Thoughts on the post-factual democracy

I’ve had a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head since the Brexit result was announced last Friday morning. Beyond a few sardonic comments expressing general dismay, I refrained from posting anything more substantial until I’d had a chance to think things through a bit. I wanted to let the initial shock and anger subside before committing anything to a public forum.

As per the 3rd point in the excellent comment written by Nicholas Barrett in the FT, it’s the notion of a ‘post-factual democracy’ that really chills me. Democracy is frequently described by political wags as the least bad form of governance. But to function properly, it needs an informed, engaged electorate.

However this process becomes polluted when misinformation is allowed to be perpetuated unchecked. The collected works of certain newspaper salespeople have dripped a steady diet of poison into the information system, masquerading as news and helpful discourse, and very little is done to prevent this. On the rare occasions they actually get caught in a genuine factual error, misrepresentation or lie, the apology is usually placed somewhere nicely unobtrusive. (Seriously, if nothing else comes of this, can’t we at least require the correction to have the same prominence as the original statement, and not get buried in the middle pages?!)

Then there are the ‘promises’ made by politicians and campaign workers themselves. It’s almost comical how little genuine recourse there is when someone says something untrue as part of a bid to get them (or their idea) elected.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum there was some coverage of people who admitted to voting leave but claimed to be aghast at the result. There was, predictably, an outpouring of amazed horror from some remain supporters at this. How can people be so callous, foolish and stupid they wondered? And in response came the vitriol and disgust from the leavers. The metropolitan elite, patronising the working classes and rubbing their very disenfranchisement in their faces.

For me, one of the saddest aspects about this is that the post-factual democracy made this clash almost inevitable. If you tell someone they are being lied to, you are accused of condescension. If you try to stop the lies at their source that’s an attack on free speech. If you attempt to counter with your own information it’s propaganda.

I don’t know how to participate in a dialogue where this is the case. I don’t know how to engage in a discussion where neither logic nor truth has a place, but where pointing out their absence makes you the out-of-touch arsehole.

I don’t have a good solution to this. All I know is that if we want to recover a democracy where information and expertise are valued commodities we need to engage with people. The people that Gove claimed were ‘sick of experts’. And we need to do it in such a way so as not to patronise or belittle them. Because I really don’t see this getting better any other way.