Post-Truth is the word of the year. Like any neologism, if you'd dropped it into conversation only a few years ago, no-one would have known what you meant. Now we do. It's one of the most dangerous phenomena of our time.
Previously, when we had public debates we would be presented with different opinions, competing facts and – of course – layers of PR and spin. As members of the public, we relied on the media to help us understand the world, mediate the debate and take part in the conversation.
In a post-truth world there are two worrying trends. The first is the move from politicians massaging the truth, to outright lies and deception. The second is the media complicity in this.
Commentators from left and right have been waning us about the possibility of lying becoming normalised for a number of years. Conservative commentator Peter Oborne wrote The Rise of Political Lying in 2004, which looked at the change which he argues took place under the Blair Government – a move from putting a positive angle on news to outright lying. Writing in 2016, Oborne said: "Lying and cheating are, once again, commonplace in the heart of government... The alarming truth is that Whitehall integrity is in collapse again."
This first issue of politicians lying is a profound problem. Yet it is compounded by the second – a media which promotes untruth.
When the media was in the hands of a few corporate owners, it certainly had biases and argued in favour of the interests of those owners. However, we are now in an age where a plethora of new media organisations, social media sites and user-generated content is impacting the public debate. Popular left wing sites like The Canary and right wing sites such as Breitbart promote stories which appeal to their core readership and are shared widely through social media. The remoreseless hyping of silly stories, click bait and even conspiracy theories on certain sites is a deeply worrying trend.
State broadcasters from Iran, such as Press TV and Russia – RT – claim to give 'the other side' to Western dominated news environments. The problem is that they are not held to the high standards of the BBC or Sky News – British regulation of TV news ensures that it is impartial and factually based.
Beyond these outlets, there are even murkier roles being played by explicitly fake news sites churning out content that is intended to be false. This hugely lucrative trend is parasitic on credulous people on Facebook sharing content that has been designed to look genuine (and appeal to their existing biases). One fake news site owner told NPR he and many others are making tens of thousands of dollars per month from the racket.
Liberal journalist Nick Cohen is concerned. In a recent piece for Standpoint, Cohen was pessimistic about the future. "I cannot see how print and broadcast journalism for inquiring people can survive anywhere except in specialist niches," he said. "In their place are Vladimir Putin propagandists using misinformation as a weapon of foreign policy. Alongside them, the web honours every variety of crank, nutjob and freak."
This is deeply troubling for our democracy, and for our ability to discern truth from falsehood. I worry that Cohen is correct.
What then can we, as Christians, do to challenge this development? Truth is a vital value for us as believers who follow Jesus – who claimed to be the way, the truth and the life.
I want to suggest three ways you can kick back against the post-truth world:
Firstly, you can pay for good journalism. It costs money to employ people to do a job and write to a high standard. This money comes partly from advertising – content which appears for free on your screen needs to be paid for somehow. Getting a subscription to publications you trust (and not complaining too much about the advertising you do encounter) is a good start.
Secondly, we need to be careful when we share. Is this story from a source you know and trust? Have you checked if the story is available elsewhere? If we want stories that are truthful to shine through the mass of content, then those are the ones we need to share.
Thirdly, get involved. Rather than castigating the media (as some Christians do), pray for good, honest reporting. Churches can make a big difference by sharing excellent content they have found with their members. Churches often have good relationships with their local representative. Talk to politicians about the value you place on truth and hold them to account.
The post-truth world is a terrifying prospect, and navigating it carefully will require effort and skill. But the truth is worth fighting for.