The Emergence of a Post-Fact World

Francis Fukuyama in Project Syndicate: “One of the more striking developments of 2016 and its highly unusual politics was the emergence of a “post-fact” world, in which virtually all authoritative information sources were called into question and challenged by contrary facts of dubious quality and provenance.

The emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web in the 1990s was greeted as a moment of liberation and a boon for democracy worldwide. Information constitutes a form of power, and to the extent that information was becoming cheaper and more accessible, democratic publics would be able to participate in domains from which they had been hitherto excluded.

The development of social media in the early 2000s appeared to accelerate this trend, permitting the mass mobilization that fueled various democratic “color revolutions” around the world, from Ukraine to Burma (Myanmar) to Egypt. In a world of peer-to-peer communication, the old gatekeepers of information, largely seen to be oppressive authoritarian states, could now be bypassed.

While there was some truth to this positive narrative, another, darker one was also taking shape. Those old authoritarian forces were responding in dialectical fashion, learning to control the Internet, as in China, with its tens of thousands of censors, or, as in Russia, by recruiting legions of trolls and unleashing bots to flood social media with bad information. These trends all came together in a hugely visible way during 2016, in ways that bridged foreign and domestic politics….

The traditional remedy for bad information, according to freedom-of-information advocates, is simply to put out good information, which in a marketplace of ideas will rise to the top. This solution, unfortunately, works much less well in a social-media world of trolls and bots. There are estimates that as many as a third to a quarter of Twitter users fall into this category. The Internet was supposed to liberate us from gatekeepers; and, indeed, information now comes at us from all possible sources, all with equal credibility. There is no reason to think that good information will win out over bad information….

The inability to agree on the most basic facts is the direct product of an across-the-board assault on democratic institutions – in the US, in Britain, and around the world. And this is where the democracies are headed for trouble. In the US, there has in fact been real institutional decay, whereby powerful interest groups have been able to protect themselves through a system of unlimited campaign finance. The primary locus of this decay is Congress, and the bad behavior is for the most part as legal as it is widespread. So ordinary people are right to be upset.

And yet, the US election campaign has shifted the ground to a general belief that everything has been rigged or politicized, and that outright bribery is rampant. If the election authorities certify that your favored candidate is not the victor, or if the other candidate seemed to perform better in a debate, it must be the result of an elaborate conspiracy by the other side to corrupt the outcome. The belief in the corruptibility of all institutions leads to a dead end of universal distrust. American democracy, all democracy, will not survive a lack of belief in the possibility of impartial institutions; instead, partisan political combat will come to pervade every aspect of life….(More)”