The 2017 OECD Forum takes place after a series of political upheavals few would have predicted scarcely twelve months ago. Eight years after the explosion of the Global Financial Crisis, a collective failure to do enough to address its causes and legacies created the conditions for a crisis of a very different nature, manifesting itself on the political stage, exposing increasing divergences in the way people experience and view the world we live in. Divides have become more apparent between metropolises and capital cities on the one hand, and towns and villages on the other, between Millennials and pensioners, between the haves and the have-nots, between the best and the rest.
These have been accentuated by the digital transformation that continues to disrupt our societies and economies in both positive and negative ways. People’s trust in institutions continues to falter with many believing that the system is biased in favour of the rich and powerful, that hard work is not rewarded in the same way as wealth and that children stand little chance of a better life than their parents. This fragile trust dynamic has also impacted processes of multilateralism, international co-operation and economic and societal integration, which are called into question as further manifestations of the preferences of ruling elites.
At the centre of this crisis lies the emergence of the post-truth phenomenon. In the midst of growing digitalisation and automation, the emotional and the instinctive have gained an upper hand over the rational. The expression has featured so prominently in public discourse that “post-truth” was even defined as the word of the year in 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries. It’s not an entirely new phenomenon, and neither are lies and spin in politics–some have argued that the pamphlet wars in the 1600s were an early example–but the speed, volume and reach of information flows in the current digital ecosystem have undeniably affected the scope and magnitude, creating the perfect conditions for fake news to thrive, and impact public opinion and political choices.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish “information” from “meaning”, “news” from “opinion”. The democratisation of media brought about through new digital technologies and platforms has blurred the lines between content creators, mediators, standard-setters and consumers of information. It has led to a disintermediation of traditional news and information sources, and gatekeepers. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 62% of people in the US use social media as their news source. This is significant given that research from Indiana University shows people are just as, or more likely to, share misinformation as they are reliable information on Facebook.
The prominent use of algorithms in the social media space has also contributed to siloisation–the generation of virtual bubbles that facilitate the homogenisation of opinions, insulating people from divergent views that would challenge their own truths and beliefs. Financial pressures associated with new business models in the digital era have also exerted pressure on journalists, competing for rare resources, to generate the maximum number of “likes” or clicks. As The Guardian editor Katherine Viner put it: “virality seems to be privileged over quality in the distribution of news”.
We now face the uncomfortable reality that truth, fact, statistics and “expert” views are losing currency in decision-making and democratic choices, being replaced by assertions that “feel right” but have no basis in fact and seem to be accepted as valid on the grounds that they challenge the elite and vested interests.
Learning lessons from the Brexit experience
The OECD has always staked its reputation on the provision of evidence-based policy advice. While there are valid distinctions to be made between the provision of data and its interpretation, a key component of the OECD’s value added–the basic principle that facts and data guide the conversation–is unmovable. Surviving in this post-truth world is a genuinely existential issue for the OECD, fundamentally linked to our sustainability as an organisation.
We had a direct and sobering experience in the lead-up to and aftermath of the UK referendum on EU membership. The OECD is not accustomed to intervening in political debates prior to elections but, given the significant ramifications of this vote (22 of the 35 members of our organisation are also EU members), we felt a duty to offer analysis to help inform public discourse in the run-up to the vote. In late April 2016, Angel Gurría unveiled The Economic Consequences of Brexit report at the London School of Economics (LSE), representing the OECD’s principal substantive contribution to the debate.
What happened next? While the OECD’s message was faithfully reported by the Financial Times and The Guardian, The Sun’s editorial column used OECD statistics to argue in favour of restrictive migration policies, a distortion of the message contained in the report, while discrediting the central argument of the report, that British households would be paying an additional and heavy “Brexit tax”, on the grounds that the OECD was “an impartial organisation”, receiving funds from the EU and talking down to citizens that “had enough of experts”. Key figures in the Leave campaign were also quick to take to social media to echo such messages, perpetuating the myth that it was on the payroll of the EU.
In the direct aftermath of this experience, we felt it important to exercise a degree of humility, question our chosen approach and ask how we might have gone about communicating and engaging with people differently.
By going to London, a metropolis and capital city, and presenting the report at the LSE, were we guilty of preaching to the converted, talking to “people like us”? Had we been sufficiently mindful of the so-called “geography of discontent”? Had we listened sufficiently to the concerns of the people and communities that felt disenfranchised and disconnected? In focusing on economic arguments and aggregate data, had we failed to place sufficient emphasis on the positive developments in well-being and quality of life for households that could be tied to the United Kingdom’s EU membership? Could we have used simpler language, easier for people to understand and relate to? Would it not have been important to also focus our efforts on creating shorter content, videos and infographics, quicker to capture the imagination and more eminently tweetable and shareable, rather than lengthy reports for the cognoscenti?
