As his army blatantly annexed Crimea, Vladimir Putin went on TV and, with a smirk, told the world there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. He wasn’t lying so much as saying the truth doesn’t matter. And when Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully sends ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate – then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free. When the Brexit campaign announces ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week’ and, on winning the referendum, the claim is shrugged off as a ‘mistake’ by one Brexit leader while another explains it as ‘an aspiration’, then it’s clear we are living in a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world. Not merely a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not.
How did we get here? Is it due to technology? Economic globalisation? The culmination of the history of philosophy? There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations – but why is this rebellion happening right now?
Many blame technology. Instead of ushering a new era of truth-telling, the information age allows lies to spread in what techies call ‘digital wildfires’. By the time a fact-checker has caught a lie, thousands more have been created, and the sheer volume of ‘disinformation cascades’ make unreality unstoppable. All that matters is that the lie is clickable, and what determines that is how it feeds into people’s existing prejudices. Algorithms developed by companies such as Google and Facebook are based around your previous searches and clicks, so with every search and every click you find your own biases confirmed. Social media, now the primary news source for most Americans, leads us into echo chambers of similar-minded people, feeding us only the things that make us feel better, whether they are true or not.
Technology might have more subtle influences on our relationship with the truth, too. The new media, with its myriad screens and streams, makes reality so fragmented it becomes ungraspable, pushing us towards, or allowing us to flee, into virtual realities and fantasies. Fragmentation, combined with the disorientations of globalization, leaves people yearning for a more secure past, breeding nostalgia. ‘The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new-ness’ wrote the late Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, ‘but by the proliferation of nostalgias . . . nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere’. Thus Putin’s internet-troll armies sell dreams of a restored Russian Empire and Soviet Union; Trump tweets to ‘Make America Great Again’; Brexiteers yearn for a lost England on Facebook; while ISIS’s viral snuff movies glorify a mythic Caliphate. ‘Restorative nostalgia’, argued Boym, strives to rebuild the lost homeland with ‘paranoiac determination’, thinks of itself as ‘truth and tradition’, obsesses over grand symbols and ‘relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding . . . In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’.
The flight into techno-fantasies is intertwined with economic and social uncertainty. If all the facts say you have no economic future then why would you want to hear facts? If you live in a world where a small event in China leads to livelihoods lost in Lyon, where your government seems to have no control over what is going on, then trust in the old institutions of authority – politicians, academics, the media – buckles. Which has led to Brexit leader Michael Gove’s claim that British people ‘have had enough of experts’, Trump’s rants at the ‘lamestream’ media and the online flowering of ‘alternative news’ sites. Paradoxically, people who don’t trust ‘the mainstream’ media are, a study from Northeastern University showed, more likely to swallow disinformation. ‘Surprisingly, consumers of alternative news, which are the users trying to avoid the mainstream media “mass-manipulation”, are the most responsive to the injection of false claims.’ Healthy scepticism ends in a search for wild conspiracies. Putin’s Kremlin-controlled television finds US conspiracies behind everything, Trump speculates that 9/11 was an inside job, and parts of the Brexit campaign saw Britain under attack from a Germano-Franco-European plot.
‘There is no such thing as objective reporting,’ claim the heads of Putin’s propaganda networks Dmitry Kiselev and Margarita Simonyan, when asked to explain the editorial principles which allow for conspiracy theories to be presented as being equally valid to evidence-based research. The Kremlin’s international channel, RT, claims to be giving an ‘alternative’ point of view, but in practice this means making the editor of a fringe right-wing magazine as credible a talking head as a University academic, making a lie as worthy of broadcast as a fact. Donald Trump plays a similar game when he invokes wild rumors as reasonable, alternative opinions, couching stories that Obama is a Muslim, or that rival Ted Cruz carries a secret Canadian passport, with the caveat: ‘A lot of people are saying . . .’
This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism, which has trickled down over the past thirty years from academia to the media and then everywhere else. This school of thought has taken Nietzsche’s maxim, there are no facts, only interpretations, to mean that every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as ‘an alternative point of view’ or ‘an opinion’, because ‘it’s all relative’ and ‘everyone has their own truth’ (and on the internet they really do).
Maurizio Ferraris, one of the founders of the New Realism movement and one of postmodernism’s most persuasive critics, argues that we are seeing the culmination of over two centuries of thinking. The Enlightenment’s original motive was to make analysis of the world possible by tearing the right to define reality away from divine authority to individual reason. Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ moved the seat of knowledge into the human mind. But if the only thing you can know is your mind, then, as Schopenhauer put it, ‘the world is my representation’. In the late twentieth century postmodernists went further, claiming that there is ‘nothing outside the text’, and that all our ideas about the world are inferred from the power models enforced upon us. This has led to a syllogism which Ferraris sums up as: ‘all reality is constructed by knowledge, knowledge is constructed by power, and ergo all reality is constructed by power. Thus . . . reality turns out to be a construction of power, which makes it both detestable (if by “power” we mean the Power that dominates us) and malleable (if by “power” we mean “in our power”).’
