Another inspiration for the post-truth cliché is the recent prominence of “fake news.” But this, too, is not a new development. The title of the James Cortada and William Aspray’s forthcoming Fake News Nation: The Long History of Lies and Misinterpretations in America, is self-explanatory, though the long history is by no means confined to America.3 The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the hoaxed proceedings of a secret meeting of Jews plotting global domination, was advanced as fact by a number of prominent people in subsequent decades, including the industrialist Henry Ford. Countless pogroms, lynchings, and deadly ethnic riots have been sparked by rumors of the alleged perfidy of some minority group.
And the belief that fake news is displacing the truth itself needs to be examined for its truth. In their analysis of fake news in the 2016 American presidential election, Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler found that it took up a minuscule proportion of the online communications (far less than 1 percent) and was mainly directed at partisans who were impervious to persuasion.4 This is hardly surprising: unless you were already marinated in a rightwing fever swamp, if you came across a social media post claiming that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington DC pizzeria, you would treat it as exactly what it is.
But the main reason we should retire the posttruth cliché is that it’s corrosive, perhaps self-fulfilling. The implication is we may as well give up on reason and truth and just fight the bad guys’ lies and intimidation with lies and intimidation of our own. We can aim higher.