Post-truth: what is it and what can we do about it?


07/02/2017

On 7 February 2017, the Royal Statistical Society (RSS), hosted the event “Post-truth: What is it and what can we do about it? ”. During the discussion, Hetan Shah, executive director of the RSS , noted that the term “post-truth” began to circulate during the UK’s referendum on Brexit. The widespread use of this term was then boosted by events in the USA following President Trump’s electoral campaign. While the current period has been called “post-truth era”, we have never been in anything called “truth” era, particularly in politics.

The panelists thus took into consideration what has really changed, and what action can be taken to promote evidence and facts, with a focus on the UK. Helen Margets, director of the Oxford Internet Institute , focused on some of the challenges and responsibility for social media, saying that some negative aspects of media and political campaigning have been - perhaps unfairly - attributed to social media, i.e. fake news; computational propaganda and echo chambers. She also noted that social media can do more in educating their users in being aware of how content is displayed in their platforms.

James Ball, special correspondent for Buzzfeed News , discussed the role of news and journalists in dealing with fake news in the UK. He considered that this issue is overemphasised and that UK has no fake news industry since its partisan newspapers already do the job of feeding people’s biases. Bell stressed that there should be norms and values in how the news presents information, which can emerge through campaigns and public pressure.

Will Moy, director of Full Facts , focused on the perceptions of the public with regard to the truthfulness of politicians and the media, saying that a new tradition is emerging among politicians, which is to maintain a position regardless of the facts. However, public polling shows that the public wants civil servants to be truthful. Bell thus highlighted some solutions for boosting facts and evidence in the political sphere, which involve journalists, public institutions and Statistics authorities. He also presented the “Need to know project ”, a project of the fact checking organisation Full Fact, in cooperation with the Royal Statistical Society. Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science , that concluded the panel’s presentations, said that “statistics about the social and political and natural world should be a common good”.