My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Length: 320 pages
Release date: 11 May 2017
2016 marked the birth of the post-truth era. Sophistry and spin have coloured politics since the dawn of time, but two shock events – the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s elevation to US President – heralded a departure into murkier territory.
From Trump denying video evidence of his own words, to the infamous Leave claims of £350 million for the NHS, politics has rarely seen so many stretching the truth with such impunity.
Bullshit gets you noticed. Bullshit makes you rich. Bullshit can even pave your way to the Oval Office.
This is bigger than fake news and bigger than social media. It’s about the slow rise of a political, media and online infrastructure that has devalued truth.
This is the story of bullshit: what’s being spread, who’s spreading it, why it works – and what we can do to tackle it.
You’d think the deluge of Trump/Brexit-related media would have reached saturation long ago, but by this point, I’ve pretty much given up hope of people ever tiring of news regarding America’s clown-in-chief. I picked up James Ball’s Post-Truth with the naive belief that it might cover a wider breadth than just those two topics that have bombarded the English-speaking world of late, but sadly, that is exactly what the book spends 95% of its time on. Without a doubt, Post-Truth is well-researched and authoritatively written, but I fear it suffers from being another of at least hundreds of populism-focused books in the wake of recent events. Compared to the rest of the crop, it doesn’t stand out enough or offer enough distinct material to make you see things in a new light.
On the plus side, the book benefits from a clear four-part structure, aptly titled “The Power of Bullshit”, “Who’s Spreading the Shit?”, “Why Bullshit Works”, and “How to Stop Bullshit”. Each part covers exactly what you’d expect, starting with a rehash of Trump and Brexit accompanied by the ways that politicians, different types of media, and the general populace spread fake or misleading information. The book then segues into an overview of the cultural, economic and psychological factors supporting bullshit and ends with a tellingly short list of ideas to combat bullshit. Part II: “Who’s Spreading the Shit?” takes up the lion’s share of the page count, over five times what’s allocated to the chapter on possible solutions. From that, you could make the pessimistic inference that journalists can bemoan the current state of affairs all they like, but nobody has the first clue how to fix it.
Ball’s argument centres on the point that sensationalised, rapidly-produced fake news appeals to our emotions and confirmation bias in order to spread much faster than real news or fact-checks debunking the lies. Even if a fake or misleading claim is debunked, this benefits the spreader of the original falsehood, as it directs more traffic towards it. As the saying goes, no attention is bad attention. Ironically (and he does acknowledge this), Ball’s references to various pieces of fake news in his book also contribute to getting them more attention. All of this suggests a Gordian knot in which you have fact-checkers trying to bail out a ship with a thimble. Even more disheartening is the reality that the people reading Post-Truth and similar books are probably going to be the polar opposite of those who need to be reading it.
Fortunately, Post-Truth does end with a few ideas that might not be the worst ways to tackle bullshit. For sure, nothing short of a fundamental change in the way our culture views media and information is going to solve the problem entirely, but there are still a few measures that can be taken to stem the tide. It won’t be easy and it won’t be welcomed, but at some point you have to confront the nasty equilibrium point our information ecosystem’s at, where everybody (including those who loudly denounce “fake news”) contributes in some shape or form to the culture of mistrust and confusion. Contrary to the questionable beliefs that Russia/Hillary Clinton/the Illuminati/”liberal elites” are running a 24/7 online shill army, we’ve gotten here pretty organically. Getting out will be easier said than done.