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Post-truth: what Oxford's word of the year says about modern discourse

patterns of thought

The term is exemplified by the pitting of emotional appeals against statistical reason in political contests across the world this year.

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    A man looks at a reference book in the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room of the New York Public Library, Oct. 5, 2016, in New York.
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The term "post-truth" has beaten out words like "alt-right" and "Brexiteer" to become the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. The word evokes a much more uncertain worldview than last year's pick, a smiling emoji crying tears of joy. While the 2015 symbol was a more controversial recognition of a form of communication unconfined by traditional lettering, "post-truth" reflects a more somber, even academic reflection on 2016.

Oxford defines "post-truth" as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." Often used in a political context, it is easy to see why post-truth became a defining word of the year, with emotional appeals fueling a surge of right-wing movements across the world. In England, where Oxford Dictionaries is based, appeals to emotion made Brexit the law of the land. In the United States, President-elect Donald Trump's upset victory was driven by emotional appeals, even as critics of the candidate pointed to various objective inconsistencies, factual errors, and outright falsehoods made by Mr. Trump as a way to disqualify him from the presidency.

But the term "post-truth" may ultimately point to a fundamental shift in how objective truth is interpreted in the 21st century. With the collective knowledge of human civilization at our fingertips through the internet, information is no longer the purview of an intellectual elite, as it has been throughout most of history. With this democratization of information, however, comes the problem of an oversaturation of information by anyone with an opinion on the facts to the point where it becomes harder to determine what is true and what is merely the product of someone's political agenda.

The first known usage of the term appeared in a 1992 article published in The Nation magazine, according to an Oxford statement. The article, reflecting on the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, is the first known usage of the term within the context of truth having become irrelevant to American society. The term has become more popular in the past decade or so, but Oxford's language research noted that the usage of the word has spiked considerably in the past year, increasing by 2,000 percent since 2015.

"It's not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse," Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries, said in the statement. "Fueled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time."

Like the term "postmodernism," post-truth is a concept that reflects the philosophical notion that society is different for every person who experiences it, shaped by cultural norms and everyday experiences. For people living in a postmodern world, even the most scientific, objective truths are relative, depending on how they fit into their everyday lives, and the wide range of information available on the internet enables people to pick and choose what they believe to be true.

"While the discussion of post-truth seems to be readily apparent to those examining its 'blurring of the lines' between fact and fiction," Christopher J. Irving, a humanities professor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "While things like culture, law, and even language are dependent on some form of 'truth' to reach an agreement, what we might see happen is a fracturing of our agreement of even basic concepts."

Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, exemplified the problem with post-truth politics in an August interview with CNN after the Republican National Convention, when confronted with statistics saying that violent crime had decreased in the US.

"The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer," Mr. Gingrich said in the interview. "People feel more threatened. As a political candidate, I'll go with how people feel."

According to Domo, a computer software company that specializes in business intelligence tools and data visualization, internet traffic through mobile connections in America alone accounts for 18 million megabytes of data every minute. The staggering amount of information online has made consensus on any issue virtually impossible. Even the most basic articles online can have political agendas or significant biases, obscuring the facts of a case. As such, truth is being increasingly accepted based on whether the opinion presented aligns with what the reader already believes, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. 

Daniel Fountain, associate professor of history at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., says that this kind of bias is nothing new in American politics.

"Eighteenth and nineteenth century newspapers were commonly aligned with specific political parties and generally asserted party-line arguments," Dr. Fountain tells the Monitor in an email. "Opponents considered the ideas raised in such publications as lies and stated as much. Candidates in this atmosphere faced serious accusations about their actions, character, and intentions when in office that would sound very familiar today."

In order to make sense of the vast ocean of arguments on the internet, users tend to drift toward political "bubbles" of information that shut out sources with different opinions, assisted by various online algorithms that help personalize what they see – and accept as true – online. This makes an objective diet of information on sites like Facebook and Twitter nearly impossible, even though social media has become a source of news for 62 percent of Americans, according to Pew Research Center.

The choice of post-truth as word of the year comes just days after Facebook's announcement that it would block fake news sites from advertising on the platform. Many critics have blamed Facebook for allowing false stories aimed at convincing Trump supporters to ultimately vote for the candidate during the recent upset election. The company has so far resisted calls to restrict or flag the sharing of fake news articles on the platform.

"Simply put, media bent on ratings and political parties bent on reelection at any cost have created a climate where many only believe sources that are aligned with the like-minded and they view the opposition as incompetent at best or the embodiment of evil," says Fountain. "These are not new features within our electoral history, but it has been a long time since it has been this negative."

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