I remember being shocked, in my first course on political philosophy at UC Berkeley, when my renowned professor – whom I will not name – concluded his remarks on Plato’s negative view of democracy by saying that Plato’s misgivings anticipated deviations like how the American people were growing “too stupid to be governed democratically”.
The point my professor was making presupposed that politicians, being politicians, routinely try to take advantage of members of the electorate by telling voters what they want to hear rather than what they should know. But the force of his point was that the American voter was increasingly accepting politicians’ embellished and misinforming contentions. At the time I thought my professor was exaggerating to provoke responses, but decades later I came to feel he was ahead of his time in recognising developments that are only now becoming evident. This feeling was prompted by the surprising success of the fanciful claims and far-fetched promises Donald Trump made as a presidential candidate, and public acceptance of the inconsistent, ill-informed, and straightforwardly false statements he makes as president in his speeches and incessant tweets.
My professor’s point has recently been echoed by a number of journalists, political commentators, and academics. One notable early example was Steve Tesich’s “A Government of Lies”, an article published in 1992 in The Nation and believed to be the source of the term “post-truth”. In his article, Tesich berates Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan for telling the people what they wanted to hear instead of being honest with them. Tesich focuses on politicians’ contentions, but underlying and prompting his castigation of politicians is his perceptive understanding that members of the electorate too-readily accepted Nixon and Reagan’s aggrandisements and prevarications when those prevarications and aggrandisements were in line with their own views and desires.
Since 1992, the public’s acceptance of politicians’ contentions has grown markedly, and prompted some disturbing side-effects. One is that acceptance of Trump’s contentions is working to cement people’s biases. In a September 2016, editorial, The Economist rightly argued that Trump’s speeches and tweets are deliberately intended and serve “to reinforce prejudices”. What underlies this is that trading on today’s sharper division between Left and Right – a division sharpened partly by his presidential campaign and behaviour as president – and recognising the nature of his supportive base, Trump caters to his supporters in two controversial ways. He promises his supporters what they want and heaps praise on them. He also not too subtly legitimates their biases with ambiguous references to and descriptions of certain groups and events. He did this, for instance, in his remarks about there being good people on both sides when he referred to an alarming protest march by white supremacists.
Trump’s tactics are not difficult to understand. They are tactics familiar in the rise of autocrats. What is difficult to understand is how his tactics have worked as well as they have in the short span of the couple of years of his campaign and presidency. Why has the public’s acceptance of political contentions, their credulity, grown so quickly? The answer is complex, and I want to focus on what I believe to be the most important contributing causal factor rather than try to cover too much in this short article. The factor in question is an historically very recent one: widespread use of social media.
To begin with, consider the scope of social-media use. An April 2018, Zephoria Digital Marketing report reveals that among social-media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and others, Facebook, by itself, has 1.15 billion active daily users. And it has roughly twice that number of active monthly users. Other social-media sites have fewer users, but some of those numbers are still in the millions. Twitter, for example, has more than 330 million users. Snapchat has upwards of 180 million users. That is a lot of people posting on social-media sites and, more immediately relevant to what follows, a lot of people reading and “sharing” postings.
There are two related aspects to the significance of the scope of social-media use regarding the question of the public’s growing acceptance of political contentions. The first aspect is that use of social media, unlike equally much-used smartphone messaging, is not mainly communication among individuals known to one another. Use of social media is primarily users expressing or venting their views on everything imaginable to an anonymous audience. Moreover, a very large proportion of postings, if not most, are not backed up with corroborating data or are naïve, ill-informed, implausible, or preposterous. Additionally, interspersed among genuine postings are an apparently growing number of postings that are deliberately false. The second aspect is that access to social media is basically unrestricted. Ordinarily, anyone who can log on to social-media sites can read postings and enter their own postings by satisfying the minimal requirement of providing a name and an email address. Additionally, aside from the somewhat tolerant and usually slow censoring of explicitly racial and obscene postings, there is no management of what users post. There are no mechanisms to assess expertise, authority, or simply good sense regarding who contributes postings or the contents of postings.
Rather than those operating social-media sites questioning their too-permissive practices, they profess impartiality. They consider postings to be expressions of personal opinion, and as such, every posting is deemed to be on the same level as every other posting. Impartiality supposedly justifies the lack of checks on the veracity or source-bases of postings and, in the case of photos and videos posted, any attempt to differentiate between authentic contents and Photoshopped creations. Freedom of expression and the alleged sanctity of personal opinion preclude the imposition of any form of order on postings other than time and date of entry.
We have, then, social media offering users open access to an immense audience with virtually no restrictions on who posts or their postings’ contents. On the other side, we have members of that vast audience absorbing and able to repeat or “share” whatever postings catch their attention. But disturbing though it is, in practical terms all of this amounts only to the ready availability of extraordinarily numerous true and false postings. How does this availability contribute to increasing public credulity regarding politicians’ contentions?
The answer is that we are witnessing social media fostering, if not causing, a profound attitudinal change regarding the grounds for acceptance of political contentions. To better understand what is happening, we need to briefly consider what Michel Foucault called “regimes of truth” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings.
