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In ‘post-truth’ politics, how can we distinguish truth from falsehood?

Steve Yount, a senior fellow with the Denison Forum, is a former newspaper editor and public-relations executive working with Christian ministries.

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If politics are ‘post-truth’, how can we distinguish truth from falsehood?

Politicians lie; that is nothing new. But politicians seem to lie today more than ever before.

With the country divided along party lines, we can’t even agree on the facts, leaving no room for consensus. To cite just one example, CNN aired a special report Nov. 24 hosted by Jake Tapper called “All the President’s Lies.” Laura Ingraham followed Dec. 5 on her Fox show, The Ingraham Angle, with a commentary about the impeachment inquiry called “All the Democrats’ Lies.”

If, to quote John 8:32, “the truth will set you free,” Americans seem stuck in a maze of falsehoods. If Christians don’t know which way to turn in search of truth, there are a few basic principles we can use as a guide. 

But before considering them, we need to understand the cultural forces at work in this election year.

An era of factual relativism

Facts, even when not in dispute, and numbers have lost much of their power to persuade.

The trend has become so pronounced that the Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth the 2016 word of the year. It’s an adjective meaning “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The word is often used in the phrase “post-truth politics.”

Our public square has entered an era of factual relativism, where traditionally impartial sources of information have become suspect, at least in some quarters.

“Journalists, judges, experts, and various other ‘elites’ are under fire today,” Dr. William Davies wrote in Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason. “Fewer and fewer people believe they are independent. Their capacity to reflect the truth in a neutral fashion, whether as scientists, professionals, journalists or policy advisers, is now attacked on the grounds that it is more self-interested and emotional than the protagonists are willing to let on.”

A study last year by the Pew Research Center found that Americans are split roughly 50–50 on whether fact-checkers are fair. But 70 percent of Republicans believe they favor one side over another, an apparent indication of growing populist sentiment in the country.

“Populist leaders and spokespeople in countries around the globe, including the United States, have revived in recent years a traditional narrative in which the starting point is that the real people have been intellectually dispossessed, that is, deprived of their natural leadership rooted in their collective sense of the world,” Dr. Sophia Rosenfeld, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in an article in The Hedgehog Review

She continued: “But all that can be righted, according to this story, once those real people are able once again to substitute their own version of truth, rooted in faith, instinct, and practical experience, not to mention authenticity, for the arcane and self-serving version offered up by the ‘mainstream’ press, the academic establishment, and the ‘deep state’ – in short, the various domains of truth elites.”

Statistics about a bustling economy under a politician’s leadership offer little comfort to individuals facing job loss. In Davies’ view, numbers don’t reflect emotions in cases like this, leading many populists to believe that groups like politicians, mainstream media and scientists no longer represent their interests.

“When trust in one of these elite groups disintegrates, it tends to impact upon trust in all of them,” he wrote. “Once people stop trusting systems of representation in general, and especially in the political system, they become less interested in what counts as ‘true’ and what as ‘false.’ Liars can become tolerated or even admired, once the very foundations of a political system are no longer viewed as credible.”

‘Illusory truth’ on social media

Many people, no longer trusting these groups for information, have turned to social media, which presents its own problems. Political ads on Facebook have been controversial since Russia used them in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. More recently, Facebook has been criticized for not checking political ads for false claims by candidates.

And MIT scholars released a report in 2018 showing that lies spread faster on Twitter than truth does. Other research has shown that the more a lie is repeated, the more people are inclined to believe it. It’s called the “illusory truth effect.”

Besides repeating lies, some politicians tend to twist the facts or tell half-truths. The website politifact.com grades political statements on a Truth-O-Meter, with true at one end of the spectrum followed by mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, and pants on fire, indicating “the statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.”

How to seek the truth today

Considering all these factors, determining when politicians are lying can be a challenge, but Christians should be truth seekers.

“As those who follow after the one who is truth [John 14:6], we have to be innocent as doves but shrewd as serpents,” said Dr. Nick Pitts, a fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement at Dallas Baptist University. “Just like you don’t believe everything you see on TV, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear in the public square.”

Here are a few ways to help distinguish truth from falsehood in politics:

  • Go to the original sources, whenever you can. Watch speeches, for example; don’t just rely on reports of them.
  • Find a nonpartisan fact-checker you trust, like factcheck.org or politifact.com.
  • Don’t believe everything you read on social media. Check information with a news outlet you trust.
  • Vary your sources of news, from radio talk shows to news magazines and everything in between. Monitor a mix of conservative and liberal outlets, not just ones that confirm your beliefs.
  • Recognize opinion for what it is. Don’t listen to radio talk shows or political pundits if you expect impartial accounts of the news.

Most of all, the Bible should be your guide.

“As Christians, we have to let the biblical narrative shape us more than our political tribe,” Pitts said. “The Word is a lamp to our feet and a lantern for the path through the public square. Our policy decisions may not fit neatly into the dichotomies offered by today’s political pundits, but the Scriptures should influence how we consider public policy proposals.”

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