One of the more striking developments of 2016 was the emergence of a “post-fact” world, in which virtually all authoritative information sources were challenged by contrary facts of dubious quality and provenance. In a world without gatekeepers, there is no reason to think that good information will win out over bad.
One of the developments of 2016 and its highly unusual politics was the emergence of a “post-fact” world, in which virtually all authoritative information sources were called into question and challenged by contrary facts of dubious quality and provenance.
The emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web in the 1990s was greeted as a moment of liberation and a boon for democracy worldwide. Information constitutes a form of power, and to the extent that information was becoming cheaper and more accessible, democratic publics would be able to participate in domains from which they had been hitherto excluded.
The development of social media in the early 2000s appeared to accelerate this trend, permitting the mass mobilization that fueled various democratic “color revolutions” around the world, from Ukraine to Burma (Myanmar) to Egypt. In a world of peer-to-peer communication, the old gatekeepers of information, largely seen to be oppressive authoritarian states, could now be bypassed.
While there was some truth to this positive narrative, another, darker one was also taking shape. Those old authoritarian forces were responding in dialectical fashion, learning to control the Internet, as in China, with its tens of thousands of censors, or, as in Russia, by recruiting legions of trolls and unleashing bots to flood social media with bad information. These trends all came together in a hugely visible way during 2016, in ways that bridged foreign and domestic politics.
The premier manipulator of social media turned out to be Russia. Its government has put out blatant falsehoods like the “fact” that Ukrainian nationalists were crucifying small children, or that Ukrainian government forces shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014. These same sources contributed to the debates on Scottish independence, Brexit, and the Dutch referendum on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine, amplifying any dubious fact that would weaken pro-EU forces.
Use of bad information as a weapon by authoritarian powers would be bad enough, but the practice took root big time during the US election campaign. All politicians lie or, more charitably, spin the truth for their own benefit; but Donald Trump took the practice to new and unprecedented heights.