Event report: Post-truth: what is it and what can we do about it?

Written by Olivia Varley-Winter on . Posted in Features

On 7 February 2017, the RSS hosted the event 'Post-truth: What is it and what can we do about it?' in association with Sense about Science, Full Fact, the Oxford Internet Institute, and SAGE publishing. The panel of speakers comprised James Ball, special correspondent for Buzzfeed News and author of a forthcoming book on 'post-truth', Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science, Will Moy, director of Full Fact and Helen Margetts, director of the Oxford Internet Institute. The event was chaired by RSS executive director Hetan Shah.

Opening the event, Hetan Shah dedicated it to the memory of Hans Rosling, who had died that morning. Rosling was well known for his public presentations of statistics, which challenged his audiences on subjects such as global healthcare, population, prosperity, and the problems of the poorest around the world. His strongly expressed support for ‘factfulness’ (that the public should base their opinions on fact) provided a clear counterpoint to ‘post-truth’ narratives.

Shah noted that the term ‘post-truth’ began to circulate during the UK’s referendum on whether to remain members of the European Union, as concerns were raised over the statistics being used in referendum campaigns. The ubiquity of the phrase ‘post-truth’ even led to the Oxford Dictionary declaring it as 2016's 'word of the year'. The dominance of the post-truth concept has been boosted further by events in the USA, with heated debate about ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ that has surrounded President Trump's election. For this discussion it would be important to focus on the particular circumstances of the UK, rather than being pulled into the orbit of events overseas. While the current period has been called ‘post-truth’, we have never been in anything called a ‘truth’ era, particularly in politics. So the panelists would consider what has really changed, and what actions can be taken to promote 'factfulness' in the UK.

Helen Margetts focused on some of the likely challenges and responsibilities for social media. Social media is blamed, she said, for almost everything, and has of course been heavily implicated in post-truth politics. Three aspects of media and political campaigning have been attributed to social media, perhaps unfairly:

  • Fake news. Social media is said to be fuelling the creation of news items that are untrue, or almost completely untrue. A further characteristic of fake news is that it has a political bias that is intended to be disruptive. Historically, fake news was associated with authoritarian governments. The difference now is that with access to social media, others such as teenagers in bedrooms can generate revenue from creating it.
  • Computational propaganda or ‘bots’. These really are a new development as the scope for automated bots to spread a message via social media have grown with technological advances. On the other hand, attempts to create ‘ethical’ bots to compromise the messages of extremist bots are getting more sophisticated. 
  • Echo chambers. Social media is said to create a situation where we hear our opinions reflected by others, and therefore think more and more what we already thought. The idea is that in this environment, we are more vulnerable to fake news. Margetts said that it is very much unproven whether social media makes echo chambers worse. We are very good at creating our own echo chambers in the analogue world, and hearing only what we want to hear. Social media and the internet also offer ways to exit the echo chambers that they create – for example by looking at ‘trending’ topics to see what is the most popular news at present. However, social media giants could be a lot better at educating their users. For example, most people using Facebook don’t realise that they only see a fraction of what their friends post in that setting.

James Ball discussed the role of news and journalists. He considered that in the UK, the issue of ‘fake news’ is over-emphasised, as this refers to stories that are entirely fabricated. Buzzfeed undertook an investigation last year and concluded ‘Britain has no fake news industry because our partisan newspapers already do that job’ – the point being that UK readers are provided with a different type of story to satisfy their biases, which take one true event or one statistic and present it out of context. The demand to feed biases is also met by social media interest groups such as ‘Britain First’, which share large numbers of stories that support their pre-existing opinion with others on Facebook. Polls such as ‘Perils of perception’ by Ipsos MORI show that personal views of the facts are often inaccurate. In the US for example, those polled on average thought that 17% of the population are Muslim, when the recorded figure is only 1%. There have to be norms and values in how the news presents information, he said, which can emerge through campaigns and public pressure.

Will Moy commented that public cynicism and scepticism about the truthfulness of politicians and the media is concerning, as it implies the public have made up their minds that there are powerful people who will tell lies with impunity and that there is nothing that can be done about it. A new tradition is emerging, which is to maintain a position regardless of the facts. This amounts to a culture war, he said.

However, public polling has shown that the public do want civil servants to be truthful. For a world of statistics and facts, he highlighted two main solutions

  • Make it easier to use reliable information
  • Make it ineffective to use unreliable information

He highlighted some levers to change, which include:

  • The UK’s many public institutions, which have a long history of caring about evidence, need to get better at winning the public’s attention. The UK Statistics Authority has a role in calling out and addressing wrong claims, and the RSS trains ‘stats ambassadors’ to speak to the media about statistics. News outlets and individuals that treat audiences with respect also need to be rewarded. The RSS plays a part in this with its statistical excellence awards for journalists.
  • Journalists need to be trained to challenge statistics provided to them. With regard to this, new BBC guidelines have been put together and all BBC journalists are going to be trained in statistics.
  • Challenging inaccurate claims starts with an evidence base. This takes a great deal of time to establish, and needs ongoing support. Full Fact's Need to Know project has recently been launched to anticipate the questions that need to be answered in public debates, and ensure the statistics are readily available to answer them. Full Fact are also collaborating with Google and with Facebook on mechanisms for fact-checking. When mistakes are made, we need better ways to correct the record.

Tracey Brown concluded the panel’s presentations. She asserted that the importance of truth in public life is being threatened by the ‘post-truth’ narrative and praised a recent article by Will Davies on ‘how statistics have lost their power’, and said that statistics about the social and political and natural world should be a common good. Members of the public can feel alienated from the facts when metrics such as GDP dominate reporting, providing a picture of national progress that they don’t identify with. Cynicism about the public and its attitude toward evidence needs to be challenged, as everyone has a ‘flash point’ at some stage in their lives where they need to know the facts behind a decision, and may want to interrogate or change it. Sense about Science’s ‘Evidence Matters’ campaign put a spotlight on this, and brought members of the public to Parliament to speak to MPs about why evidence mattered in their lives. Those of us who care about facts need to also take care that the public’s demand for evidence is met.

The event was followed by a reception, sponsored by SAGE publishing.

Watch the event here:


Full Fact Hans Rosling Sense About Science

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