As the shutdown in the US parliament continues, we return to the best insight into the strategy of the American President: his Twitter feed. One of Trump’s most recent offerings holds little hope of an end to the impasse, claiming that ‘the damage done to our Country from a badly broken Border – Drugs, Crime and so much that is bad – is far greater than a Shutdown’. Trump’s broadcasting of his plans and opinions on Twitter reinforce the huge role which social media and the internet play in the way we consume news. We are reliant on picking through adjectives and statistics to deduce what messages politicians are trying to convey.
James Ball’s Post Truth (2017) is well worth revisiting as an insight into how questionable statistics and emotive headlines have worked their way into the fabric of our political system, propelled by the multiple platforms of the internet. Ball offers an accessible history of journalism’s move from print to screen and dissects the implications for both journalists and readers.
Last year, it became clear that Cambridge Analytica had been using data from Facebook to create political profiles of users, an indication that the information we are being given is still intended to reinforce our political positions. On top of this, the GDPR questions asked by websites about how much data you are willing to provide bring home the extent of information that is collected on a daily basis. More than ever, it is important to realise the potential of the internet to provide unreliable information and tailor the information we do end up seeing.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom – Post Truth presents some suggestions for what we can do to tackle the rise of bullshit. Ball’s closing chapter ‘How to stop bullshit’ has a handy checklist to keep in mind when scrolling through Facebook or browsing news sites:
- Burst your bubble – follow people who have different political leanings to yourself to prevent the all too common online echo chamber.
- Stop and think – Ball recommends spending a short amount of time assessing the source, if it seems credible, who the writer is etc. before sharing headlines or posts.
- Learn some stats – not the most exciting activity, but a basic grasp of (for example) the total amount of government spending and rough departmental budgets helps to bring potentially misleading figures into focus.
- Treat narratives you believe as sceptically as ones you don’t – it’s tempting to fact check articles you disagree with whilst unquestioningly sharing headlines which reinforce your views. Ball advises that bullshit can be found in all corners of the political spectrum and to keep a healthy scepticism.
- Try not to succumb to conspiratorial thinking – in the post truth age, theories spread fast. It’s easy to buy into imagined political scandals created by conjecture rather than investigated facts – we need to keep an objective eye and question what we read.
Ball’s latest book, ‘Bluffocracy’ (Biteback, August 2018) is a collaboration with former government official Andrew Greenway about how a culture of ‘winging it’ has emerged in the UK government and why it needs to be stopped. Purchase the book here.