Artwork by Kristaps Zilgalvis

There's a new mood in the Western world. It's been called the post-truth era, described as homeopathy politics, and is ubiquitously driven by ideals of populism, isolationism and the uneasy juxtaposition of nationalism and pessimism.

Experts are dismissed in favour of intuitive rhetoric, such as liberation from the chains of the EU or the idea that the system is rigged against blue-collar workers.

Voters are swayed by appeals to prejudice, exaggerated personal attacks and outright falsehoods at the expense of objective weighing of the costs and benefits of particular alternatives.

A recent example of this is the referendum for Britain to leave the EU. The Brexit vote (signifying the exit of Britain from the European Union), was intended to heal rifts in the Conservative party and pave the way for David Cameron to consolidate his position as Prime Minister, and was expected to end with an easy win for the Remain campaign.

However, the Leave campaign pushed the buttons of sovereignty, fear of the unknown and even employed highly contentious statistics to sway voters.

One of the cornerstones of the Leave campaign was the claim that Britain sends the EU 350 million pounds a week. Despite the UK Statistics Authority stating that "The continued use of a gross figure in contexts that imply it is a net figure is misleading and undermines trust in official statistics." [1], almost fifty percent of the public believed the figure, according to an Ipsos MORI poll [2].

Similarly, Spain’s recent political deadlock [3] has been caused by the growth in popularity of the radical left-wing party Podemos. which has campaigned on a platform of populistic ideals such as regaining sovereignty and freedom from corporate influence. Their plans to increase government spending and limit free trade deals whilst placing the blame for economic issues on the Euro and austerity measures have come under fire from critics, however their large social media presence is often enough to win over supporters. Their refusal to form coalitions or cooperate with other parties, one of the pillars of their model of independence, appears to be drifting towards ugly partisanship as Spain remains divided.

On the other end of the spectrum, according to Olivier Faye’s article ‘La campagne de « dédiabolisation » du FN marque un coup d’arrêt en 2015’ [4], 56% of people in France consider the National Front, a right-wing populist party “a danger for French democracy”. Their primary foreign policy objective, according to their website, consists of “the destruction of American, Islamic and Chinese imperialisms”, in addition to ’regaining influence’ and taking back sovereignty. Ranging from an extreme isolationist standpoint on immigration to a violent nationalist approach to foreign politics, the National Front’s policies embody the form of fanaticism and bigotry that is developing in recent politics.

But let's address the elephant in the room. The Republican Party in the United States has nominated Donald Trump, a man described as "unfit to serve as President" [5] by the current commander in chief and as "an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation" and "a threat to our national security" by former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell [6]. Even Trump's lack of knowledge on crucial issues, his insensitive and outrageous comments (often via Twitter) and his downright lack of regard for political correctness fail to match the effect of his divisive and frankly dangerous ideas.

In addition to proposing a ban on Muslims entering the United States, a wall between the US and Mexico, mass deportation of around 11 million illegal immigrants living in the US [*] and, by threatening not to protect NATO allies such as the Baltics, undermining the deterrence effect that NATO is built on, Trump has also encouraged Russia, a foreign superpower, to cyber spy on the former US Secretary of State and influence the presidential election. And, according to the Economist's article 'Gridlock Central' [7], American politics may get even worse.

So why do these campaigns rooted in populism, deliberate half-truths and prejudice amass so much support, and what is responsible for this shift in the political landscape?

It turns out science might have answers. The first step in understanding what is going on is to break it down and find the main trends: the radicalisation of political ideas, an ambivalence surrounding evidence and experts and the vast expansion of the Overton window, the range of ideas the public will accept and that will be politically viable.

The Economist’s ‘Homeopathy Politics’ offers a certain insight here. Lots of people want something they can't have: "a return to some hazily-remembered golden era before globalisation, offering jobs for life, upward mobility and shared traditional values”. The article makes the case that mainstream politicians introducing small doses of bad ideas in order to appeal to this sentiment prime a portion of the public for more extreme takes on matters such as immigration and economic policy.

