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. In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary designated the word “post-truth” as word of the year. “Post-truth” was defined as a word “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The word had been used previously in political discourse, but the designation recognized the tremendous upsurge in its use during 2016. The prefix “post” in post-truth, according to various comments on the OED designation, does not mean “after,” but instead is meant to imply disinterest or even disdain for what had once been accepted and valued as incontrovertible. However, when we look into the matter, it seems that, far from fading into irrelevance, questions about truth and fact have never been so prominent in popular political debates.

What is striking is the explicit way in which the parties to these disputes have felt free to accuse one another with lying and purveying “fake news.” Contrary to the definition of “post-truth,” such partisan arguments do not appeal to “emotion and personal belief” instead of “objective facts.” Rather, partisans make emotive appeals to their own “facts.” The verbal warfare is asymmetrical, however. The two opposing positions, each seemingly armed with its own “facts,” are not equivalent.  As suggested by the term “alt-right,” purveyors of “alt-facts” confront established facts with extreme alternatives. Alt-facts, and the alt-truth they support, attempt to gain popular adherence by denouncing consensual facts. Consensual facts are discredited as products of a privileged establishment, whose views are sustained through groupthink and exercises of domination.

A long-standing journalistic convention for covering controversies is to present two sides in non-committal fashion, as though they are equivalent. This convention is supported by a conception of journalistic objectivity: an attempt to be impartial, to avoid prejudging the matter in dispute or weighing in on one side, in order to allow readers to make their own judgments. During the 2016 campaign this convention was largely dropped by major news outlets in favor of a different concept of objectivity; one that invokes independent and proven facts to assess particular claims. News organizations did not simply present opposing positions, but also weighed in with fact-checking to evaluate statements made during speeches, debates, and press-conferences. And, during the first days of Trump’s presidency, even some of the most established broadsheets went further by explicitly deploying what the New York Times dubbed the “L word” in a discussion of the decision to use the word “lie” in a headline, rather than less “muscular” terms for untruth such as misstatement, falsehood, baseless assertion, or misleading claim. Just calling it the “L word” marks the word as a forbidden term that when used in an accusation is likely to redound upon the accuser.

When we look into the matter, it seems that, far from fading into irrelevance, questions about truth and fact have never been so prominent in popular political debates

The vernacular English words “true” and “false” may be thought of as opposites, but when the possibility of lying comes into the picture, the relationship to truth becomes more complicated. A lie is conventionally marked as an action, while a truth or the truth is action-independent. Truth is a standard for what may be said or done in reference to it, whereas “lie” is usable as an active verb. Although “telling the truth” is an action, the verb is “telling” and “the truth” is the object to which “telling” relates. You can falsify evidence, but there is no word for “truthifying” evidence (though “verifying,” “validating,” “confirming,” and “corroborating” are actions that relate to independent grounds). Similarly, there is no word “truthing” as a counterpart to lying (though, as Steven Shapin once reminded me, poetic license was taken in the line “You keep lying when you ought to be truthing” — Verse 2 of the 1966 pop song These Boots Were Made for Walking, sung by Nancy Sinatra, written by Lee Hazlewood). Until recently, liars had no grammatical counterpart. But now we have “truthers” a name originally adopted by 9/11 skeptics, who, like “birthers,” might otherwise be called conspiracy theorists. Still, “truthers” are neither liars nor the opposite of liars; they are skeptics whose basis for being skeptical is subject to widespread doubt. Again, we are dealing with extremes rather than two discrete boxes of true versus false propositions. Trump’s many critics have frequently suggested that he is not an ordinary liar, but a pathological liar: someone who lies excessively, compulsively, and for no apparent reason. It is no contradiction that a pathological liar can seem sincere with a strongly expressed and self-righteous commitment to the truth. The same critics have suggested (though not in so many words) that Trump is a pathological “truther” who doggedly pursues conspiracy theories in the face of mounting evidence against them.

We have gone full-circle, as “truthers” become  liars when we assume that the conspiracy theories they pursue are so outlandish that they can only be the results of fakery. However, this does not prevent alt-facts from becoming “facts” of a sort.  If, for a moment, we focus away from Trump the person, we can begin to appreciate the difficulty we face when confronting alt-truth: standing behind the “truther” and his alternative facts is an army of supporters, with their own alt-media and alt-think-tanks. Now that the levers of government are within their grasp, we face the prospect that alt-facts may become established realities.

Michael E. Lynch is a professor in the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University, where he co-directs the the Cornell Law and Society Program.