How can Communication overcome the Post-Truth Impasses?
In our previous “Our View on”, we showed how fact-checking has emerged as an answer to the multiplication of “hoaxes” – these fake news circulating virally, especially on social networks. As a consequence, the concept of “post-truth” has also appeared, “relating to circumstances in which objective facts influence less the shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, as defined by the Oxford Dictionaries which has elected this term “Word of the Year” 2016.
In short, a negation of the facts’ truth in favour of a relativism borne by “the enunciating force of the speaker”. In a post-truth world, the journalist could disappear and be replaced by anyone expressing opinions that are freed from reality. In the post-truth era, stubbornness in convictions based on erroneous facts is not a mark of stupidity anymore, but rather of strength.
HOW CAN CORPORATE COMMUNICATION DEAL WITH SUCH A PHENOMENON? BY INTEGRATING TWO NEW CONSTRAINTS THAT WILL LEAD IT TO EVOLVE.
First, the simplification of the post-truth world makes pedagogical communication based on technical arguments harder to hear. In a context of “asymmetric war” of information, a single tweet of a prominent media figure can destroy months of communication based on rational argument and verified facts. Strongly relayed, this tweet will trigger an avalanche of comments and spark caricatured repetitions.
Second, the war of “post-truth” opinions tends to replace factual transparency by emotional transparency. In all communication classes, it had been taught for thirty years that lying was a serious mistake, morally of course, but also because it has proved to be largely counterproductive. Information is circulating fast and a company caught lying by the media can undergo a devastating boomerang effect, necessary to avoid at all costs. “Never put yourself in a situation where you’ll have to deny” was the golden rule. It was in an era of transparency. In the post-truth era, facts are no longer the standard value, only the emotional strength counts. Communicating no longer consists in “re-establishing the truth of facts” but rather in promoting leaders’ sincerity. Thus, the control of communication no longer depends on the coherence of the contents, but rather on staged sincerity.
However, accepting such a regression of communication is not possible. Post-truth is a mode of communication widely used by populist movements, incompatible with corporate DNA.
Indeed, one of many ideological facets common to all populisms rests on the belief in a plot hatched by the elites through the media they’re supposed to control. Confronting “dominant thinking” and “system representatives” results in the refusal of legitimate institutional intermediaries (mainstream media, elected officials, experts from existing institutions, etc). Trump no longer needs to communicate via an interview with a major media that will verify and discuss each statement or proposition: he directly tweets his “alternative” fact.
But in our view it would be totally counterproductive for a company to adopt such practice.
Communicating in Trump’s way, freed from any principle of reality, would necessarily lead a company to a dead end because it lives in the economics and business worlds were “facts are stubborn”. Far from any temptation to play the post-truth’s trump card, the company must be inspired by the methods of data-journalism and apply them to its communication, to continue to communicate with serenity and pedagogy.
After data journalism, data-communication seems the only way out of the post-truth dead-ends.
Eric Giuily and Teoman Bakoglu