Monday, December 05, 2016

A Truth About "Post-Truth"?

stratfor |  In the stream of post-election postmortems on journalism's performance, "post-truth" is the handiest of explanations in a campaign season that took fibs and fabrication to a new level. The Oxford English Dictionary has declared "post-truth" its International Word of the Year. A Google search on the term yields some 240 million results. Layer what the candidates said against the "fake news" manufactured on Facebook and elsewhere and, for some, this is all but a civilizational threat.

But the term is actually older than we think. It was coined back in 2004 by the author Ralph Keyes. It took a while, but now it has transformed into a new meme alive in the media ecosystem. It is an illustrative case study of how memes emerge and dominate discourse, refracting perceptions of political reality.

But first, a bit of background. The term "meme," devised in 1976 by sociologist Richard Dawkins from the Greek "mimema," or "something imitated," was originally used to describe patterns of belief that spread vertically through cultural inheritance (from parents, for example) or horizontally through cultural acquisition (as in film or media). Dawkins' point was that memes act much like genes, carrying attributes of beliefs and values between individuals and across generations. It is even a field of academic study known as "memetics."

The Best of Intentions

Today the term meme is more popularly applied to videos, a bit of text, a viral tweet, becoming a fixture, a short-lived canon if you will, in social media-driven consciousness. "Post truth" is just one in a long line of them.

Which is not to be dismissive of the underlying issue of partisans planting fabrications into the echo chamber of partisan news media. I share the alarm at the speed with which misleading charges or downright falsehoods can spread through the Twittersphere. And it's not just an evil embedded in presidential campaigns. The new media age has many dark sides. I worry about "covert influence" that state intelligence agencies — and not just Russia's — can and do spread. Social media as a tool of terrorist recruitment is a real threat. While writing this column, I chanced across the news that Facebook (inadvertently I'm sure) enabled a far-right group in Germany to publish the names and addresses of prominent Jews, Jewish-owned businesses and Jewish institutions on a map of Berlin to mark the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht.