Why we shouldn't panic over post-truth
In our most recent podcast, the term “post-truth” was raised a fair few times. The word entered our dictionaries in 2016 and will doubtless be a chapter in political science and history books for generations to come.
Suddenly everyone thought the world had lost all perspective and sense of truth, but for those who have studied the phenomenon for years (under many other names), it's not as novel as we might imagine. This is certainly the view of Ben Page, who is responsible for one of the world's best-known polling companies - 2016 hasn't invented the term, it's just brought it to the fore.
Much of today's talk about the post-truth phenomenon focuses on trust in government, but - as Ben told Adrian Brown - trust in politics has been low for decades. According to a 1944 Gallup poll, when there was a national wartime coalition, only 36% of Britons thought that politicians were acting in the interests of the country rather than in their own or their party's interests (70 years later it had fallen to just 10%).
Decisions are driven by emotion, not facts
And do people care about the truth any more? Whatever the evidence, the facts matter less to people than we think, and perhaps it's time we got used to this. “People will choose the facts that suit their own point of view,” explains Ben. It's not so much that they don't care about facts at all, but they only respond to the ones that make sense to them. People are not idiots for being this way. We all do it all the time in our own decision-making because emotion matters too, and we're not always rational in how we think about issues and what we choose to believe - just as in our decisions about the things we buy.
However, it remains a mystery why citizens vote the way they do, for example when they elect “people who seem a bit out there” as leaders. One explanation Ben shares with us is that voters believe the democratic system is strong enough to keep these people in check when they're actually in power. But, as he says, “that may or may not be right” and things will become clearer in 2017.
Get rid of politicians to get rid of post-truth?
In the UK, citizens' trust in their individual local politicians is greater than their trust in parliament. Ben thinks this is because we've lost faith in national institutions, despite the way we rely on parliament to hold politicians to account for the ideas that don't work. But however much people may distrust politicians, they consider the alternatives to be even worse - they don't want to replace elected politicians with professional managers, either. People like to be able to blame individuals and vote them in or out as they see fit.
When it comes to policies, people make judgments about what is fair and what works - as was the case with London's congestion charge and the UK's ban on smoking in enclosed public places. Ben agreed with Adrian that the government's timing on the smoking ban was well judged. The ban came at a time when public opinion was moving in its favour and only about 20% of the population were smokers - perhaps when half of the population smoked, it would have been more difficult to implement.
When citizens consider policies to be unfair, as with the poll tax, they can become unworkable. And many people see unfairness in the way that they have failed to benefit from the economic recovery. As a result we may be witnessing, in the British and Italian referendums and the US elections, “a general revolt against global elites”. We should bear in mind, though, that values don't change that quickly, so we need to see a few more elections before we can judge what's really going on.
Does government get the message?
The private sector spends billions on audience research in order to understand consumers. They also scrape online data from social media, online retailers and others. There's so much information available about our lives, you'd think government would also be able to identify what people care about and make political messages and policies speak to them. But the truth, as Ben explains, is that government is still guessing and tying itself up in knots over privacy, so polling will continue to matter (of course, it relies on peopling telling the truth when polled!).
As Ben also observed, “not understanding why people think things can lead you into massive problems.” That's why research is so important: government has to understand which parts of which arguments are most effective. This is something the leaders who are winning elections and referendums are getting right.
Pleasing the voters with clear messages that explain how they will be helped to lead better lives seems obvious to me, so why do leaders get their communications so wrong just when it matters most? Perhaps some political parties are too idealistic about voters or just don't get their voters at all. The podcast reassures us that the post-truth era doesn't have to mean that the world cares nothing for society any more. It may be that voters want governments to show they care about them and have listened to their voice.
Having listened to this podcast, I can say this: let's keep asking the questions and listening to the answers. Let's not panic over post-truth, but seek to understand how to adapt messages so that people feel connected to them. We need to use the latest data and technology to understand what is and isn't working. It's not radical - it's just the same as your Christmas purchases helping companies plan their commercial strategies for 2017.
The podcast with Ben Page is available to listen here.