This week the Oxford Dictionaries selected ‘post-truth’ as its word of 2016.
For the past year, I’ve been reading book excerpts on Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the disinformation campaigns that his elite creates. I’ve tuned into Russia Today and noted how the conspiracy theories I wrote about 15 to 18 years ago are now presented as geopolitical fact. I’ve kept an eye on Donald Trump’s business interests in and connections to Russia.
Journalist and television producer Peter Pomerantsev is one of the most insightful chroniclers of this new, post-truth world. In June 2016, Pomerantsev observed in Granta Magazine that post-truth roots are traceable to 1990s interests in postmodernism, hyper-real events like the 1990-91 Gulf War and its effect on philosophers like Jean Baudrillard, and the creation of fake parties and movements in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia.
A post-truth climate changes the media and political campaigns. Investigative and objective journalism are dead. Instead, political technologists and spin doctors disseminate subjective narratives. Political campaigns become the site of rumours and sleights of hand. Myths, folklore, and conspiracy theories become the default forms of information content.
I first became aware of this post-fact shift whilst browsing Usenet forums in 1994. I confronted it as Disinformation’s website editor throughout the period late 1999 to early 2008. Disinformation founder (and now Dangerous Minds publisher) Richard Metzger and I settled on a strategy: we played up the subcultural and vanguard aspects whilst also revealing and critiquing the media platforms that made it possible.
For in-progress PhD research I took another approach. I sought to resurrect Jack Snyder’s work at RAND in 1977 on strategic culture: how collective historical experiences and institutional elites shape decisions on the use of force. Snyder was aware of mirror imaging and other risks of analytic misperception in trying to understand the Soviet elites. I figured that strategic culture could help to understand Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the growth of authoritarian regimes and rising powers.
Donald Trump’s election strategists now use Russian disinformation techniques in a United States sociopolitical context. This mindset is alien to many US voters or is dismissed as a fringe phenomena. In the past week it is why journalists have focused on alt.right figures and movements like Infowars’ Alex Jones, secular traditionalists, and the manosphere. This is what Richard Metzger and I fought against whilst at Disinformation. It is why having interpreters like Pomerantsev and the BBC’s Adam Curtis is helpful to understand the Russian mindset.
New truth-seeking strategies are needed for this post-truth world.