Propaganda in the Age of Post-Truth: The Evolution of Political Deception

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“Post-truth” was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016. It was meant to put a name to what felt like a new and alarming trend in political discourse taking hold in the West.[1] Facts seemed to suddenly be deprived of their former importance. Conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” became mainstream everywhere from online chat rooms to the White House press room. Brexit and Trump’s win in the 2016 election, complete with the lies, divisive social-media campaigns, and populist impulses that brought them into being, seemed to signal a paradigm shift in British and American politics. The era of truth had given way to one of post-truth. In the chaos and frenzy of 2016, it felt like a surreal shock that no one could have seen coming. In hindsight, it is clear that the seeds of the turn to post-truth had been planted long before 2016, and they had already begun to sprout in other parts of the world.

Post-Truth in Intellectual History

Marci Shore, an Associate Professor of History at Yale University, argues that this pivot towards post-truth, this rejection of the power and even existence of truth itself, actually has its roots in the Western epistemological tradition.

Prior to the enlightenment and the beginning of “modernity,” God had served as the answer to the ultimate epistemological question of “how do I know what is true?” Things were true because God said it was so or because the existence of God meant that it must be so, and that was that. But as Enlightenment thinkers began to search for a rational or scientific answer to the epistemological question, they were stymied again and again, or their conclusions were found to be insufficient in one way or another. Eventually, Western epistemology began to give up on finding an answer, and thus postmodernity began. As Professor Shore explains, “If modernity was the attempt to replace God, postmodernity began when we gave up on replacing God, when we accepted that there was neither a God nor a viable surrogate.”[2] Yet if God could not guarantee the existence of objective truth, and we could not find any viable replacement, any other mechanism by which we could be sure that what we perceived to be real was real or even that there was some objective truth to pursue, what was there to support the concept of objective truth? Thinkers of the postmodern tradition, such as deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, thoroughly played out the implications of this transition. As historian Tony Judt wrote, postmodern theory rejected “not just old certainties but the very possibility of certainty itself.”[3]

From a present-day perspective, undercutting the idea of truth would clearly work to the advantage of authoritarian leaders, but this was not always the case. At the time of their conception, these post-modern ideas were seen as direct rejection of the uncompromising claims to truth by totalitarian regimes. The postmodern denial of any claim to absolute truth was thus seen as a crucial defense against the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. As Professor Shore explains, “A refusal of all claims to absolute truth was meant to protect us from totalitarian terror. Deconstruction, Derrida insisted, had always represented ‘the least necessary condition for identifying and combating the totalitarian risk.’”[4] So how, then, could a system of thought that had once so perfectly run against totalitarianism now come to support it? The answer is that the nature of propaganda and political lies changed to adapt to the postmodern world, and it was Putin’s Russia that led this charge.

The Postmodern Political Lie

Hannah Arendt, one of the most respected political philosophers of all time, argued that the defining characteristic of the modern political lie of the 20th century, most prominently those Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, though also the totalitarian communist states of Eastern Europe, was how it sought to not just change reality, but entirely supplant it. These modern political lies did not just hide secrets but could “deal efficiently with things that are not secrets at all but are known to practically everybody.”[5] As Arendt writes, they “require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture–the making of another reality, as it were, into which they will fit without seam, crack, or fissure, exactly as the facts fitted into their own original context.”[6] Thus, the modern political lies of the 20th century sought to create large, overarching meta-narratives that circumscribed the sum total of what was true in the societies that they controlled. Under this scheme, with this kind of lie as the enemy, it is clear how an ideology that attacked claims to absolute truth would be useful. Modern propagandists, however, have given up on this old model and invented something newer and far more effective. Rather than seeking to create a grand meta-narrative that can explain everything, modern authoritarians seek to destroy the concept of truth itself, making it impossible to explain anything, and possible to deny everything.

Peter Pomerantsev, a British journalist born in Soviet Ukraine, began his career as a television producer in Russia but has since published two books explaining the rise of this new model of propaganda in the era of post-truth. In his second book, This is not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, he explains how one innovation of the modern propagandists uses the sheer productivity and communicative powers of the internet to their advantage. As Camille Francois, a scholar of cyber-warfare at Harvard University, explains, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, it is almost impossible for authoritarian regimes to prevent the spread of information, so rather than trying to suppress dissenters from spreading facts that could undermine the regime, regimes simply drown them out. This can be accomplished in a couple of ways. One method, which Pomerantsev explains, is called “white jamming.” The idea is to “surround audiences with so much cynicism about anybody’s motives, persuade them that behind every seemingly benign motivation is a nefarious, if impossible-to-prove, plot, that they lose faith in the possibility of an alternative.” Spreading conspiracy theories plays an important role in this strategy.[7] In another tactic, Francois explains that “social media mobs and cyber-militias harassed, smeared and intimidated dissenting voices into silence, or undermined their reputation so that no one would listen to them.”[8] Ultimately, the goal behind both of these tactics, and many more that modern propagandists employ, is to undermine public faith in the truth.

