We’re all part of the problem

Craig Harper reviews Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, by James Ball (Biteback; Pb £9.99)

As I waited for a flight ahead of my holiday this year, I browsed the books in an airport store to find something to keep me occupied. One title grabbed my attention – Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World. The book promised to explore the cultural, economic and (most importantly from my perspective) psychological contributors to our current societal aversion to experts, to outline how so-called ‘fake news’ takes hold in our political discussions, and to identify some opportunities to fix these problems.

Before reviewing the book, it’s useful to define the term ‘bullshit’, which is used throughout Ball’s writing (and this review) not as a sensationalised expletive, but almost as a diagnostic label. Specifically, he distinguishes between a ‘liar’ and a ‘bullshitter’ in the book’s introduction. A liar acknowledges some aspect of authority (or truth), and directly contradicts it in a purposeful manner. In contrast, a bullshitter will say whatever they can in order to achieve an aim, with no thought of whether it is true or not. In other words, a liar will say something that they know to be the opposite of the truth, while a bullshitter will make anything up to fit their narrative. Ball cites a passage from Frankfurt’s (2005) book On Bullshit to make this point [see also this article]:

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority, and refuses to meet its demands.

The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Instantly, the book was gripping. Ball’s journalistic style (he is upfront throughout that he is currently a correspondent for Buzzfeed News) fitted perfectly with the opening two chapters, which examined the use of bullshit in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and the Brexit referendum. When reading these two chapters, I worried that the book was going to be less an empirical exposition of the post-truth phenomenon than an ideological attack on populist movements. This fear was quickly addressed, though, in the following section (‘Who’s spreading the shit?’) systematically and critically looks at five key stakeholders in the ‘news ecosystem’ that enable a culture of bullshit to persist: politicians, old media, new media, social media, and you (readers). Throughout these chapters, Ball explores three levels of bullshit.

Culturally and economically, the catchy headlines and intriguing content of bullshit news stories get clicks. This happens whether stories are politically relevant or more related to the banal (just think of all of those ‘You wouldn’t believe what [insert 90s celebrity] looks like now!’ posts that fill up social media feeds). Due to the current economic context of news, clicks mean cash from exposure to banner advertisements (again, think of all the news stories you see that require you to clear an advert before reading). Bullshitters know this. They can create catchy headlines that quickly go viral, enable their sites to display adverts, and make fractions of a cent per exposure.

The low upfront costs of creating bullshit means that you only need a couple of stories to go viral to make this a very profitable business model. News organisations also play a role in this. According to Ball, they commonly take viral content from curators of such material, publish it online with few (if any) checks, and simply change headlines (or add new stories) to reflect doubt about its validity when questions are raised. In essence, the post-truth phenomenon of fake news is a threat to traditional media outlets, but is also exploited by them to plug the gaps in falling revenues.

All of this taps into our psychological tendency to consume news using ‘System 1’ (Kahneman, 2011). We have an automatic instinct to read, believe and share stories that correspond to our existing beliefs and worldviews, or ignore, dispute or disparage stories that contradict our opinions. We often struggle to read beyond the headline of news stories, and so those catchy bullshit stories are easily shareable, increasing their potential to go viral, and thus their prominence in social discussions.

The key takeaway from the book is that bullshitters exploit these tendencies, and thrive on publicity. It takes a few minutes to create a viral story, but hours of investigative work to debunk one. Even when debunked, a bullshit-based story will still be present within the news ecosystem, and shape the prevailing narrative. Ball also discusses Nyhan and Reifler’s (2010) work on the ‘backfire effect’, which suggests that hearing contradictory evidence about a moralised topic may even bolster misconceptions stemming from bullshit.

This book is a must-read for anybody interested in where bullshit comes from, how and why it gains so much attention, and some of the opportunities we have to reduce its effects. What’s more, it shines a light of one of the biggest players in the bullshit industry – us, the readers. As Ball concludes, ‘…here’s the good news: if we’re all part of the problem, we can all be part of the solution – and we can start whenever we like. How about now?

- Reviewed by Craig Harper, who is a lecturer in human psychology at Nottingham Trent University. He can be found on Twitter: @CraigHarper19 

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