Global competition has made many people’s lives more precarious and decreased government influence, embittering people in difficult situations and driving them to look to radical politicians for solutions.

Let’s address the different trends. There’s a certain homeopathic effect at play, but a fascinating combination of two important phenomena may be at the root of post-truth politics: ‘filter bubbles’ and the concept of cognitive ease. Consider a scenario where any two people search the same thing on Google simultaneously - would they get the same results? Most likely not, because there is no standard Google. “Even if you're logged out, there are 57 signals that Google looks at -- everything from what kind of computer you're on to what kind of browser you're using, to where you're located” Eli Pariser explains in his Ted Talk ‘Beware online "filter bubbles”’ [8]. In fact, everything from your newsfeed on Facebook to news in Yahoo News, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post or the New York Times is subject to what Pariser describes as “invisible, algorithmic editing of the Web”. According to Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet Inc., "It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them." The danger here is clear: we don’t know what we’re not seeing.

“I’m progressive, politically” Pariser says, “but I've always gone out of my way to meet conservatives. I like hearing what they're thinking about; I like seeing what they link to; I like learning a thing or two. And so I was surprised when I noticed one day that the conservatives had disappeared from my Facebook feed. And what it turned out was going on was that Facebook was looking at which links I clicked on, and it was noticing that, actually, I was clicking more on my liberal friends' links than on my conservative friends' links. And without consulting me about it, it had edited them out. They disappeared.” As an article in the MIT Technology Review [9] phrases it, “This is the filter bubble—being surrounded only by people you like and content that you agree with.” 

 In traditional news mediums such as paper magazines or newspapers, the counterbalance of exposure to those with opposing views ensures more moderate values, but with digital devices becoming the main source of information worldwide, a large portion of the public can get trapped in filter bubbles, exposed only to news that supports their perspectives and information that upholds their values and positions on a range of subjects. These ‘bubbles’ breed more extreme and one-sided ideologies and result in a greater political divide. It’s no wonder, then, that Spain is unable to form a government and that parties such as the Democrats and Republicans are faced with a tense bipartisan cooperation.

The notion of filter bubbles provides an understanding of the radicalisation of political ideas and an insight into why opposing evidence is often ignored by a part of the public. However, a second phenomenon may play a role in the recent increase in belief in and political importance of evident falsehoods. The Financial Times’ ‘Donald Trump’s campaign is harming US democracy’ [10] illustrates this: “his political discourse is rife with conspiracy theories, paranoia and crackpot ideas”. Trump “suggested that the presidential election might be rigged”, “toyed with the idea that Antonin Scalia, a Supreme Court justice, was murdered”, “implied the father of Senator Ted Cruz was somehow involved in the murder of John F. Kennedy” and even called Barack Obama “the founder of ISIS”, and a significant portion of the electorate believed him. The same applies to the Leave campaign’s questionable remarks and Podemos. outsourcing of the blame - surely obvious inaccuracies deter trust in their cause. This does not appear to be the case. Research to do with subconscious effects may shine a light on why.

In 1969, several advertisements consisting of one of several nonsense words - kardirga, saricik, biwonjni, nansoma, or iktitaf - appeared on the front page of student newspapers in two Michigan universities. Robert Zajonc, a psychologist investigating what would come to be known as the Mere Exposure Effect, posted them at different frequencies, some featuring more often than others. He then sent a questionnaire to readers of the paper asking them to rate whether each word meant ‘something good’ or ’something bad’. The results were very surprising: the number of times a nonsense word was printed was consistently correlated to how positively it was rated. In other words, the more a word was repeated, the more people thought it had positive connotations. [**]

According to more recent studies of ‘The Illusory Truth Effect’ such as one published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology [11], simply repeating a statement more times increases the likelihood of it being perceived as true regardless of its veracity, even in cases where people have a solid grasp on the subject in question. In the first phase of the experiment, participants were presented a series of statements - some true, some false. Next, the researchers handed out another set of statements. Once again, some statements were true, some false, but this time a few of them were repeats from the first set. The participants were asked to rate the veracity of each statement on a scale of 1 to 6, ranging from definitely false to definitely true. Then the participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire to assess if they knew whether each statement was true or false. The findings were unsettling: repeated falsehoods were judged to be more true even when the participants knew they were false.

