It’s all the rage these days to say that we’re living in a “post-fact” or “post-truth” world, in which you can get away with saying just about anything. But is this so?
To be sure, with the growth of Internet news sites and the proliferation of other websites and blogs – millions upon millions of them – in addition to the expansion of social media platforms, the glut of voices shouting to be heard is overwhelming.
My column last month noted that while facts matter, it appears that emotion matters more. This is especially so given the feeling conveyed by the non-stop flood of negative news that ours is a more violently disordered world than ever before. That certain key facts prove otherwise does not seem to count for much.
Earlier this month, in the aftermath of the police killing of Aaron Driver, who reportedly was planning to carry out a terrorist attack in southern Ontario, the Globe and Mail argued at length in an editorial, bolstered by an array of statistics, that the chance of a Canadian dying from such attacks is minuscule.
“A person in Canada willing to carry out a terror attack in the name of [the Islamic State] is an exceedingly rare thing, like a needle in a haystack with 35 million pieces of benign straw,” the Globe wrote. According to the paper, while in 2014 more than 1,800 people were killed in car accidents, “over the past two decades, Canada has had between five and zero terrorist incidents per year. In 2015, the database recorded five individual acts of terrorism in Canada. They resulted in two injuries and no deaths.”
Yet the amount of media attention devoted to the Driver case was enormous and created, in its wake, perceptual consequences of risk and vulnerability to ordinary citizens that the citing of car fatalities can’t quite quell.
Recently, Robert Fulford in the National Post proposed the idea that there’s a link between technological advances in mass media – providing us what he calls “an almost instant connection with the most terrible crimes on earth” – and “the spreading of anxiety.”
Fulford noted that last year, “a survey of 100,000 students by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health in the U.S. found that more than half of students seeking help at campus clinics reported anxiety as an issue,” exceeding those who reported depression, previously their primary malaise.
It certainly makes sense to accept the link Fulford draws – whether it’s anxiety related to non-stop news about increasing global competition for employment, robots replacing many existing job opportunities, unaffordable housing or, indeed, instant reports of terrorist attacks among other terrible crimes.
The sense of dread grows and spreads. And demagogues such as U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump seize on this and imagine somehow that they can get away with such ludicrous falsehoods as Trump’s claim that the current president of the United States is the “founder of ISIS.” Trump’s later inconsistent assertion that he was merely being sarcastic, but not really sarcastic, only compounded the sense among many that Trump is incapable of even distinguishing between truth and falsehood, as Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria argued even before this latest Trump absurdity.
The good news (yes, there is indeed good news) is that, for many – and arguably most – people, facts do matter. Most of us accept, as an unstated part of our ordinary grasp of reality, that there should be at least a rough correspondence between what a person says (the narrative) and the way things really are (the facts). Establishing that correspondence is not always easy, but it can and often must be done. Truth matters. It matters a lot.
Fortunately, along with the glut of irresponsible voices screaming on the Internet, we can be grateful for the increase in fact-checking sites devoted to debunking distortions and lies.
Their vigilance helps ensure our sanity.
Paul Michaels is CIJA’s research director.