Ten alternative facts for the post truth world
From Nineteen Eighty-Four and Malcolm Tucker to Vote Leave and Donald Trump playing fast and loose with the truth has moved from fiction to real life
A word on definition: post truth is emphatically not the same as lies, spin and falsehood. What is new is not mendacity but the publics response to it the growing primacy of emotional resonance over fact and evidence, the replacement of verification with social media algorithms that tell us what we want to hear. Truth is losing its value as societys reserve currency, and legitimate scepticism is yielding place to pernicious relativism.
Here, as a primer, are 10 classic examples of post truth, past and present.
1. Alternative facts
On the morning after Donald Trumps inauguration in January, Sean Spicer, the new White House press secretary, called a special press conference and insisted belligerently that this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe. The crowd in photographs of Barack Obamas 2009 inauguration looked larger, he claimed, because of new white floor coverings laid on the National Mall that had the effect of highlighting areas where people were not standing, while in years past, the grass eliminated this visual.
As angry as Spicer and his boss might be, their position was hilariously unsustainable. It fell to Kellyanne Conway, senior aide to the president, to find some way of squaring the epistemological circle, of reconciling bogus claim with photographic evidence. On NBCs Meet the Press the next day, Conway told Chuck Todd that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation: Dont be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. Youre saying its a falsehood […] Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.
2. 350m for the NHS
The promise that the weekly cost of EU membership allegedly, 350m would be ploughed into the NHS was front and centre in the Vote Leave campaign. For a start, the figure did not take account of the rebate received by Britain: its net contribution per week to the EU was closer to 250m. Having pointed out the error, the UK Statistics Authority declared itself disappointed to note that there continue to be suggestions that the UK contributes 350m to the EU each week, and that this full amount could be spent elsewhere.
Four days after the referendum, Chris Grayling, the then leader of the House of Commons, downgraded the promise to an aspiration. Iain Duncan Smith, another prominent Brexiter, also distanced himself from the hitherto unambiguous claim: I never said that during the course of the election [sic]. Dominic Cummings, the campaigns director, has admitted: Would we have won without 350m/NHS? All our research and the close result strongly suggests no. But the speed with which the pledge was dumped indicates that it was never likely to be honoured. To borrow a distinction often made by Trumps supporters, it was evidently a mistake to take the Leave campaign literally rather than seriously.