Last week I read the ‘What was Fake’ column in the Washington Post, designed to uncover and debunk hoaxes on the Internet, was shutting down. The reason: a combination of too many hoaxes and too little impact. In effect, nobody seems to care about the truth anymore. In fact, there is a growing cottage industry of websites generating a stunning variety of incredulous stories, the more outrageous the better. At the same time, there seems to be decreasing returns in trying to set the record straight. Debunking appears to have lost relevance in this age of hyper-partisan politics and media echo chambers. The article suggests that “ institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.”
This disregard for truth is being played out prominently in the political realm. One end of year report by PolitiFact tallied up a list of the least truthful politicians, which detailed a percentage of exaggeration and lies shocking even in a political campaign context. (Ben Carson wins the dubious crown.) But Carson, Trump and others seem to care little about these third-party assessments of their credibility. In fact, rather than being embarrassed or admonished they almost seem to relish the controversy, and use the occasion to vigorously attack the credibility of the ‘mainstream media’ and claim the findings are politically biased. Any contradiction or question is angrily (or sarcastically) dismissed as an adversarial personal attack. Carly Fiorina has developed a refined model of this response: she stubbornly, defiantly repeats her dubious claims (such as the discredited abortion video story) in spite of overwhelming evidence her story has no merit. In this context opinions, policy positions and arguments are often trumpeted as facts – as if repetition and conviction obviates the need for actual empirical evidence.
This trend spans across the political spectrum, and damages the quality and relevance of public discourse for all politicians. There are no winners here in the long-term. For while provocative statements may excite a small group of voters in the short-term, all politicians will ultimately suffer in an environment where arguments (and accusations) can be made without corroboration, objective vetting or third-party analysis.
Perhaps most troubling is that the most ardent followers of these politicians-in-waiting seem immune and uninterested in any fact-finding or evidence that contradicts their favorite pols. Even if they acknowledge a story might be a stretch, they admire the fact their candidate isn’t afraid to rock the boat and share his/her real views. In essence, facts don’t seem to matter much anymore, at least in public discourse. There is information on the Internet available to back any claim, no matter how outrageous, and standards or probity have become largely subjective. Fact-finding sites and third-party sources are often dismissed as biased or elitist. The result is a population that is dangerously misinformed, or at least willingly misguided, on a range of issues. They believe what they want to believe, and nothing will change their mind.
Trying to subvert or ignore truth is nothing new, of course. In recent years we’ve seen this on a grand scale, notably the attempts by the tobacco and gas industries to bury evidence and create their own narrative to suit their business interests. But what may be new is the prevalence and prominence of hoaxes and half-truths in the public realm, and the realization that many citizens don’t seem that alarmed. The result can be disastrous for the public good, as in the case of the tobacco lobby activities.
It remains to be seen whether the majority of citizens will push back and demand that their leaders be transparent and truthful, or at least responsive to legitimate questions. Either way, the erosion of truth and objective analysis raises critical questions for the PR industry. It’s an easy temptation to join the parade and counsel clients on crafting and promoting their own narrative without consideration for evidence or credibility.
But this is an opportunity for serious professionals to focus on their core values and principles (which likely feature honesty and ethics) and provide a grown-up perspective to their clients. Think of reputation as a long-term game. Don’t just say the key message, but do the right thing. The emergence of social media ushered a welcome premium on authenticity, transparency and respect for consumers. It’s my sincere hope that the PR industry can help reinforce this spirit and ensure facts remain an integral part of our public discourse.