Post-truth world has implications for the future of communication

by Bruce Ruddy, Head of Financial Communication

Published on
January 20, 2017

We are living in a ‘post-truth’ era. In fact the word was declared ‘Word of 2016’ by Oxford Dictionaries.

‘Post-truth’ is defined as an adjective, describing circumstances where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.

Last year’s political campaigns such as Brexit and the US election demonstrated the era we live is characterised by shrinking attention spans, where emotion beats facts, logic and rationality.

The combination of a growing mistrust of big institutions and the rise of populist movements and social media is being held responsible for the post–truth era. Social media provides increasing opportunities for individuals to tailor their own media consumption around their own opinions and often, prejudices.

That is why social media is now the medium of choice for populist leaders such as Trump and indeed, their supporters. These open platforms put the power in their hands, allowing them to share their own common stories rather than relying on the increasingly mistrusted mainstream media. Social media often blends fact and fiction, sitting outside the bounds of conventional journalistic rules and norms, and provides an instant voice for anyone who wants to chip in, regardless of their credentials.

The critical problem is the oversupply of facts in the 21st Century. There are too many sources and no time for fact-checking.

Following the game-changing political events of 2016, we now know with greater certainty that emotion and nostalgia are powerful persuasion tools, and when combined with simplicity and repetition — “we’ll build a wall”, “Hillary is evil” — these concepts become embedded in people’s psyches.

So if we are transitioning from a society comforted and regulated by facts, what does the future hold?

A good starting point is the uptake of smart technologies which has been referred to as the ‘internet of things’. The growth of smart phones, smart cards, social media and e-commerce is generating a massive quantity of data, so much so we have entered the realm of ‘big data’. Data can be mined to get a sense of what people are thinking and how they are behaving in real time, and has the edge over ‘facts’ as, if used cleverly, it has the capability to sense shifts in public sentiment. It works a little bit like the ‘worm’ of political debate fame, though on a much larger scale.

Companies, politicians, journalists and those in the communication industry cannot ignore the implications and possibilities provided by big data in the future. It means political, communication and marketing campaigns will become less reliant on repeating the facts, which are struggling to gain consensus in the modern world, and can focus more on tracking public sentiment in real time. This up-to-the-minute data will enable pollsters, marketers and communicators to respond appropriately with tools and tactics aligned with consumer sentiment.