for sharing opinions, for accessing journalism easily and finding people who are like-minded. In the United States, almost twice as many adults get their news digitally than on print. And this is not in itself a bad thing. People from many different backgrounds have access to news sites and social platforms so they can stay up to date. The youth of today is becoming more involved with politics as it’s only a tap away; the EU referendum turned out more 18-24 year olds than ever. This plurality of voices and involvement sounds so satisfyingly democratic that at times it’s hard to contest.

There are however other aspects to a free-for-all medium that are less enticing. It is easy for any of us to fall under the spell of algorithms; a topic that has sparked debates in the past months. Although you may feel like you have a choice in what you look up, what you read, at times that information is simply handed to you. An example of this is the Facebook algorithm that some said spread biased news and even fake stories. This is an example of “cognitive ease”, a phenomenon of agreeing with what is familiar and not questioning the source of something that “feels” right. We are all guilty of it. As mentioned before, social media connects people. However, this is not simply to your distant family or friends but also people with a similar point of view; creating ecosystems within politics. When news reaches a collective like that and not simply the individual, it is even harder to face it with a critical mind. Additionally, this feeding of post-truth through social media is in no way short of incentives. If something that is untrue but that fires up people is more likely to go viral than an objective story, which would you post? A growing number of fake news sites and stories supports this theory. Nowadays, there is no advantage to being correct.

There is no doubt that news and public opinion will only become more accessible in years to come as social media is nowhere near its end. With this increase in usage comes a need to be responsible with what is shared, or in other words, who you’re giving popularity to. During the EU referendum in Great Britain, the promise of huge sums of money for the NHS was simply blatant misinformation, confirmed by UKIP leader Nigel Farage hours after the decision to leave had been made. His explanation? They lied for “momentum.” And momentum in social media is the easiest thing to create. Suddenly what one person is posting could have a serious impact. You could be promoting dangerous ideas backed by inconsistent facts. Is an era of constant doubting what we want to be entering? And this is definitely a phenomenon that can escalate. One of the dangers of post-truth is the distrust of any “expert” even if supported by evidence. With issues like climate change needing immediate attention, denying it simply to make people feel good is terrifying.


In conclusion, although social media has been a revolutionary aspect in how we share our news, it also has contributed in a big way to the phenomenon of post-truth. What we share and how needs to be taken seriously. Also, a critical mind is crucial as a young voter to make sure we are making the right choices (and turning up to vote in the first place!) A feeling is not enough to go on; politics has always been a dirty business but that has only accentuated. Encouraging the truth is now a tool of democratic rebellion; use it.

by Alice Milton

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