Foucault’s view of truth was wholly relativistic. He rejected the conception of truth as the property of statements accurately describing actual, past and present states-of-affairs. Contrary to this objectivist conception, Foucault conceived of truth as relative to societal standards and practices, as a property of statements that meet diverse evaluatory conditions of use. To paraphrase the pivotal formulation given in Power/Knowledge, every society has its own regime of truth or the sorts of statements that are accepted and function as true; every society has methods to differentiate true and false statements; every society has ways of recognising sanctioned statements; every society has procedures that are valued in the acquisition of truth; and every society has authorities who regulate what counts as true.
What must be added to the foregoing five points is that regimes of truth are now determined to a quite substantial degree by something Foucault did not live to witness: present-day use of social media. What social media have added to the determination of regimes of truth is provision of access to others’ opinions on an enormous scale. Foucault would have certainly included expression, reiteration, and absorption of opinions on social media as determinants of regimes of truth. All five of the determinants Foucault listed are conditioned by use of social media, but the determinant that stands out in consideration of how social media contribute to credulity regarding political contentions is the second: differentiation of truth and falsity. In a word, social media have changed how political contentions are deemed to be true or false. This is my main point: true and false political contentions are now differentiated, not through efforts at corroboration, but on the basis of shared opinion.
Shared opinion has effectively replaced corroboration with facts regarding the acceptability of what politicians contend. Putting the point very simply, individuals inclined to believe political contentions because of their own views and preferences are more and more finding satisfactory confirmation of those contentions in others’ acceptance of them. The basis of this inclination is an age-old human tendency to rely on and emulate communal attitudes, but social media have strongly intensified this tendency and significantly expanded the range of what stimulates it.
As a consequence of the new authority of shared opinion, facts now are not mind-independent states-of-affairs against which opinions may be measured. Facts now simply are shared opinions. This is the core of our post-truth time: Cartesian and Kantian or modern objectivism has given way to postmodern relativism. The initial absurdity of Kellyanne Conway’s reference to “alternative facts” in defence of Trump’s misrepresentations nicely illustrates the practical side of this intellectual development. Conway was not referring to facts as normally understood, as independent states-of-affairs; she was talking about alternative shared opinions.
The deplorable conclusion that seems unavoidable is that increased credulity regarding politicians’ contentions is due to voters in particular and people in general no longer relating those contentions to actual or possible states-of-affairs. Instead, politicians’ contentions either coincide with or prompt shared opinions and are commended and endorsed, or they conflict with shared opinions and are spurned and dismissed. Either way, voters in particular and people in general are taking consensus as corroboration.
The role now played by shared opinion has another unfortunate side to it. In an April 2018, article in The New York Times, Amanda Taub and Max Fisher described an instance of malevolent use of Facebook. Titled “Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook is a Match”, the article describes how false postings on Facebook “set Buddhist against Muslim in Sri Lanka”, causing violent attacks, bombings, and many deaths. Part of what Fisher and Taub see as Facebook’s impact is that many postings encourage us-and-them thinking by “tapping into users’ desire to belong”. This effect is certainly not limited to Facebook. It is operant in use of all social-media sites, and it is an effect of particular consequence with respect to political contentions. To take an obvious example, Trump supporters who read and reiterate his endless tweets and accept his demonstrably false claims, such as about the number of attendees at his inauguration, do so to a great extent because they consider themselves members of a group with progressive, anti-establishment political views. Encouragement of us-and-them thinking amounts to shared opinion imposing a kind of identity, a collective distinctiveness the valuing of which reduces individuals’ perspicacity and judgment. The result is a politically dangerous trend that The Economist called “groupthink” in its July 2017, “Special Report on Trump’s America”.
What we need to recognise is that shared opinion, now supported by social media to a formidable extent, has become a major determinant of our regime of truth. In becoming so, shared opinion is in effect fostering a kind of socio-psychological sectarianism, a sectarianism that amounts to a form of tribalism. To return to my professor’s point, it is very regrettable, but Plato’s misgivings about democracy do apply to contemporary developments. There is now a real danger that sectarianism will undermine the democratic process. Sectarianism or groupthink prevents democracy from working by making voters rely on shared opinion to make and validate their electoral choices. Admittedly, corroborating politicians’ contentions is harder now. There is no doubt that television stations, newspapers, and magazines have polarised politically to a significant degree. But what this polarisation calls for is more extensive and judicious reading of and listening to various sources of information, not greater reliance on shared opinion.
Boosted and enhanced as it now is by social media, shared opinion poses a very grave problem for democracy in our time. Greater and largely unreflective reliance on shared opinion regarding political goings-on and the making of electoral decisions promises to take us down the road to autocracy. What The Economist called “groupthink” has always been a dangerous element in politics and government, but it is now enormously more so, thanks to unceasing presentation on social media of uncorroborated but appealing opinions: opinions the sharing of which offers inviting fellowship at the cost of short-circuiting intelligent, reflective political choices made on the basis of properly examined data.