Post-truth, fake news, or is it rather more nuanced than that?

By Sam Knowles, Founder and Managing Director of Insight Agents

SK colour high-resIn a Sky News debate during the EU Referendum Campaign, the aide de camp in the Vote Leave group, Michael Gove, told Faisal Islam: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts … experts out of organisations with acronyms, saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” If you have the stomach for it, it’s worth watching again, here.

Gove didn’t go quite as far as former Republican luminary, Newt Gingrich, who once famously declared: “Feelings are just as valid as facts”.  Maybe, Newt, but only in an apples vs oranges fruit salad equation. What Gove did was question the relevance of evidence and expertise in helping to shape informed decision-making in the most important vote in contemporary Britons’ lifetimes.

This counterblast to logic was aimed squarely at the Remainers who, led by Dave Cameron and Chancellor Gideon (George) Osborne, ran a supremely rational but arguably almost entirely unemotional campaign. Dubbed Project Fear by its opponents, the overload of information served up daily by Remain was likely more helpful in stiffening the resolve of the Brexiteers than it was convincing waverers to support the status quo.

The EU Referendum and the subsequent election of Trump – correctly predicted ahead of polling by now @POTUS45 to be “Brexit Plus Plus Plus” – unsettled many establishments. Politics. The media. The research and polling communities. Academia. This was campaigning as abnormal, and truth and facts seemed to be on the verge of becoming irrelevant from whichever side they came.

After such a seismic year, the Oxford English Dictionary declared last November that “post-truth” was the word of the year. Not to be outdone, just under a year later, Collins chose “fake news” as its word of the year for 2017.

Notwithstanding the fact that two of the world’s most authoritative lexicographers don’t seem to know the difference between a word and a phrase – a phenomenon rather foolishly permitted by some commentators because of the advent of the hashtag; #PostTruth and #FakeNews – the rules of engagement in public discourse do seem to have changed.

And with Russian Government involvement in thousands of bogus social media accounts designed to amplify the most divisive content in both campaigns, the scriptwriters for The Americans must be reflecting that truth truly is stranger than fiction.

So, what is going on here? Have we really had enough of experts? Are facts, truth, and reality no longer relevant?

Are Guy Standing’s precariat latching on to the vain promises of demagogues because no-one else represents them, so they might as well vote for those who dare to vocalise hatred and prejudice that political correctness had deemed unacceptable for a generation?

Yes, perhaps. But also no, actually, probably not. Just look at what’s happening with Weinstein and Spacey and #MeToo. As the lyrics of the Netflix series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend conclude, the truth is rather more nuanced than that.

Soviet subterfuge notwithstanding, it’s not the case that facts are irrelevant.

Indeed, in a post-Brexit-Trump world, facts have never mattered more. What’s at issue is the way facts, data, and statistics are presented. Those close to facts – academics and experts – have for too long believed they can present mountains of data and bend the audience’s will through the sheer power of their intellect and expertise.

In the era of Big Data and social media – where anyone with a smartphone and a Wi-Fi connection has the chance to be heard – this approach just won’t work anymore.

Those looking for impact in communication today need two skills above all others. The ability to look at and make sense of data, and the ability to use the insights they extract from data to move people to action.

In the modern knowledge economy, analytics plus storytelling equals influence. Facts matter, but not too many all at once. And they need to be presented meaningfully, comprehensibly, and wrapped in the veneer of emotion.

That’s just two reasons why Boris’ zombie statistic of “£350m a week … let’s fund the NHS instead” was so impactful. What the errant Foreign Secretary was able to do was marketing communications 101. He combined the rational (“£350m a week”) with the emotional (no three letters have more emotional power in British politics than N, H, and S).

In the wake of the EU Referendum, a memorable and hair-shirted New Scientist editorial concluded: “Trying to change someone’s mind by giving them the facts usually just makes them dig in. For reason to triumph, scientists need to learn to engage with emotion.”

The truism that the Madmen of Madison Avenue – from David Ogilvy to Bill Bernbach – knew three generations ago. Rational isn’t enough. You need rational and emotional.

Sam’s book Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data will be published by Routledge in April 2018. More here


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