Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part II)

Uncivil Epistemology

By Michael Lynch

Editors’ note: This is the second part of a three-post series by Michael Lynch. ‘Part I: Uncivil Epistemology’ appears here and ‘Part III: The Truther Paradox’ will be published in the coming weeks. 

Some of the “epistemological” disputes that arose in the early days of the Trump administration had to do with specialized factual claims made by scientists, investigative reporters, and intelligence agents. However, some of the most notable disputes about “facts” and “alternative facts” concerned more mundane matters, such as the crowd size at the inauguration. The advantage of mundane facts in political discourse is that they appear to be democratically available: there is no apparent need to trust the “so-called experts.” For similar reasons, reverting to such plain examples also is common in academic disputes. Those of us familiar with the debates about realism and relativism in the “science wars” of the 1990s may recall that simple mundane examples often stood proxy for arguments about more technical matters. Continue reading “Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part II)”

Thought From the Outside: Post-Truth and Cambodian Political Theater

By Casper Bruun Jensen

Post-truth, the post-factual, alternative facts. In the wake of Donald Trump’s campaign and election as president of the United States, these terms swirl around the social media and public sphere with increasing frequency. Trump’s blatant disregard for the category of facts, if not for reality itself, perplexes and infuriates his many opponents. One hears the refrain “We are entering uncharted territory.” At stake is a challenge to the long-cherished notion of speaking truth to power. If power refuses to listen, what would be the point of scientific knowledge? Just think of the unheeded warnings against global warming.

What might political life in Cambodia tell about this situation? Located around 9000 miles from Washington D.C, the modus operandi of politics in Phnom Penh confronts us with some of what Michel Foucault called “thought from the outside.” A glance at this thought might help put into sharper focus what is, and is not, unprecedented about the current American situation. For what this thought is “outside” to is, among other things, the idea that the normal state of affairs is one where scientific facts balance or constrain political power.

Continue reading “Thought From the Outside: Post-Truth and Cambodian Political Theater”

Tweets of Fury

By Theodore M. Porter

Someday, in the underground files of the Natural History Museum of Personality Anomalies, the curators will push aside the pale, red-edged Narcissus poeticus to clear space for a truculent orange mutant, N. bombastus, type specimen of a form that disables the faculty of reason. Narcissism, as everyone knows, is a not uncommon characteristic of the political class. Trump’s is distinguished by an astonishing level of insecurity and consequent need for affirmation. The rude applause of a boisterous crowd serves this purpose very nicely. The question of why such persons oblige is an unsolved mystery, and those who do not join in noisy admiration may suppose that he has done nothing to earn it. Yet the numbers are never large enough. At the head of this president’s parade of lies is the seemingly pointless one, unquestionably false, that the number of enthusiasts at his inauguration beats out every possible rival.

Continue reading “Tweets of Fury”

New Tech Only Benefits the Elite Until the People Demand More

By Christopher Jones

The United States faces an infrastructure crisis. Report after report warns that the nation’s networks are old, brittle and vulnerable. Systems that were once the envy of the world now suffer from chronic underfunding and neglect. If you’ve travelled in western Europe or parts of China recently, you probably noticed the unfavourable comparison between roads and subways in the US and those abroad. A culture enthralled with disruptive innovation has ignored the fundamental importance of maintaining its technological backbones.

The need for infrastructure revitalisation is so pressing that, despite today’s polarised politics, it actually draws bipartisan agreement. President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address called for ‘rebuild[ing] our infrastructure’. The Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has argued that ‘we have to rebuild our infrastructure: our bridges, our roadways, our airports’, and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton has pledged $275 billion in additional spending for infrastructure upgrades.

Can we make US infrastructure great again? Yes, and clearly financial investment is essential. But that is not all. Infrastructure is not, and never has been, simply a collection of material objects. The secret of the country’s infrastructure success lies in a forgotten political history: the demands by millions of Americans over time for fairer and more equitable access to rails, pipes, wires, roads and more. The wondrous US infrastructure achievements happened when citizens participated in infrastructure decisions. One can even propose a rule: the better the democracy, the better the infrastructure.

