There is a widespread, distinct feeling that Western politics has entered a phase of what tends to be called ‘post-truth politics‘.
The term ‘post-truth politics’, often accompanied by references to fake news and disinformation campaigns, looks like a euphemism for ‘shameless lies’ at first; in actual fact, however, these concepts seem to capture a current development in which emotions and perceptions, created, driven, and catered for by carefully planned campaigns, override and invalidate what reason and fact-led analysis can confirm.
Unsurprisingly, demagoguery and populism thrive in this environment – and they do so even more in the powerful echo chambers of present-day social media.
The idea of living in a ‘post-truth’ age, suggesting that a new epoch has dawned, is appealing: successful campaigns such as Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential election have instilled an almost post-apocalyptical feeling in many, and politically motivated defamatory attacks against experts (whose expertise somehow seems to be less valid than the alleged gut-feeling of the ‘real people’) have become a lot more common recently.
But is ‘post-truth politics’ actually a thing – or is it just a convenient way of avoiding the admission of defeat in campaigns in which ‘the other side’ has resorted to a successful strategy to which no meaningful response could be found?
An argument could be made for the latter.
There is a (now) little-read treatise called Strategikos (Στρατηγικός; ‘The General’) by a first-century A. D. author called Onasander (sometimes also reported as Onosander). This work is a most remarkable handbook for anyone who would like to understand more about ancient Roman warfare and tactics (at least from a theoretical angle).
In the Strategikos, Onosander writes (ch. 23, on ‘Announcing favourable news in the midst of battle; even if false it is advantageous’):
Sometimes the general should ride along the lines and call out to his men, if he happens to be on the right wing, “Our left wing is defeating the right wing of the enemy,” or if he is on the left he should say that his right wing is conquering, whether this is true or not, for deceit is necessary when “a great strife has arisen.” For example, when the leader of the enemy is some distance away either on one wing or holding the centre, he should call out, “The general of the enemy has been killed,” or “the king.” or whoever it may be. And one should shout this in such a manner that the enemy also may hear; for his own soldiers, learning that their side is more successful, are encouraged and doubly eager to fight, while the enemy, learning of the misfortunes of their side, lose heart, so that sometimes they start into flight immediately on hearing such a report. In this way it is very often useful to deceive both one’s own army and that of the enemy by false news, good for the former, but bad for the latter.
This sounds very familiar indeed – and it highlights ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth politics’ as what they really are: strategems, designed and spread for a purpose.
The obvious question, therefore, is: how to respond to such a device? Is it even possible to get through to those who are inclined to follow their leader (general or otherwise)? Or is one’s only hope to protect one’s own side as much as possible from contagion – hoping that this might, if one gets lucky, perhaps have an effect on those who have been subjected to disinformation for strategic purposes?
Rumours and common talk are called “the verdict of society” and “the testimony of the public” by one party; to the other, they are “vague, unauthenticated talk, started by malice and developed by credulity, something that can happen to the most innocent of men through the fraud of enemies who spread false tales.”
––– Rome’s first professor of Latin, Quintilian, wrote (Inst. or. 5.3).
At once Rumour runs through Libya’s great cities—Rumour the swiftest of all evils. Speed lends her strength, and she wins vigour as she goes; small at first through fear, soon she mounts up to heaven, and walks the ground with head hidden in the clouds. Mother Earth, provoked to anger against the gods, brought her forth last, they say, as sister to Coeus and Enceladus, swift of foot and fleet of wing, a monster awful and huge, who for the many feathers in her body has as many watchful eyes beneath—wondrous to tell—as many tongues, as many sounding mouths, as many pricked-up ears. By night, midway between heaven and earth, she flies through the gloom, screeching, and droops not her eyes in sweet sleep; by day she sits on guard on high rooftop or lofty turrets, and affrights great cities, clinging to the false and wrong, yet heralding truth. Now exulting in manifold gossip, she filled the nations and sang alike of fact and falsehood, how Aeneas is come, one born of Trojan blood, to whom in marriage fair Dido deigns to join herself; now they while away the winter, all its length, in wanton ease together, heedless of their realms and enthralled by shameless passion. These tales the foul goddess spreads here and there upon the lips of men. Straightway to King Iarbas she bends her course, and with her words fires his spirit and heaps high his wrath.
There is a place at the centre of the World, between the zones of earth, sea, and sky, at the boundary of the three worlds. From here, whatever exists is seen, however far away, and every voice reaches listening ears. Rumour lives there, choosing a house for herself on a high mountain summit, adding innumerable entrances, a thousand openings, and no doors to bar the threshold. It is open night and day: and is all of sounding bronze. All rustles with noise, echoes voices, and repeats what is heard. There is no peace within: no silence anywhere. Yet there is no clamour, only the subdued murmur of voices, like the waves of the sea, if you hear them far off, or like the sound of distant thunder when Jupiter makes the dark clouds rumble.
Crowds fill the hallways: a fickle populace comes and goes, and, mingling truth randomly with fiction, a thousand rumours wander, and confused words circulate. Of these, some fill idle ears with chatter, others carry tales, and the author adds something new to what is heard. Here is Credulity: here is rash Error, empty Delight, and alarming Fear, sudden Sedition, and Murmurings of doubtful origin. Rumour herself sees everything that happens in the heavens, throughout the ocean, and on land, and inquires about everything on earth.
Or as A. Paul Weber imagined it:
Candid advice on how to manage rumours, ‘fake news’, and whatever one might be inclined to call ‘post-truth’ comes from an anonymous early first-century B. C. rhetorician (Rhet. Her. 2.12, transl. from here):
We shall speak in favour of rumours by saying that a report is not wont to be created recklessly and without some foundation, and that there was no reason for anybody wholly to invent and fabricate one; and, moreover, if other rumours usually are lies, we shall prove by argument that this one is true. We shall speak against rumours if we first show that many rumours are false, and cite examples of false report; if we say that the rumours were the invention of our enemies or of other men malicious and slanderous by nature; and if we either present some story invented against our adversaries which we declare to be in every mouth, or produce a true report carrying some disgrace to them, and say we yet have no faith in it for the reason that any person at all can produce and spread any disgraceful rumour or fiction about any other person. If, nevertheless, a rumour seems highly plausible, we can destroy its authority by logical argument.
One may find it reassuring that ‘post-truthism’ is not exactly a modern invention, and one may find some relief in the observation that there are means to deal with it.
But what is the appropriate response?
It would seem to be of vital importance to remember two things.
First, ‘fake news’ in political discourse is a strategic device to a (relatively clearly defined) end, whose dangerous potential to create new realities one must not ever underestimate (and which must be addressed strategically rather than with utter bewilderment over others’ inclination to follow reassuring, reinvigorating messages).
Secondly, if one wishes to have any hope to win a battle against falsehoods, one must be both confident that truth can, in fact, be established and be in a situation in which the other side is even remotely ready to listen to what the Rhetor ad Herennium calls ‘logical argument’.
Failing that, all that can be achieved is reaching out to those, and reassuring those, who were disinclined to believe in ‘fake news’ in the first place.
Right now, even that would seem like no altogether insignificant achievement.