Daniel Kahneman outlines a similar experiment in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. Research suggests that simply being exposed to the phrase “the body temperature of a chicken” increases your likelihood of accepting the phrase “the body temperature of a chicken is 144 degrees” (or any other arbitrary number) as true. Kahneman attributes this effect to the concept of Cognitive Ease, a measure of how hard your brain is working. Induced by clear display, primed ideas, a good mood or repetition, Cognitive Ease results in things feeling familiar, good, effortless and true. 

This is where the repetitive nature of information within a filter bubble comes in. The combination of repeated, filtered information and cognitive ease leads to far-fetched, inaccurate claims gaining traction even amongst people who know them to be false. This concept of a ‘cognitive bubble’ and the resulting transposition of truth and ‘truthiness’ represents a turning point in the way we interact with information.

Perhaps the most dangerous result of this informational metamorphosis lies in the public opinion. Proposals once dismissed as radical and comments once deemed outright offensive have transitioned to the forefront of politics, as illustrated by the growth in popularity of parties such as the National Front or political figures like Trump. Setting aside the prospect of these proposals becoming a reality, there is a second, more perilous consequence: the expansion of the Overton window. Consider the persuasion strategy (or compliance method) in social psychology known as the Door-in-the-face technique. Making a large request beforehand that one is likely to turn down permits a persuader to increase the probability of a respondent agreeing to a more reasonable request soon afterwards. In other words, the gravity of the original demand makes the second request appear more acceptable. Radical campaigns apply a similar methodology to the Overton window, resulting in fringe ideas seeming reasonable and negatively influencing politics in the long term, even if none of their proposals are realised.

Cognitive bubbles may also have a significant effect on social interaction. According to an article in the American Journal of Political Science [12], participants of an experiment provided with two scholarship applications and asked to evaluate which individual is more worthy of the scholarship will pick the candidate sharing their political views 80% of the time. According to Jonathan Haidt, author of ‘The Righteous Mind’, the strongest form of prejudice is towards others with different political views. Ideologies cemented by the effect of cognitive bubbles are rendered immutable - after all, information affirming these ideologies feels familiar, effortless, good and true. As a result, amongst the ramifications of extreme, one-dimensional viewpoints is a conscious or unconscious bias towards advocates of foreign ideas.

There is still room for optimism. Businesses may benefit from designing algorithms that promote diversity of information or developing platforms for dialogue and conversation that rely on ranking systems or compartmentalisation rather than solely on personalisation. Despite the complexity of minimising bias on the web, it may be possible, at the individual level, to at least begin to bridge the divide in cognitive ease between divergent views through discussion with proponents of other values and debate as a devil’s advocate. 

We find ourselves in a time labeled the ‘post-truth era’, where politicians seem to be cherry picking, card stacking, moving goalposts - anything but debating policy proposals. The term ‘post truth’ implies an indifference of the public to truth. Rather, as a consequence of cognitive bubbles, objective truth may be harder than ever to come by. Technological infrastructure needs to keep up with the informational needs of our democratic society.

By Gustavs Zilgalvis


[6] The New York Times: I Ran the C.I.A. Now I’m Endorsing Hillary Clinton. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/05/opinion/campaign-stops/i-ran-the-cia-now-im-endorsing-hillary-clinton.html?_r=0

‘Future Crimes’ by Marc Goodman
‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman

[*] According to the DHS’ Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS)
[**] Incidentally, this is why advertising works and why a large social media presence benefits parties like ‘Podemos.’ or politicians like Trump.