Continue reading “New Tech Only Benefits the Elite Until the People Demand More”

Environmental Data, Public Trust, and Guerrilla Archiving

By Evan Hepler-Smith

Over the weeks between the election and the inauguration, activists and critical observers sought to take preemptive action against a range of anticipated threats posed by the incoming administration. For the most part, they have focused on the same subjects of concern as opponents of Donald Trump did during the campaign: immigrants, Muslim Americans, women, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, environmental policies, trade agreements, the Affordable Care Act. The status of facts themselves – twisted, faked, checked, misinterpreted, ignored – has been and remains a signal worry. Since the election, however, such fears have also latched upon a new subject: data, especially environmental data. Continue reading “Environmental Data, Public Trust, and Guerrilla Archiving”

Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part I)

Between Liars and Truthers

By Michael Lynch

Editors’ note: This is the first part of a three-post series by Michael Lynch. ‘Part II: Uncivil Epistemology’ and ‘Part III: The Truther Paradox’ will be published in the coming weeks. 

“Mr. Trump falsely accused the media of lying.” This compact but complicated headline in a New York Times article reporting on Trump’s first day in office added another link to a chain of accusations about falsehoods and lies between Trump and the “establishment” press. The new president and his press secretary had dismissed reports that unfavorably compared the size of the crowd at his inauguration with the one at Obama’s. Two days later, the Times, after editorial deliberation on the matter, explicitly used the word “lie” in a front-page headline: “Trump repeats lie about popular vote in meeting with lawmakers.” This headline referred to Trump’s claim that his sizeable popular vote deficit was due to millions of fraudulent votes cast for Hillary Clinton. When asked on Meet the Press about why Trump would persist with such “provable falsehoods,” Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway objected to the term “falsehoods,” and proposed that they were “alternative facts.” Conway’s usage went viral. Commentators likened the Trump team’s discourse to “Newspeak” in George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, and copies of that book quickly shot up to the number one position in Amazon’s book sales.

Although intensive concern about truth, facts, and lies was dramatic during the first several days of the Trump presidency, such concern already was prominent throughout the presidential campaign. Continue reading “Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part I)”

When the Media Become the Opposition

By Pablo J. Boczkowski & Eugenia Mitchelstein

On January 25, just five days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon said “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while (…) The media here is the opposition party.” Three days later, President Trump tweeted “The failing @nytimes has been wrong about me from the very beginning. Said I would lose the primaries, then the general election. FAKE NEWS!”

These two episodes are consistent with the campaign communication strategy at the top of the Republican ticket and signal that neither President Donald Trump nor his staffers and loyalists plan to change course, at least during the early stages of his presidency. They thus raise the question: how might a confrontational stance between the government and the mainstream media affect the public’s perspective on their trust in politicians and the news? This post examines the practices, interpretations, and experiences of audiences to ascertain what could happen in a given certain set of circumstances—rather than laying out what should happen according to different ideals of public behavior. In this sense, our focus is different from, and complementary to, a normative approach.

Since there is no precedent of this level of confrontation in recent U.S. history, we will answer this question by drawing on our research in Argentina over the past decade to imagine possible scenarios based on some key findings. Although Argentina and the United States are different countries with diverging institutional histories, there are arguably some emerging similarities between the administrations of Presidents Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and his spouse Cristina Fernández (2007-2015) in Argentina and the initial stages of Donald Trump’s presidency. In fact, Guillermo Moreno, Secretary of Commerce to both Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández, and one of the most powerful figures in both administrations, said in an interview that Donald Trump “is a Peronist (…) and is doing everything we did.” Continue reading “When the Media Become the Opposition”

Democracy Disrupted: Silicon Valley’s Unprecedented Opportunity to Innovate in the First 100 Days of Trump

By Margo Boenig-Liptsin

Silicon Valley, the model and symbol of technological innovation, is at a cross-roads. While the state of California mobilizes to defend its vision of the future against the Trump administration, Silicon Valley is confronting its own attitudes towards democracy in its self-proclaimed mission to implement “disruptive” innovations in society.

