Column: Post-truth poses dangerous potential for democracy

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Editor’s note: This column appeared first in the Winston-Salem Journal.

By Byron Williams

America is moving close to permanently becoming part of the post-truth world. I define post-truth, in our 21st century context, as a phenomenon where it is difficult to ascertain a common consent to our democratic values.

There has never been mutual agreement on many of America’s seminal events. Do we collectively agree on reasons for the Civil War, the Kennedy assassination or why the U.S. invaded Iraq?

We are now bombarded by information in unprecedented ways, which diminishes authority, in this case, our constitutional inheritance. A post-truth existence has always been a threat to the republic, but its overt emergence is due largely to the speed with which new information is made available for public consumption.

The pace at which we receive information along with the luxury of viewing that data through our preferred mediums leaves little space for critical thinking.

As we inch closer to full membership in the post-truth world, we lose focus on our core values. Liberty and equality become myths worshipped by a small band of true believers.

It is overly simplistic to deduce that the post-truth world is simply the underpinning of a mendacious ethos. In the post-truth world, facts do become subservient to emotional appeal. In doing so, our individualistic truths masquerade as the definitive authority, impervious to inquiry, dissent or curiosity.

In this context, public discourse becomes akin to debating a Rorschach test. This fact alone is hardly newsworthy. The complexities of the human condition, especially in a democratic society, demand that there be different ways one views the ink spots on the page.

But what happens when our perspectives extend beyond the parameters of our democratic values?

It is not as convenient as engaging in a favorite liberal pastime, which is to lose elections and bemoan in the aftermath that individuals who support many of liberal issues seemingly vote against their perceived political interest. While there may be some truth to that outlook, it fails to tell the complete story. It would appear some rather dubious allies also aid America’s emerging post-truth world.

“Fake news,” which once existed in the exclusive domain of satire, now accurately describes, for some, portions of our mainstream media. Under the amorphous rubric of “journalism,” some see no difference between a bureau chief at The New York Times and someone blogging between episodes of “Cheers” reruns.

Legitimacy is granted to the latter category by their consistent appearances on Google and Facebook. Unrestrained by journalistic ethics, “fake news” systematically undermines the Fourth Estate.

“Pizzagate” was a fake news story that barely missed tragedy. In 2016, an erroneous news story went viral, alleging that a child pornography ring led by Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton operated at a pizza establishment in Washington, D.C.

Though the story had been widely debunked, on Dec. 4, Edgar Welch of Salisbury walked into the pizza establishment targeted by the fake story and fired three shots from his AR-15 style assault rifle before being subdued. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 23 percent of those polled shared a “fake news” story and 14 percent did so knowing the story was false. Popularity on the Internet can bestow legitimacy, especially when those stories support viewpoints already held.

Does anyone believe the aforementioned statistics are on the decline?

Moreover, fact-checking has become an inadequate antiseptic to this insidious occurrence. Once a safeguard to hold elected officials accountable, fact-checking is now seen through the same amorphous contemporary prism as “journalism,” which legitimizes the post-truth world.

Post-truth rarely offers us a direction that makes us better by going forward.

How do we push back on this unfortunate phenomenon? Do we naively assume there is a primary culprit? That would most likely be America’s initial response because of its simplistic nature.

The post-truth world operates in a political vacuum, viewing the side it supports and that which it opposes with unrealistic naivety.

Throughout its history, America has flirted with post-truth. But the convergence of America’s 21st century fears that led to our seeking the safety of the silos of our convenience, along with broad access to information, has pushed the flirtation toward a committed relationship.

Post-truth is the precursor to accepting the authoritarian form of rule, tantalized almost exclusively by the rhetoric of our choosing. It is the fertilizer that cultivates concerns that George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” will come to fruition.

Its implications are much wider than debating the current issue. It threatens our democratic-republic form of government because it delegitimizes the authority of our sacred institutions and documents.

A democratic nation that loses the desires of inquiry, dissent or curiosity becomes a democracy in name only.

The Rev. Byron Williams, a writer and the host of the “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.