In the post-truth era

"In this post-truth era we are witnessing a dominant stream of lie glorification and are left with a narrow path to follow when it comes to risk management"

In the post-truth era
In ancient Rome, it was a widely-held belief that the population’s true desire was food and entertainment. As a result, the Government kept the Romans happy by distributing food such as bread, at theatrical spectacles staged in amphitheatres. Viewed as ‘circuses’ the events were held in huge arenas and chronicled scenes of bloody combats, battlefields and of everyday violence between humans and conflict between humans and beasts.

The outcome – greatly enjoyed by the crowd who feasted on free bread – was usually the death of the weaker antagonists. The masses were led to believed they wielded power and could dictate whether the defeated survived combat, shouting ‘Forgive him’ to those they considered worthy of living, or ‘Slit his throat!’ to those they did not. Acting upon these calls, the Emperor gave a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘down’ verdict, dependent upon what was most popular. 

At their peak, these grotesque and degenerate ‘amusements’ occupied up to two thirds of the day for Romans, however they were far removed from the Greek traditions of athletics and theatre. Away from this, in ‘reality’, barbarians were ravaging the borders of the Empire and due to a lack of people who believed in or defended it, history says it began fragmenting and ended up crumbling. Byzantium’s theocratic monarchy, to the east, survived the Roman Empire and following its alleged union with God, replaced the bloody spectacles with "heavenly” scenarios, focusing on such topics as what the sex of angels would be.

At this time, motivated by a desire to plunder and slaughter its inhabitants, the Ottoman Turks were rampaging what were up to then the unassailable Constantinople walls. A renaissance, era of high morals and ‘seeing the light’ followed. Such enlightenment encouraged people to follow their own direction rather than that of others.

The hallmark of the 20th century – greater civilization – was attained partially through the learning of past mistakes, such as two world wars and multiple civil wars. It was expected humanity would continue to follow this path of reason and not take the opposite direction, following differing forms of subversive thought, often characterised as the post-truth era1.

In this emerging ‘new world’, the idea to recreate ‘real life’ scenes or reality shows for audience entertainment became popular – similar to the Roman amphitheatre days. In the 1970’s ‘An American Family’ was produced by American TV network PBS; the audience was invited to follow and rule over the day-to-day life of an American family during live episodes. This format inspired dozens of other shows which attracted increasing audience figures. They were supposedly based on ‘real life’ characters who rather than be involved in fictional plots, focused their attention on the banality of everyday life by means of the first person narrative. 

They concentrated on the tensions, conflicts and distress they experienced daily in their personal or professional life2 and the audience was invited to intervene – similar to the Roman calls for ‘decapitation’ or ‘forgiveness’. Such actions were undertaken with the consent of tv network ‘moderators’ who, provided with a script and a desire to monitor and control audiences, rationed the distribution of favours (similar to Roman ‘bread and circuses’), giving a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘down’ to the reality show participants and rewarding fictional players with prizes, making them believe, deceitfully, that they are indeed in ‘real life’.

The post-truth era also saw the arrival of social networks such as Twitter and its list of Trending Topics3, along with other sites which present themselves as useful universal access tools to knowledge and information, democratically available to any user. These sites encourage spectators and fictional characters who under the cloak of anonymity, can relate experiences, express opinions and create emotions which rapidly become news and topics for debate. When repeated many times, this ‘news’ transforms from a lie to the truth, forming opinions, creating certainties, amplifying reactions and, in the end, influencing history.

In this dangerous world of truth affirmation, small and unthinkable events created by individuals who are unable to separate fact from fiction, can have great and unpredictable consequences for others; impacting people’s lives, social groups and nations and threatening the viability and future of organizations and future generations. This is illustrated by Lorenz’s Butterfly Effect - the flapping of a butterfly’s wings somewhere in the world can cause a typhoon on the other side of the planet.

In this post-truth era we are witnessing a dominant stream of lie glorification and are left with a narrow path to follow when it comes to risk management, relying on reason, wisdom, objective identification, analysis and elimination or mitigation of the dangers. It is crucial we evaluate the consequent risks of ‘real life’, rather than those resulting from created scenarios based on budgets, fake data and unquantifiable or wrongly quantified dangers. Those who fail to do this could face unpredictable consequences; ‘real life’ harsh realities. 

By Pedro Castro Caldas, Risk Management Consultant

Was an adjective that came up in the ‘Brexit’ context and Donald Trump’s election, chosen as 2016’s word of the year by the Oxford dictionary and defined as a circumstance ≪in which the objective facts have less influence in the formation of the public opinion than the appeals for emotion and personal belief≫
2 MATEUS, Samuel – Reality-Show: uma análise de género Revista Comunicando, no1, 2012, pp.235-244. ISSN 2182-4037.
3 A list, in real time, of the most broadcasted messages in Twitter all over the world.

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