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The post-truth world, the public sphere and public relations

Later this month I’ll be taking part in the European Communications Convention in Munich.  The somewhat ambiguous title for this gathering is ‘You (won’t) get far by lying’, and delegates from all over Europe will be discussing topics including fake news, cyber-criminality and ethical challenges

At the heart of all these questions is the nature of truth, and our relationship with it, as members of society and as communications professionals. My presentation is about the ‘Post-Truth World’ and my argument is that this world is not one in which there are more lies, or more fake news – we’ve had no shortage of either for a very long time.  It is a world in which people care less about lies and fake news.  Post-truth exists not in the teller but in the listener; not in the speaker but the audience.  In its simplest form, it is an indifference to truth.

I’m interested in exploring how it is that we came to be so indifferent to the truth.  Much of the discussion around this is about fake news and the impact of chatbots or social media, but I think the problem is deeper than this.  A post-truth world is the outcome of our weakened and diminished public sphere.  The public sphere is where ideas are developed and tested; arguments are made; and reason is applied. When we have a strong, flourishing public sphere, transparency and debate ensure that foolish, partisan or cranky ideas are pushed to the margins or dismissed; a consensus builds around what is meaningful and valid. Truth isn’t some absolute we go in search of; it’s a thing we develop and shape by active participation. If we stop participating, the process of creating and defining truth falters.

The importance of a healthy, vibrant public sphere has been recognised by many writers and thinkers. In the last half-century, many too have expressed concern that the public sphere is being weakened.

‘The role of the mass media in the manipulation of public opinion has received a great deal of anguished but misguided attention. Much of this commentary assumes that the problem is to prevent the circulation of obvious untruths; whereas it is evident… that the rise of the mass media makes the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant to an evaluation of their influence. Truth has given way to credibility…. We live in a world of pseudo-events and quasi-information, in which the air is saturated with statements that are neither true nor false but merely credible. A pervasive mistrust of those in power has made society increasingly difficult to govern, as the governing class repeatedly complains without understanding its own contribution to the difficulty; … the ‘flight from politics’ as it appears to the elite, may signify the citizen’s growing unwillingness to take part in the political system as a consumer of prefabricated spectacles. It may signify, in other words, not a retreat from politics at all but the beginnings of a general political revolt.’  

Those words were written by Cristopher Lasch nearly forty years-ago in his bestselling book The Culture of Narcissism. If his description of America in the aftermath of the Vietnam War was correct, then, apparently, nothing much has changed, except that the tendencies he highlighted have now become commonplace. This is the world in which public relations operates today, and which requires us to ask some fundamental questions. Do we agree that the public sphere has been badly compromised? If so, what can be done about it? Can it be reassembled, and if so, what contribution can public relations make to rebuilding it?

These, and related ideas, will be what I explore in my presentation.

Image courtesy of max pixel

Alastair McCapra

Chief Executive, CIPR

Posted in CIPR, Digital and Tech, Featured, Public Relations, Social Media

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