Post-Truth = Alternative Facts? Propaganda? Or Just Plain Lies?

By Finn Raben, Director General, ESOMAR

This month’s issue of Research World print carries a number of articles that – in my humble opinion – we should “join the dots” from, and take action on!

The first is the opening editorial from Simon Chadwick, wherein he underlines the complexity of media these days, and in particular, the seemingly unstoppable rise of algorithmic programming. For its proponents, such programmatic broadcasting means that individuals’ tastes are being better catered for; for its opponents, this is simply a means for widescale insidious and subliminal messaging.

The second is David Smith’s article entitled: “Slippery Slope”, exploring how our Insights Industry should react to this Post-Truth era. David puts forward a selection of both the potential positive and negative effects of the “post-truth” era, but on reading through these effects, it soon becomes clear that experiences to-date demonstrate that the negative effects have outweighed the positive.

“Alternative facts” is not a new ‘thing’; many governments – irrespective of whether they are dictatorships or democracies – often manipulate facts and messages. Such manipulation is sometimes conducted in the name of the ‘common good’, at other times it is deployed simply to prolong or protect the ruling power, but the common denominator is that this messaging is always emotion-based, rather than fact-based.

This then forms the segue to the third article – Simon Chadwick’s reflection on David’s piece. Regular readers of this blog – and indeed Research World – will recognise that over the past few years, we have regularly commented on the rise of the “opinion culture”, and that we now live in an era that legitimises putting opinions into the public domain with little reflection on their veracity, or the implications of offering them.

The extraordinary ease with which such commentary can be made public – facilitated by the explosion in social media, and further supported by broadcast media – means the corresponding “duty of care” in establishing provenance, applying due diligence/rigour, providing evidence and reporting responsibly, have also become exponentially more important….but is this happening in real life?

As researchers, we are all too aware of the power of emotion-driven messaging; indeed entire businesses and methodologies have been founded on understanding and measuring what Daniel Kahnemann refers to as System 1 thinking – how people make instant judgment calls based on their emotional and intuitive frames of reference. The very nature of global, instant social media, which favors short, simple messaging, often results in quite complex situations being viewed from one, popular and over-simplified perspective – an extremely attractive proposition for our System 1 thinking, and a remarkably effective lever in disseminating an alternative truth.

As Simon points out in his reflection, post-truth can only take hold of audiences – or indeed society as a whole – with the complicity of the many. Alternative facts actively discourage validated provenance, supporting evidence or incorporating rigour.  Supporting this, David quotes Gary Kasparov in his article:

‘The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

Too often, soaring promises and ridiculous expectations are all justified within the remit of achieving total victory, and when this does not come to pass, then blame is simply laid at the doors of others.

Social (viral) media, short messaging and emotional content are an intoxicating mix for our irrational brains…..and thus the need for research and independent verification grows in an exponential parallel with the post-truth era!

As an aside, this scenario may be drawn as an interesting metaphor for Big Data – its too easy to draw (potentially) nonsensical correlations, without the appropriate rigour and provenance checks!  But back to post-truth….

  • Be aware of the System 1 shortcomings….
    Do not be seduced by the (unverified) soundbite, or twitterfeed.
    Research has long proven to be the consistently reliable mechanism for determining consumers and citizens real feelings.
  • Rigour is more important than ever before. Provenance and validation are key to ensuring that we deal with truth – not alternative facts, post-truths, or put simply: lies.
  • Open, honest research has a track record that is second to none, in guiding and supporting key business and societal decisions. Shout this out loud! Do not accept alternative facts! Defend our professional rigour, and underline the real value of seeking truth.

Are you an ESOMAR member? Then read more in Research World March/April 2018! Simon Chadwick (Research Worlds editor in chief) reflects on David Smith’s article entitled Post-Truth – a seminal piece of thought leadership for 2018.

Not a member? Contact to rectify the situation!

By Finn Raben, Director General, ESOMAR