At stake in the conflict between Silicon Valley and Trump are two different ideas of what makes for a good — or “great,” to use President Trump’s own words — future. In Silicon Valley, the best is still ahead of us and the future holds limitless potential that can be unlocked through technological disruption. Although this future delegates tremendous power to technology, it nevertheless respects diversity, equality, and environment. By contrast, Trump’s vision of a great future is a return to a mythical American past. Trump’s ideal future is frightening because it goes against civil rights, openness of human movement, and finding ways of living together on one planet.

Continue reading “Democracy Disrupted: Silicon Valley’s Unprecedented Opportunity to Innovate in the First 100 Days of Trump”

Truth under Trump: Climate Change, Space Exploration, and “Politicized Science”

By Erik Baker

After the election of Donald Trump in November, his liberal opponents were near-unanimous about what his ascendency portended for the present political moment. We now live in a “post-truth” era, proclaimed pundits, professors (including a few here at the Kennedy School), and even the Oxford English Dictionary. Fueled by “fake news,” appeals to reality have apparently lost their salience in American political discourse, replaced by “bullshit artists” spouting off made-up narratives based on nothing but their pre-existing political sympathies.

Recently, however, something odd has happened: Trump and his allies have been saying exactly the same thing about their critics. In the aftermath of Trump’s January 11th press conference, in which he shut down a CNN reporter attempting to ask a question by repeatedly shouting “fake news,” it is more important than ever to contemplate the possibility that those early election postmortems may have misunderstood Trumpism in a fundamental — and dangerous — way. Perhaps the “post-truth” barb is a double-edged sword. Perhaps “truth,” somehow, still matters. Continue reading “Truth under Trump: Climate Change, Space Exploration, and “Politicized Science””

Shifting Political Orders: “Post-Truth Politics” in the U.K., U.S., and Brazil

By Tito Carvalho

As the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and the United States elected President Donald Trump, Brazil partook in its own major political event with the impeachment of President Dilma Rouseff after fourteen years of rule by her Workers Party. But while the U.K. and U.S. cases have been seen as victories of right wing populists over liberal technocratic elites, the Brazilian case has been seen as the demise of a left populist government before its center-right opposition. Despite these ostensive differences, the term “post-truth politics” has been deployed in all three circumstances. I propose that a comparison of these cases shows that this term, as any other, has no fixed meaning that is independent from the context in which it is used. Instead of attempting to define “post-truth politics” once and for all, I argue that we are better off contending with it as a useful marker of shifting political orders.

On November 16, 2016, The Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year. It defined the term as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” However, in the largest country of the Lusophone world, wherein “post-truth politics” has been literally translated as “política da pós-verdade”, this definition does not quite apply. Deployed by Brazilian pundits (see below) and politicians, (e.g., Congressman Jean Wyllys, of the Party of Socialism and Freedom), the notion of “política da pós-verdade” has meant something other than appeals to emotion and personal belief to counter objective facts. Rather, it has been used to question what those on the left see as a strategic assemblage of various facts by the center-right to engender the narrative that the Workers Party is simultaneously incompetent, corrupt, and idealistic, and to galvanize the urban middle class against the government. For example, as Bob Fernandes, a Brazilian political commentator, has said, post-truth is when opposition leaders are interviewed about corruption accusations made against members of the Workers Party without being questioned about similar accusations made against themselves. Or, as Thais Herédia, an economic analyst, has written, post-truth is when the opposition makes different Gross Domestic Product projections before and after the impeachment. In other words, the phrase “post-truth politics” operates not on an objective-facts-versus-personal-beliefs axis, but rather is invoked to question what facts matter, how they are produced, selected, and curated, and by whom and for whom. Continue reading “Shifting Political Orders: “Post-Truth Politics” in the U.K., U.S., and Brazil”