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Forum Summary: Truth and Post-Truth

Forum Summary: Truth and Post-Truth

What follows is a summary of the Meridian 180 forum “Truth and Post-Truth.”

Summary by Claire Hsiang Marx, Meridian 180

In February 2017, Meridian 180 held a forum to explore the political implications of an environment in which multiple truths exist. Forum leader Professor Zhao Shunkun, professor at Southwest University of Law and Political Science in Chongqing, China, asked a series of stimulating questions focused on the intersections of authority, media, and the public, and the different roles and questions each stakeholder should be considering. The forum engaged a wide range of experts including legal scholars, journalists, economists, political scientists, and policymakers and resulted in a lively exploration of the role of technology, media, and power in a post-truth era.

1)    The unique factors of today’s post-truth era

Several forum participants agreed that the idea of a reality with multiple truths has always existed. Luqiu Luwei (Penn State University) noted that individuals and groups around the world have attempted to use post-truth speech and other techniques to manipulate audiences for several centuries. However, today’s blurring of the objective and subjective is made more difficult given technological advances, such as photo editing, and perhaps objectivist epistemology that has dominated since the Renaissance may not endure much longer. We may be on the brink of a new era that, as Takashi Iida (University of Tokyo) points out, allows for all kinds of different truths and different interpretations of these truths. The critical issue, Iida notes, is that the “methods for mediating between these competing ‘truths’ are insufficient.”

2) How is power restricted in a post-truth era?

The release of information certainly plays a role how power is wielded. Hiroyuki Hoshiro (University of Tokyo) observes that the elite control of information can be divided into three categories: Paternalism is the deliberate concealment of information with the aim of preventing social turmoil; the second is a guided type in which propagation of certain information is meant to steer the general population toward a desired result; and the last is the type in which leaders hide or tamper with information to protect themselves.
The proliferation of multiple truths and misinformation is aided by technology and a 24-hour media news cycle that generates and pushes out many truths online that can live on, disputed or not. Zhao Shukun refers to the “rapid expansion of ‘We Media” information sources, some of which peddle in lies, rumors, or ‘I-feel’ or ‘I-think’ type of information” that trade on misinformation. Fake news, whether it be for the interests of politics or entertainment, distorts facts in order to provide incorrect information. Tae-Jin Yoon (Yonsei University) points out how changes in the media environment, technological infrastructure, and structure of knowledge have aided in the rapid and broad dissemination of misinformation. Preexisting mechanisms for “factualizing” information based on authority are not as effective anymore, adds Dong Hyun Song (National University of Singapore).

Kiyoshi Adachi (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) reports that the current tide of “voter discontent with and suspicion of ‘the establishment’ comes, ironically, at a point when bureaucrats and academic, and schools that deal with public policy and administration in particular, appear to be trying more than even to emphasize the importance of crafting policy prescriptions to the extent possible on evidence-based science.”

Several participants posed questions about the proliferation of misinformation and the role and responsibility of media. Should there be some movement or action to control the spread of misinformation, and in what ways can the news media be responsible to control the production and spread of fake news while still understanding that there can be more than one truth? How can public organizations like public broadcasters fulfill their social role in a post-truth world?

3)    How can social justice be upheld in a post-truth era?

Filtering facts from misinformation may be the primary responsibility of the general population. As noted by Tae-Jin Yoon, citizens have a duty to be skeptical of and confirm information they receive, no matter how interesting or engaging it may be. A similar observation was offered by Hiroyuki Hoshiro. He believes that the way to conquer the manipulation of information by powerful groups is for the people to continuously demand the release of information and to think critically of the information offered by these authorities.  The world may be full of distorted information, agrees Kiyoshi Adachi, but the majority of people are fully capable of filtering the large amounts of information they receive when they go to the polls, as was the case with the US Presidential election and with the vote to leave the European Union by UK voters. Perhaps more attention should be paid to the source of voter skepticism and discontent, which Bronwen Morgan (University of New South Wales) likens to a “deep juncture, if not brokenness.”

Perhaps the fascination with the truth might not be what we should be searching for. There is no absolute truth, Shu-chin Grace Kuo (National Cheng Kung University) argues; instead there are mechanisms that turn “facts into artifacts.” For example, records of oral arguments are designed not to capture a complete recording of court proceedings, but to offer the legal truths of the legal proceedings for a specific purpose. Ultimately, the real problem might be the difficulty and pain involved in seeking the truth. Luqui Luwei points out that one way of articulating the post-truth era is that “judgment becomes less responsive to reason and more responsive to emotion.” Bronwen Morgan (University of New South Wales) sees opportunity in imagining less of a dichotomy: “what does it look like when reason and emotion intertwine, each straining the other of their palatable effects when taken to extremes?”

Perhaps these and other provocative considerations posed in this forum will be explored in future Meridian 180 discussions.