In early June, Matt Wood co-convened a Political Studies Association event with Dr Alfred Moore from Cambridge University on Democracy in a Post-truth Age, looking at different empirical, theoretical and practitioner perspectives on post-truth. The event, funded by the PSA Specialist Groups and hosted by Westminster University, included contributions from academics and journalists.
The main theme of the event was that post-truth, defined as ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief‘ is linked to technological developments like social media, and creates a need to think about other key ideas in politics. It means, for example, we need to rethink the relationship between democracy and knowledge, and the idea of ‘authenticity’, when emotional appeals can be seen as more important to politics than reasoned evidence.
Matt presented new Crick Centre ideas from a new project about ‘algorithmic governance’ on how the influence of algorithms in public and private services like transport and education may mean the public are getting more ‘complacent’ about scientific facts, making them more open to challenge.
Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr also recounted her experience of reporting on Google, Facebook and other tech companies, and their potential influence on Brexit and Donald Trump’s election in the US. Katie Ghose from the Electoral Reform Society also made an impassioned argument for making sure the public are well informed when they cast their vote.
The workshop also produced some theoretical debate about the causes and consequences of post-truth politics. Political Theorist Prof Alan Finlayson (University of East Anglia) argued social media makes it more difficult to make reasoned historical arguments, while Prof Michael Saward (Open University) argued we need to think about what the idea of ‘authenticity’ means to understand the success of politicians like Donald Trump in a post-truth age.
Dr Martin Moore (King’s College London) suggested post-truth isn’t necessarily a new thing, and showed how it originated in traditional notions of political spin, although Alfred Moore argued that even if post-truth isn’t new, it still creates the need to re-think whether democracy and evidence always got together, or not.
Matt Flinders’ new book ‘What Kind of Democracy is This?’ also examines questions about ‘post-truth’. In the collection of short essays published by Policy Press he argues post-truth politics has come about because political disaffection has given way to an era of rising expectations about politics. Prof Flinders suggests the ‘procrustean’ reality of hard decision making has been forgotten in favour of short-term slogans and creating unrealistic expectations, which has culminated in the tendency to ignore facts and evidence.
In September, we will be launching a book on ‘Anti-politics, Depoliticisation and Governance’ that looks at whether politics has become more technocratic in recent times, which also turns on debates about post-truth. For more information on this and other Crick Centre research projects, email firstname.lastname@example.org