Propoganda Isn’t About Trying to Fool You

Lee McIntyre's 'Post-Truth' is a history lesson and a call to action asking liberals to defend the concept of objective truth. But is it the best approach to the problem?

Lee McIntyre
MIT Press
Feb 2018

Lee McIntyre and I agree about a lot of things. We’re both very disturbed by the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration and its supporters. We’re both afraid that the ideas of truth and objectivity that held sway one 100 years ago are about to be replaced by an evil brand of populism, based on greed and fear. We both want to prevent that from happening – and we disagree about the best way of going about it.

In Post-Truth, published earlier this year as part of the Essential Knowledge Series from MIT Press, McIntyre lays out a concise, scholarly explanation for why the concept of truth is currently so disputed – leading to a surge of fake news and “alternative facts” as well as public confusion over scientific consensus – alongside an argument that the best political response is to insist on reasserting the idea of objective truth. If this sounds like a technical, academic way of saying “Let’s hold liars accountable for their lies,” it is.

The first six chapters interrogate the origins of post-truth and explain the basic economic drivers that lead people to spread false information and deliberately stoke confusion. The overview includes everything from tobacco companies that tried to sow confusion over whether smoking could cause cancer (and were later found guilty of fraud) to a Georgian blogger who, by his own admission, started making up content about Hillary Clinton to generate more ad revenue.

These examples and others highlight one of the major themes in Post-Truth: that significant confusion over verifiable facts (like who won the popular vote in the 2016 election) doesn’t happen by accident – it happens because someone who stands to profit from confusion starts telling lies. This may be purely for economic gain, or it may be for the power that comes from demonstrating that one can lie with impunity. As McIntyre writes, summarizing Jason Stanley‘s work on propaganda, “The goal of propaganda is not to convince someone that you are right, but to demonstrate that you have authority over the truth itself… [T]he goal of propaganda is not to fool you, but to assert political dominance.”

If personal profit (in the form of money, status, or power) motivates people to lie, there’s also a question of what motivates others to believe the lies. McIntyre covers this as well, diving into a discussion of psychology, cognitive biases, information silos, and research into how to change someone’s opinion (spoilers, but it’s not by confronting them in an angry, aggressive way).

These chapters are interesting and informative, especially in so far as they lend some historical context to our current discussions about fake news, but I sometimes found myself confused as to whether McIntyre was trying to explain how we arrived in the post-truth era or argue that it’s wrong to lie. By his own admission, post-truth encompasses more than lying, but the book sometimes swerves between a general discussion of post-truth and very specific discussion about malicious lies without clear signposts.

The penultimate chapter, and the chapter where McIntyre and I most clearly start to part ways, is about whether the study of postmodernism is responsible for creating post-truth. For what it’s worth, I agree with McIntyre that postmodern theory’s rise in popularity probably did contribute to the post-truth era we’re living in now – I’m just not convinced, as he seems to be, that that’s a bad thing or that it’s synonymous with living in a culture where people can just lie.

After laying out a case for how postmodernism – a critical approach that rejects the possibility of meaning, coherence, or objective truth – has been adopted by right-wing pundits and used to destabilize public understanding of science, McIntyre seems to argue that the whole problem of fake news could have been avoided if early postmodern theorists had kept their ideas to themselves. “This is the cost of playing with ideas as if they had no consequences,” he writes. “It’s all fun and games to attack truth in the academy, but what happens when one’s tactics leak out into the hands of science deniers and conspiracy theorists, or thin-skinned politicians who insist that their instincts are better than any evidence?”

The problem with that line of reasoning is that, of course, Derrida and his contemporaries didn’t really invent the ideas they wrote about. They gave expression to ideas that were already circulating in Western culture. They developed a language and a framework to talk and think about ideas that would have existed, at some point, with or without them. Ideas that were always bound to exist, once modernism hit the scene. Suppressing those ideas for a few more generations, or refusing to develop a language to talk about them – making them unspeakable – wouldn’t mean that the post-truth era never arrived. Postmodernism and post-truth were always inevitable, because any belief system, any epistemology, any way of organizing our understanding of the world will always eventually reach a limit and be replaced by something else. Right now, we’re afraid, because we don’t want it to be replaced by something awful. We don’t want it to be replaced by a thing where everybody listens to a big man with a stick, and agrees with all his dumb ideas, because they’re afraid to get hit. My suggestion is that, faced with the potential end of modernism, we all work towards creating a good replacement epistemology – one that we like; one that’s kind; one that’s civil – so that authoritarianism isn’t the only option on the table. McIntyre’s suggestion is that we don’t replace the old systems at all.

There’s an aggressive tone to certain passages in Post-Truth that foreshadows the book’s conclusion. It’s the voice of a man who’s chosen his side in the war and means to fight his enemies as hard as he possibly can. This is not a book meant to convert people who hold the opposite viewpoint. It’s not meant to build bridges to the other side. It’s a rallying call to likeminded liberals, begging us to fight for the notion of objective truth. As he writes in the final chapter, “The issue for me is not to learn how to adjust to living in a world in which facts do not matter, but instead to stand up for the notion of truth and learn how to fight back.” It’s a position I can respect, even if I don’t agree.

The epistemic crisis in America, and, more broadly, in Western cultures is real, and it extends beyond the Trump administration and beyond a malicious desire to lie for personal gain. It’s something that we’re all going to have reckon with – it’s something we’ll each have to decide how to respond to. Although I would propose a different response than McIntyre does, he lays out a good argument for his position and it’s something worth reading and considering as you make your own decisions about what to do going forward.