Our Brexit experience has shone a light on the need to change the way we engage with citizens, voters and taxpayers–our ultimate beneficiaries.
How to survive post-truth
Beyond what post-truth means for the way we operate as an organisation, we are naturally concerned with how to respond more broadly, given the far-reaching implications for policy choices, and political and societal outcomes.
Central to this question is the balance between individual and collective responsibility. Where do the boundaries lie? The scale of our response will also depend on where we stand on the post-truth curve. Should we wait for the capsized ship to right itself, keeping faith that the pursuit of truth will prevail, or have we reached a tipping point which takes us into a new age requiting some fundamental changes? Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but a number of responses are worth exploring.
Education, as is so often the case, has a crucial role to play. The OECD work on global competencies, places a strong emphasis on critical thinking, equipping children to distinguish between facts and opinion, and importantly, to challenge and question the abundant information that’s out there. There is a strong link here to the notion of civic responsibility, which undoubtedly needs to evolve in a digital age where individuals have become mediators, content producers and potential perpetrators of “fake news”.
But is education our only recourse? We might instinctively wonder why we have been successful in introducing laws and regulations to protect consumers in the world of products and services, while in the realm of information and ideas people are largely left to their own devices. Without undermining freedom of speech and expression, might there not be a need in the market for more effective standards, that could place certain constraints on the behaviour and pronouncements of the influential and powerful, or introduce more robust standards for our gatekeepers, the journalists, who play such an important role in holding power to account? Has the time not come to extend consumer protection to voters?
Perhaps greater scrutiny of public information during “big moments”, such as elections, is needed. This could include the use of independent third parties and fact-checking organisations to verify manifesto claims.
Transparency in political advertising in the social media space also merits closer attention given its increasingly prevalent use. The degree and sophistication of targeting techniques being deployed are astounding, and poorly understood by the majority of social media users. The role of the social media platforms will likely need to evolve in recognition of the fact that they have in effect become publishers of news and information. They have a key role to play in stemming the flow of fake news, both by being more transparent in the algorithms being used and by adapting them in order to deprioritise fake news content.
And business too has a role to play in placing more stringent conditions on where they advertise, prioritising quality and credibility over clicks. Financial incentives will be a crucial factor in sending a signal that fake news doesn’t pay.
But in order to address the root causes of the post-truth phenomenon, institutions and political elites will need to address the underlying trust deficit. What has become clear in recent political debates is that citizens want and expect a voice. The democratisation of media has been one of the contributing factors to the spread of fake news, but it has also led to unprecedented scrutiny and pressure on governments for openness, accountability and transparency.
Citizens are demanding a systemic shift, a more agile form of democracy and government, more participative and more responsive to their needs and views. Harnessing the power of digital transformation, civic tech can help governments to be more open and transparent, more innovative and inclusive in how they go about policymaking, budgeting or service provision. The OECD’s Better Life Index, although still a modest step in the civic tech direction, has allowed us to improve our understanding of people’s priorities in well-being and quality of life through online engagement. A key challenge is of course how to ensure that online engagement leads to meaningful offline outcomes.
As if a reminder were needed, we must constantly earn the right to be a trusted source of objective information and advice for engaged and connected citizens. It is time to harness our collective intelligence to deliver on Better Policies for Better Lives.
References and further reading
Beer, D. (2017), “Algorithms: the villains and heroes of the ‘post-truth’ era”, Open Democracy. Available at: www.opendemocracy.net/digitaliberties/david-beer/algorithms-villains-and-heroes-of-post-truth-era
D’Ancona M. (2017), Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back. Penguin.
Davies, W. (2016), “The Age of Post-Truth Politics”, New York Times. Available at www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/opinion/campaign-stops/the-age-of-post-truth-politics.html?_r=0
Fidler, R. (1997), Mediamorphosis, 1st ed., Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. Gottfried, J. and Shearer, E. (2016), News Use across Social Media Platforms 2016, Pew Research Centre www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/
Norman, M. (2016), “Whoever wins the US presidential election, we've entered a post-truth world – there's no going back now”, The Independent. Available at: www.independent.co.uk/voices/us-election-2016-donald-trump-hillary-clinton-who-wins-post-truth-world-no-going-back-a7404826.html
The Economist (2016), “Yes, I'd lie to you”, The Economist, Print Edition. Available at: www.economist.com/news/briefing/21706498-dishonesty-politics-nothing-new-manner-which-some-politicians-now-lie-and
Viner, K. (2016), “How technology disrupted the truth”, The Guardian. Available at: www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth