‘ Facts ‘ hold a sacred place in any liberal democracy. Whenever a democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to ‘ facts’ for salvation. However, the problem is that the experts and agencies involved in producing facts have multiplied, and many are now for hire. If you really want to find an expert willing to endorse a fact, and have sufficient money or political clout behind you, you probably can. The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.
‘ Post-truth ‘ was selected the 2016 ‘word of the year’ by the Oxford Dictionaries and is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Post-truth politics everywhere has a fundamental common denominator: it appeals to emotions and gut feeling more than facts and evidence. Skewed news and conspiracy theories can go viral in a matter of hours, creating alternate realities with alternate ‘ facts’ that serve propaganda purposes. Nowhere is this more evident than with India’s latest demonetisation drive, which plunged the country into severe crisis according to some or is only a small pain for the greater good according to the other. The BJP, the Congress, and the CPI (M) have all engaged shamelessly in post truth politics presenting such alternate ‘facts’ that serve to fuel propaganda. We saw erudite politicians on all sides of the political divide such as Arun Jaitley, Sitaram Yechury, Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh engage in it by hurling half-baked ‘economic data ‘ at one another. Even intelligentia and technocrats on either sides were unable to restrain themselves from the temptation of engaging in post-truth politics. While Arvind Virmani (economist and former Indian representative to the IMF) and Surjit S Bhalla (senior India analyst, the observatory group, a New York-based macro policy advisory group) eulogized the demonetization drive calling it ‘bold step’ and ‘biggest reform ‘, Kaushik Basu (ex- senior vice-president and chief economist of the World Bank) and Amartya Sen (nobel laureate and economist) called it ‘a despotic act` and ‘authoritarian`. With name calling around the corner – if you are pro-demonetisation, you are patriotic but not liberal; and if you are against it, you are liberal but not patriotic ! – either way you are in for a fix. Thus the public discourse of politics in India is increasingly becoming a fractured one. The self-proclaimed Hindutva agents and the self-righteous secularists of India both despicably engage in post-truth politics and there have been violent disagreements over ‘truth and facts ’ on everything from ‘surgical strikes’ to ‘demonetisation’, from ‘beef lynching’ to ‘ Gauri Lankesh’ – the public is supposed to consume these reports although they are not expected to have a judgment on their veracity !!. Ironically this post-truth world of lies and deception is supported and made possible through assertions of one truth or the other. Each party bases their lies on claims that they are speaking the truth while their opponent is lying! Thus not only is there a cynical use of lying, there is also a cynical use of truth to ground these lies — this is the contemporary condition which has been to a large extent caused as much by media and technology as by a fall in standards of public probity.
This dichotomy of India’s current post-truth experience was nicely summed up by Arun Shourie, an influential former minister from BJP – Shourie said the policies of the current administration were equal to its predecessors’ policies, plus a cow. While another eminent Parlimentarian, Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M) during his departure speech in the Rajya Sabha cautions – post-truth politics is “not Indian reality” and should be shunned. Looking at the theatre of politics around us today, it is difficult not to give in to a sense of cynicism. Perhaps more than any other theme in contemporary politics, it is the prevalence of lies that characterises the current condition. This is not restricted to the multiplicity of lies that define Indian elections; the climate of blatant lies has entered into the way politics itself is conducted across India today. Therefore, however whichever way one looks at it post-truth is a threat to liberal democratic institutions and simultaneously exposes the vulnerability of the liberal order per se. It is also a symptom of a greater problem, which is accountability in society , media and the online community. Conspiracy theories prosper under such conditions. And while we will have far greater means of knowing how many people believe those theories, we will have far fewer means of persuading them to abandon them.
So what is the way forward ? Tackling the serious challenge of propaganda requires stronger action by governments and private actors alike. States and digital companies must immediately implement better systems for fact-checking. This is, to some extent, already underway in some parts of the world and it needs to be pursued more vigorously in India. Ahead of its elections in 2017, Germany is taking action unilaterally to prevent misinformation aiming to distort public opinion. Following false stories such as that its oldest church was set alight by a mob, Germany asked Facebook to introduce a fake news filtering tool. Aside from state initiatives, some other types of actors, such as non-state or non-profit entities, have also expressed interest in using verification tools, such as Check (which is a platform for collaborative verification of content on digital media) or the analyses of Pew Research Centre ( a non-partisan fact tank). While complete fact-checking on the internet will remain an utopia, ways to counter the epidemic of post-truth needs to be constantly explored. Further individual citizens must also come to the enlightment that no politician, political party or governmental policy is either black or white, but is very gray and we need to overcome our compulsions to go along with the popular mob-narratives. There is never going to be a single solution to the rise of bullshit, and different players in the information ecosystem will respond to the same things in different ways. We cannot build a solution which relies on good faith of everyone involved: We need to start from the politics and the media that we have. So proposals that rely on asking media outlets to reinvent their business model, or require millions of people who don’t pay for news to spontaneously start, are doomed – independent verification of alternate narratives by government agencies and private actors alike are the only way forward.
We have to tackle post-truth poltics: a shared sense of reality, a counter to conspiracies, and some basic consensus – a truly post-truth India will be in our best of interest.