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.

3. Pizzagate

Hillary Clinton subject of ludicrous claims. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

Conspiracy theories thrive in the new age of post truth often with dangerous consequences. In December, a phony report alleging that Hillary Clinton was at the heart of a paedophile conspiracy persuaded 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch from Salisbury, North Carolina, to self-investigate the ludicrous claims by firing shots from an assault rifle in a Washington DC pizza parlour. The restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, had been falsely associated with the story, itself comprehensively debunked before Welchs attack. Death threats were received by the owner and staff, unwitting victims of the so-called Pizzagate allegations. It is worth noting that Michael Flynn, briefly Trumps national security adviser, had tweeted that the stories connecting Clinton with Sex crimes w/Children were a MUST READ. As tempting as it is to dismiss fake news as the staple diet of the fringe, it has enthusiastic consumers at the very apex of power.

4. Holohoax horrors

The most vile manifestation of post truth has been the reinvigoration of Holocaust denial, especially online. Google searches on the subject are rewarded by headlines such as Holocaust Against Jews is a Total Lie Proof; Is the Holocaust a Hoax?; Was there really a Holocaust?; THE HOLOCAUST AND THE FOUR MILLION VARIANT; How the Holocaust was faked; and Jewish Scholar Refutes The Holocaust. There could scarcely be a more brutal reminder that algorithms, in their current form, are indifferent to veracity.

5. Reality is not external

John Hurt as Winston Smith in George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four. Photograph: RONALD GRANT

George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four is the Ur-text for all those confronted by post truth, and it is heartening that the dystopian classic rose to the top of Amazons charts days after Conway urged Americans to embrace alternative facts. In his interrogation of Winston Smith, the Inner Party oligarch, OBrien, warns that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else .Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.

Winston still objects that the party has no mastery over gravity, climate, disease or death: OBrien silenced him by a movement of his hand. We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature.

6. The University of Google

Increasingly, scientific evidence is proving no match for emotionalism and the charisma of celebrity. In 2007, the model and television personality Jenny McCarthy, whose son Evan is autistic, appeared on Oprah Winfreys show to take a stand on vaccination. Against the full might of the scientific establishment, she pitted her mommy instinct. Challenged to produce her own evidence, she said: My science is named Evan, and hes at home. Thats my science. In the course of the controversy, doctors had often complained that the web had digitally turbo-charged false science. McCarthy turned this allegation on its head. The University of Google is where I got my degree from, she declared.

The guru of the anti-vaccination movement Andrew Wakefield though discredited and stripped of his medical licence has grasped that, in the strange alchemy of our times, academic infamy can be the basis for a celebrity of sorts: a means of relaunching his campaign and career. In April 2016, his movie, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe withdrawn from the Tribeca film festival was shown in Manhattan for the first time amid much hoopla and controversy.

Drenched in often clumsy appeals to emotion, the film hinges on the story of the so-called CDC whistleblower Dr William Thompson, a scientist at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thompson, as the film relates, fed Brian Hooker, a biochemical engineer and father of an autistic son, with reams of data that Hooker who had no training in epidemiology subjected to his own personal analysis. He claimed that the CDC had known all along that there was a link between MMR and autism, especially among African American men, but had concealed this information. In fact, Hooker had committed elementary statistical errors, and his report was retracted by the journal that had published it. But Vaxxed simply repeats the allegations, presenting Hooker as the David who took on the Goliath of the health industry, and Wakefield as the oracular prophet vindicated.

7. Its a pageant

Wag the Dog The power of politically manipulated technology to obliterate reality. Photograph: www.ronaldgrantarchive.com

The power of politically manipulated technology to obliterate reality was perfectly predicted in Wag the Dog, Barry Levinsons movie satire of 1997, which describes the pageant of a fictional war invented to distract attention from a presidential sex scandal. The political fixer, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) approaches a Hollywood mogul, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to produce the military pageant of an imaginary conflict with Albania:

Conrad: You watched the Gulf war what do you see day after day? The one smart bomb falling down the chimney. The truth? I was in the building when we shot that shot we shot in a studio, Falls Church, Virginia. One-tenth scale model of a building.

Stanley: Is that true?

Conrad: How the fuck do we know? You take my point?

Later in the story, Conrad is dismayed when the CIA conspires with the presidents electoral opponent to declare the nonexistent war at an end. But the producer is not so easily dissuaded:

Conrad: Its over. I saw it on television.

Stanley: The wars not over. No, the war isnt over.

Conrad: I saw it on TV.

Stanley: No, this is what you hired me for. No, the war isnt over until I say its over. This is my picture. This is not the CIAs picture.

What the two men are arguing about is not reality, but a competition between two fictions. They are talking about post truth.

8. I have a very good memory

At a 2015 campaign rally in Birmingham, Alabama, Trump declared: I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. This was a complete falsehood. But Trump simply refused to acknowledge his mendacity. I have a very good memory, Ill tell you, he said when challenged on NBC. I saw it somewhere on television many years ago. And I never forgot it.

9. Tuckers Law

The Thick of It, starring Peter Capaldi, centre, as Malcolm Tucker the essence of post truth. Photograph: BBC/Mike Hogan/BBC

In the very first episode of The Thick of It in 2005, Armando Iannucci and Jesse Armstrong captured the essence of post truth. Malcolm Tucker is explaining to the besieged minister, Hugh Abbot, how to turn the tanker of a potentially damaging story:

Hugh: What, erm … What are we going do now?

Malcolm: Youre going to completely reverse your position.

Hugh: Look, no, hang on a second. Hang on, Malcolm. Its not actually that, erm thats going to be quite hard, really.

Malcolm: Yes, well, the announcement that you didnt make today you did.

Hugh: No, no, I didnt. And there were television cameras there while I was not doing it.

Malcolm: Fuck them.

Hugh: Im not quite sure how what level of reality Im supposed to be operating on.

Malcolm: Look, this is what they run with. I tell them that you said it, they believe that you said it. They dont really believe you said it they know that you never said it.

Hugh: Right.

Malcolm: But its in their interests to say you said it because if they dont, theyre not going to get what you say tomorrow or the next day when I decide to tell them what it is youre saying.

What Malcolm describes to Hugh is the pernicious contract that lies at the heart of post truth.

10. Birthers and the backfire effect

The furore over Barack Obamas place of birth was first whipped up by supporters of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, and very publicly exploited by Trump as a pilot exercise for his eventual candidacy. Obamas initial response to the claim that a person born outside the US was not qualified to run for the presidency was to post an image of his short-form birth certificate. In July 2009, the director of Hawaiis department of health confirmed that the presidents full birth records were indeed on file. Finally, in April 2011, Obama published his long-form birth certificate on the White House website.

Case closed? Not a bit of it. Before the publication of this definitive evidence, 45% of US citizens admitted to doubts about Obamas birthplace. After the full certificate was posted, this figure fell but only to 33%. Then, in a startling rejection of the facts, the number began to climb again, reaching 41% in January 2012. According to Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, presenting someone who believes in a conspiracy theory with evidence that it is unfounded can often reinforce his or her belief: the so-called backfire effect. Like an infection resisting anti-biotics, post truth can fend off even incontestable facts.

Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back by Matthew dAncona is published by Ebury (6.99).

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/12/post-truth-worst-of-best-donald-trump-sean-spicer-kellyanne-conway