Pomerantsev’s first book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, shows the extent to which these tactics have already been at work in Russia, and the widespread erosion of truth that has followed. He describes a widespread cynicism, both among his coworkers in the TV industry and in the rest of the country at large. “My Moscow peers,” he writes, “are filled with a sense that they are both cynical and enlightened.”[9] They decry claims to truth in every form, whether they are the appeals to democracy of Soviet-era dissidents or modern Western claims to “human rights” and “freedom.” “Everything is PR,” they claim.[10]

This attitude has real consequences. The belief that everything is equally untrue leads to devastating false equivalences. Pomerantsev’s coworkers, for instance, argue that Britain is at least as corrupt and dishonest as Russia, an allegation that is not only completely untrue but releases both Putin and the British government from any accountability.[11] So too does entertaining the notion of “alternative facts.” The very idea that there can be “alternative facts” contradicts the central idea of what a fact is, that it is an objective, and thus indisputable, statement about what has happened. It is less important that leaders like Putin and Trump control the truth and more important that they degrade it, abuse it so thoroughly that people give up any hope of finding the real truth, or even that it exists at all. When this happens, these leaders can escape accountability, and thus gain near-complete power.

In Pomerantsev’s second book, This is not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, he extends his analysis beyond Russia to the rest of the world. Troublingly, he finds these same strategies in use from the Philipines, to Mexico, to Estonia.[12] This attack on truth has quickly become a global phenomenon and will require an equally global solution.

Solutions and Rebuttals

Not everyone agrees that this era of post-truth is novel. Yuval Noah Harari, the bestselling author of books such as Sapiens and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, argues that humans have always lived in an era of post-truth. Since the dawn of history, communities have used myths such as religions, fables, and the value of money to cooperate, and governments have always molded the truth to suit their means. The phrase “post-truth” is misleading, as there has never really been an age of “truth.”[13] Yet while the myths that Harari describes were not necessarily factually based, they still had some degree of consistency. Christianity, for instance, maintained the same basic set of principles for thousands of years. Yet in our current age of post-truth, leaders like Putin do not want to create new myths for the unperceiving to follow. Instead, they want to destroy truth and fiction alike. Their goal is to make people question not only which myth might be real, but doubt that anything ever could be real. If Harari’s thesis that these myths are what have allowed humans to cooperate for millennia is correct, then an attack on the very concept of truth or myth itself is not a continuation of a previous pattern but a destruction of the system itself.

Harari’s analysis does lead to an important question, however, about the potential solution to this crisis of truth. If humans have never really lived in a true age of truth, where do we go from here? Surely bringing God back to explain everything is not an attractive option, nor is resulting to any number of old and outdated traditions. But, if we have destroyed all of our most important myths, what can we lean on next? It seems that the era of post-truth will endure until we can find something new and truly revolutionary to answer the epistemological question. Finding this answer and solving the problem of propaganda in the age of post-truth will be one of the defining challenges of our generation, and the stakes could not be higher. The Kremlin’s experiments to date have already led to great divisions in the US over election security and a full-fledged and deadly war in Ukraine. The problem is here and demands a solution.


References

[1] “‘Post-Truth’ Declared Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries,” BBC News, November 16, 2016, sec. UK, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-37995600.

[2] Marci Shore, “A Pre-History of Post-Truth,” Public Seminar, September 1, 2017, https://publicseminar.org/2017/09/a-pre-history-of-post-truth/.

[3] Shore.

[4] Shore.

[5] Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 223–59.

[6] Arendt.

[7] Peter Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019).

[8] Pomerantsev.

[9] Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014).

[10] Pomerantsev.

[11] Pomerantsev.

[12] Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.

[13] “Yuval Noah Harari Extract: ‘Humans Have Always Lived in the Age of Post-Truth. We’re a Post-Truth Species,’” the Guardian, August 5, 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/aug/05/yuval-noah-harari-extract-fake-news-sapiens-homo-deus.

Author

liam.will@yale.edu