Post-modernism first positioned itself as emancipatory, a way to free people from the oppressive narratives they had been subjected to. But, as Ferraris points out, ‘the advent of media populism provided the example of a farewell to reality that was not at all emancipatory’. If reality is endlessly malleable, then Berlusconi, who so influenced Putin, could justifiably argue, ‘Don’t you realize that something doesn’t exist – not an idea, a politician, or a product – unless it is on television?’; then the Bush administration could legitimise a war based on misinformation. ‘When we act, we create our own reality’, a senior Bush advisor, thought to be Karl Rove, told the New York Times in a quote Ferraris zeroes in on, ‘and while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities’.
To make matters worse, by saying that all knowledge is (oppressive) power, postmodernism took away the ground on which one could argue against power. Instead it posited that ‘because reason and intellect are forms of domination . . . liberation must be looked for through feelings and the body, which are revolutionary per se.’ Rejecting fact-based arguments in favour of emotions becomes a good in itself. We can hear the political echo of this in the thoughts of Arron Banks, funder of the Leave EU campaign: ‘The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.’ Ferraris sees the root of the problem in philosophers’ response to the rise of science in the eighteenth century. As science took over the interpretation of reality, philosophy became more anti-realist in order to retain a space where it could still play a role.
As I try to make sense of the world I grew up and live in – a world framed in my case by Russia, the EU, UK and the US – I don’t need to go quite so far back to find a time when facts mattered. I remember facts seemed to be terribly important during the Cold War. Both Soviet Communists and Western Democratic Capitalists relied on facts to prove their ideology was right. The Communists especially cooked the books – but in the end they lost because they couldn’t make their case any longer. When they were caught lying they acted outraged. It was important to be seen as accurate.
Why were facts important for these two sides? Both projects were trying, at least officially, to prove an idea of rational progress. Ideology, story and the use of facts went hand in hand. Moreover, as the media entrepreneur and activist Tony Curzon Price has pointed out to me that during a war, leadership and authority are important to keep you safe. You look up to leaders for – and they weigh down on you with – the facts.
Then came the 1990s. There was no more progress to be striven for, nothing to prove. Facts became separated from political stories. There was a happiness to this: it was a time of hedonism and Еcstasy, a light-headedness where we could ignore the facts of our bank accounts and take on as much debt as we liked. Without facts and ideas the new masters of politics became spin doctors and political technologists. In Russia, Tsarist and KGB traditions of forming puppet political movements were fused with Western PR tricks to create a Potemkin-democracy where the Kremlin manipulated all the narratives and all the parties, from far left to far right. This began in 1996 when fake parties and fake news were used to save President Yeltsin, and spread to become a model of ‘virtual politics’ imitated across Eurasia (Trump’s spin doctor, Paul Manafort, worked in the world of the Kremlin in 2005 to help mould the Putin-wannabe President Yanukovich in Ukraine). In the UK it was manifested in the outsized career of Alastair Campbell, an unelected press spokesman, deemed to be so influential that the definitive political satire of the period made him the locum of power in the country. In the US it began with the first Gulf War, which Baudrillard described as a pure media invention, through the razzamatazz of Bill Clinton and on to the second Gulf War and Rove’s legendary ‘we create reality’ quote.
But for all their cynicism, the spin doctors and political technologists were, at this point, still trying to pull off an illusion of the truth. Their stories were meant to be coherent, even if they were low on facts. When reality caught up – the audience caught on to the illusion in Moscow and the stories about Iraq broke down and the stock market crashed – one reaction has been to double down, to deny that facts matter at all, to make a fetish out of not caring about them. This has many benefits for rulers – and is a relief for voters. Putin doesn’t need to have a more convincing story, he just has to make it clear that everybody lies, undermine the moral superiority of his enemies and convince his people there is no alternative to him. ‘When Putin lies brazenly he wants the West to point out that he lies’ says the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, ‘so he can point back and say, “but you lie too”’. And if everyone is lying then anything goes, whether it’s in your personal life or in invading foreign countries.
This is a (dark) joy. All the madness you feel, you can now let it out and it’s okay. The very point of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit, the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense. And an audience which has already spent a decade living without facts can now indulge in a full, anarchic liberation from coherence.
 Data Mining Reveals How Conspiracy Theories Emerge on Facebook, MIT Technology Review (Mar. 18, 2014), http://www.technolo- gyreview.com/view/525616/data-mining-reveals-how-conspiracy-theories-emerge-on-facebook/
Photograph © Kyle McDonald