It was January 22nd 2017, when lies officially became alternative facts. Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the newly inaugurated President Trump, took to the airwaves. Speaking on the major Sunday morning programme Meet the Press, Conway defended Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s assertion that Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in-person and around the globe”. This was despite large amounts of photographic and other evidence to the contrary.
As has become customary in our hyper-networked age, the clip spread around the globe almost instantly. The phrase stuck.
It stuck not just because what Conway saying was clearly ridiculous, but also because the phrase perfectly summed up the era in which we are living.
This is an age in which expertise is seen as elitist and not to be trusted. In one of the lowest points of the UK’s 2016 EU referendum, the Leave campaigner Michael Gove, a hyper-intelligent bookworm, declared that “the British people have had enough of experts…”
It is an age in which the truth is up for grabs, and facts are no longer sacred.
More and more people are just not buying what conventional politics and media are selling. This disconnect between the media and politicians – the “metropolitan elite” - and the wider public was brought to the forefront following the British voters’ decision to leave the EU, and the election campaign and ultimate victory by Donald Trump as US President. But it had been happening long before then.
The general public around the world are seemingly so frustrated with mainstream politics, a politics they blame for financial crises, soaring housing prices, and tough employment markets, that many of them are happy to latch on to any politicians who break away from this.
Enter Farage, Le Pen, Trump, and co.
Add into this echo chamber enter new media outlets. The conventional methods of reaching voters can be bypassed by outlets that are positioning themselves against the old guard and cashing in on the chaos.
So all-consuming was this cultural counter revolution, the Oxford Dictionary made “post-truth” its Word of the Year in 2016, giving the following reasons for its decision:
“The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.”
As the definition indicates, there were a few key incidents that brought this concept to the fore. Months before Conway’s on-air incident, leaders of the Leave campaign in the British EU referendum had proudly stood in front of a bus that declared that £350 million a week paid into the EU by the UK would go to the NHS if voters backed leave. Within days of the eventual Leave vote, politicians from the victorious side were backtracking.
Of course, many things have contributed to the loss of trust in so called elites. MPs’ expenses played their role, as did rising immigration, the reversal of the Lib Dem’s pledge not to raise university tuition fees, the revelations about the Hillsborough disaster cover up and the phone hacking scandal.
So in these pages, with the help of some of the best minds in politics and media – and crucially, outside them - I aim to decipher how we got here, where “here” actually is, and how to fix it. The reasons and the solutions may be complicated, but the issue is clear - we are just not buying it anymore.