You might have heard lately that we’re living in a “post-truth” era. But what does that mean, and where does the term come from? There’s no question that “post-truth” is a buzzword in politics. Its usage in the English language increased by more than 2,000% in 2016 and continues to rise in 2017. Frequency spiked most dramatically in June 2016 after the Brexit vote and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination.
But the trail goes farther back than that. Though “post-truth” has been popularized during the Trump era, its origins lie a little more than thirty years ago.
1979: Roots in postmodernism
The book “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” popularizes the term “postmodernism” in philosophy, where it would be taken up by countless theorists in the 1980s. The author, Jean-François Lyotard, defines postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.”
Though the philosophy of postmodern theorists varies greatly, as a group they are defined by the way they discredit truth as an objective narrative for history, society, or the arts. They say that any claim on “truth” is in fact relative to the person declaring that truth and therefore subjective.
1992: “post-truth” enters journalism
Post-truth is thought to make its first appearance in a 1992 essay by the Serbian-American Steve Tesich in The Nation. Following the truth of Watergate, the poor coverage of the Iran-Contra Scandal and Persian Gulf War, he writes that “we, as a free people, have decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.” In this sentence he describes what he calls “the Watergate syndrome,” in which Americans would rather be lied to than learn uncomfortable truths about the country.
By the mid-1990s journalists follow academics in rejecting objectivity. They both declare objectivity to be a professional ritual rather than a true stance one could take on an issue.
Influenced by his reporting on the war in former Yugoslavia, Martin Bell publishes his article “Journalism of Attachment,” which says that journalists had a moral obligation to distinguish between right and wrong in conflict zones. Though this notion undermines the National Union of Journalists, Bell insistes that journalists must include a human aspect in their writing.
The influence of “post-truth” on politics begins to make itself known as the U.S. government focuses on how “truths” could be spun in the media in order to further their political agenda. This happens most notably with the reporting on the Iraq War.
American comedian Stephen Colbert popularizes the term “truthiness” on the Colbert Report. Oxford Dictionaries then defines this word as “the quality of or seeming to be felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.”
David Roberts coins the term “post-truth politics” in a post for Grist. He defines it as “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation).”
At this point, “post-truth” pertains the idea that someone’s opinion is more important than the facts. This idea is aggravated by the rise of social media, a platform that allows anyone to “publish” their opinions online.
Oxford English Dictionaries declares “post-truth” the word of the year.
People are concerned about how “fake news,” a symptom of the post-truth era, affected the results of the 2016 election, as many people couldn’t distinguish between real and fake news on their social media feeds.
In the case of “post-truth,” “post-” as a prefix doesn't mean “after” as much as it implies a time in which a notion is no longer relevant. As it usually takes “freak” events in the world to change the way people in engage with language, it follows that the usage of “post-truth” spiked so rapidly in 2016. And considering what last year in store for us, the meaning of its prefix could not be more fitting. Though as a country we once welcomed “post-truth” with open arms, the term has taken on an unanticipated meaning: that we may have no control over the quality of the information people receive, and therefore cannot anticipate our country’s future.
This article was originally published on May 11, 2017.