The word ‘Brexit’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time this month, only weeks after Donald Trump was elected as the next president of the United States and ‘post-truth’ was chosen as the word of the year. All three events are to a greater or lesser extent manifestations of anger with the establishment, a distrust in experts and the frustration of the losers of globalisation in a world of increasing uncertainty.
In the middle ages, the people in Europe had religion as their certainty and the Catholic Church as their guide. Life might not have been easy for poor peasants struggling to survive, but the rules to live by were: Be good, fear God and your reward will be in heaven. The reformations of the sixteenth century changed much of that, as individuals like Martin Luther came to question the authority of the Church and its hierarchies and the onus was laid on the individual to explore the Scriptures and establish a more personal relationship with God. Calvinists’ belief in predestination could also cause uncertainty in individuals who could not detect any signs of being one of the elect in their daily lives.
The Enlightenment tried to free the people from the shackles of religion, and faith increasingly became something they could opt in or out of. Society came to look for certainty through reason and science as scholars and scientists were trying to push the boundaries of human knowledge. The Industrial Revolution subsequently brought an increasing specialisation and division of labour as working processes were perfected, while the rise of the professions created the world of experts the twenty-first century has come to resent.
The people are craving security and they are increasingly finding it in self-delusion: in believing things they want to be true, be they the promises of salvation by sectarian movements, miracle weight-loss cures or fake news.
A narrow majority of British voters decided in a referendum on 23 June to leave the European Union, even though most experts predicted the country would be economically worse off in the long run and suffer significant other disadvantages through its increasing socio-political isolation. Likewise, Donald Trump managed to win the US presidential election on a narrow margin (through the anachronism that is the Electoral College), despite not having any political experience or any other redeeming features that might qualify him for high office, while one of the best qualified candidates in the history of the United States was rejected for allegedly not being sufficiently likeable and being part of a political establishment resented by many.
These decisions were not made on the basis of sound evidence or ‘objective facts’, but on the basis of the ‘appeals to emotion and personal belief’ that shape public opinion in our ‘post-truth’ society. The fact that many of us did not see either the Brexit decision or the Trump election coming has been blamed by many on the ‘bubble’ experts and journalists tend to live in, and where they only talk to other people sharing their own liberal left-wing opinions. As a historian and sub-editor at a newswire I arguably belong to both of these groups – experts and journalists – so I feel I should carry part of the blame or at least engage with what went wrong.
As a historian of political thought with an interest in political discourse, I should really not have been surprised. It is not new that appearance has often won over substance. In the sixteenth century, the political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli argued in his The Prince that it was more important for the ruler to appear virtuous than to be so, as it was his image that mattered to the people.
After the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, fake rumours of republican plots emerged from government circles to justify a crackdown on the political underground, while in the later seventeenth century, the Whig opposition in England even invented an entire Popish Plot against Charles II in an attempt to prevent his Catholic younger brother James, Duke of York, from succeeding to the throne. While the Popish Plot did not manage to prevent James’s succession, it did cause a major government crisis.
While the staff at Facebook are trying to tackle the spread of fake news, maybe academic historians could help us learn how not to fall for them.
In a small way, historians could start by teaching their students essential research skills and giving them back their autonomy. We need to encourage our students to go out into archives and libraries, read sources and documents in a variety of languages, and probe their veracity through contextualisation. If we continue to give them only customised and pre-digested snippets of sources, readily transcribed and translated and uploaded on e-learning sites, it is no wonder they will turn into readers who happily click their way through Facebook and BuzzFeed without wondering if anything might be wrong with the information they are getting or submit entire essays cobbled together via Google. Students are brighter than that. Give them the opportunity to develop into critical readers and researchers.
Similar research skills are important for journalists, who need to be careful not to engage unwittingly in the spreading of fake news. If there is only one source for a story, or if the sources are unclear, journalists are wise to stay away from it. Probing the sources carefully and conscientiously is what distinguishes them from rumour-mongers. Most journalists don’t need to be told this, it’s a rule they live by.
The bigger problem for many journalists in the ‘bubble’ is how to report objectively on issues they disagree with, or that don’t fit into their left-wing liberal world view. In an attempt to be politically correct, many of us have divided our world into goodies and baddies, and into things you can and cannot say. Talking to ourselves, this is not a problem because we agree on what’s right and what’s wrong. Reporting for the world, it is.
If journalists keep ignoring the fears and uncomfortable views of their right-wing or alt-right rights readers, they rightly risk being accused of being part of a ‘lying press’ or ‘dishonest press’, as Trump likes to call it, that silences a growing number of people who are afraid of globalisation and migration, who fear for their jobs and for their identity.
People who feel ignored, side-lined and unjustly treated can form powerful movements. We have seen them springing up in the US and all over Europe from the UK to Hungary. Populists are on the rise in Austria, Germany and France. We didn’t see it coming, and we’ve been ignoring them at our peril. Because we didn’t want to hear their voices, we couldn’t take them on. Maybe we should resort to the good old Voltairean principle (which was incidentally formulated by his editor) “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Only if all views are out in the open, can the better argument win.