What is Post Truth Politics

Politics & Communication

John Kerry had carefully prepared this attack. In a televised duel during the hotly contested US election campaign in 2004, he accused his opponent, George W. Bush, of putting his tax plans for small businesses into his own pocket. "The president got $ 84 from a lumber company that he owns," said Kerry. "I own a logging company? This is new to me," said a visibly surprised Bush. But he felt that he had to get on the offensive somehow. So he put on a salesman's smile, opened his arms and addressed millions of viewers directly: "Do you need wood?"

What followed was the big hour of the fact checkers, those journalists and experts who checked every testimony of the candidates for their truthfulness. What was that ominous $ 84 from Bush's tax return? In the end, the allegation turned out to be thin and Bush landed a point win with his lumber salesman pose. In order to later find far less mercy from the seekers of truth with his justification for the Iraq war.

The fact checking was new, exciting and influential. It gave the observer from Germany the comforting feeling that even in the US election campaign, which is rich in tricks, fakes and large donations, victory only leads to the truth. The numerous fact checkers are still printing, sending and tweeting today. You have way more to complain about than $ 84 from lumber sales.

Pinocchios for Trump and Clinton

Donald Trump received the highest rating of four Pinocchios for two thirds of his verified statements in the fact check of the "Washington Post". On September 11, 2001, he claims to have seen thousands of Muslims cheering the attack on the World Trade Center. Where the official statistics show five percent of Americans without a job, Trump puts the unemployment rate at 42 percent. Nevertheless, his supporters consider him a candidate who speaks unpleasant truths.

In the 2016 election campaign, facts only play an extra role. Hillary Clinton's statements get a long nose much less often. But after decades in politics, their reputation is not looking good either. Her statement that, as Foreign Minister, she had not sent any classified information via her private e-mail account also brought her four Pinocchios. According to an earlier story of the candidate, the famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary was the godfather of her first name. The latter did not climb Mount Everest until six years after Hillary was born and was previously largely unknown.

The testimony of the candidates is only the tip of the iceberg. Defamation and conspiracy theories flourish on tendentious portals and in social media, which political campaigns like to use. "The fact checking of the mainstream media no longer has any effect," says the editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, Marty Baron. A "virtual reality" has spread, he complains. Lies are accepted as facts and conspiracy theories "take root on the fertile soil of untruths".

In the Anglo-Saxon world, a term has emerged for this new phenomenon: post-truth politics. The Brexit advocates have explicitly referred to this American election campaign trend: "Facts don't work," said Arron Banks, the biggest financier of the EU opponents - and he was right. The post-truth politician does not believe that his voters are interested in facts and is too happy to sacrifice them to fiction. This explains why even those caught in the act of twisting facts are unreasonable, sometimes spreading their lies all the more persistently.

In the USA there is a multitude of falsehoods surrounding the incumbent President Barack Obama. A not inconsiderable number of Americans take at face value that they were born outside the USA, that they are Muslim or even the founder of IS. The irony of history: there has seldom been a president who thinks so rationally and is so interested in scientific expertise as the Harvard lawyer Obama.

Distrust of the establishment

The age of post-truth politics goes hand in hand with a loss of confidence in those who like to work with numbers, data and facts. They do not assume expertise, but spin. A letter from 50 Republican security advisors warning against Donald Trump turned against them. They just wanted to cover up their own failures, it said. Experts and scientists are portrayed as guided by interests, traditional politicians as corrupt, and the media as partisan. The American variant of the "lying press". Anti-establishment candidates are so successful because they contradict those whom one no longer believes a word.

The foothills of this US election campaign trend have long since reached Germany. No wonder, since the causes of post-truth politics are not confined to the United States. Social media, or rather their users, bypass journalistic test criteria. Unlike the traditional fact checkers in editorial offices, the algorithms reward popularity, not the truth of a statement. Windy stories, once put into the world, are blown on. For fear of missing the connection, traditional media jump on half-baked news.

Search engines and social networks are so perfectly tailored to us as searchers that we come across pleasant results. So we mostly read and hear what corresponds to our opinion. And at the same time lull us into the feeling that almost everyone thinks that way. In the USA, according to a study by the Pew Institute, the alienation between the political camps is worse than it has been for decades. About half of all Democrats and Republicans find it "stressful and frustrating" to discuss politics with a supporter of the other party. Democracy lives from precisely this exchange of arguments.

The USA also makes the USA susceptible to distorting the truth - and here the parallel to Germany is evident - its balanced and thus clumsy political system. It brings the state into conflict with the regions, makes the president fight with Congress - and all together with the Supreme Court. This makes it easy for anti-establishment candidates to portray the system as weak and inefficient. The balance of interests and different instances are part and parcel of the essence of democracy.

It would be too easy to blame the circumstances alone. In the USA too, brave politicians and commentators of all stripes are trying to oppose the drift into post-truth politics. Whether the election campaign trend of distorting the truth spills over into Germany will also depend on the sense of responsibility of our political elites and communicators. Because one thing is clear: Post-truth, or rather a lie, can possibly win an election - but lose a democracy.

Important fact checking websites

1 PolitiFact
is a Pulitzer Prize-winning project operated by the Tampa Bay Times. The maximum punishment is the "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" Borrowed from an American nursery rhyme. This is used to describe particularly bold lies.

2 FactCheck.org
is a portal of the Annenberg Public Policy Center financed by private donors, which particularly examines political election advertising.

3 Sunlight Foundation
is a non-partisan non-profit organization that advocates transparency and open access to data.

4 Snopes.com
is a portal operated by a Californian couple. Above all, political rumors and legends, which are mostly reported by readers, are checked.

5 Washington Post fact checkers
Larger media outlets have their own fact-checking page. The journalist Glenn Kessler runs the Washington Post. He rates distortions of truth on a scale from one to four Pinocchios.