The recent research report — the rise and fall of rationality in language — shows a significant shift to emotion in the published public discourse during the 1980s, after 130 years of predominately logic and reason.
After the year 1850, the use of sentiment-laden words in Google Books declined systematically, while the use of words associated with fact-based argumentation rose steadily. This pattern reversed in the 1980s, and this change accelerated around 2007, when across languages, the frequency of fact-related words dropped while emotion-laden language surged, a trend paralleled by a shift from collectivistic to individualistic language.—PNAS 2021-12-21
This trend accelerated again in 2007 according to the researchers. They go on to observe that social media may have played a role in this shift.
The spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories may be amplified by social media, as the online diffusion of false news is significantly broader, faster, and deeper than that of true news and efforts to debunk. Conspiracy theories originate particularly in times of uncertainty and crisis and generally depict established institutions as hiding the truth and sustaining an unfair situation. As a result, they may find fertile grounds on social media platforms promulgating a sense of unfairness, subsequently feeding antisystem sentiments. Neither conspiracy theories nor the exaggerated visibility of the successful nor the overexposure of societal problems are new phenomena. However, social media may have boosted societal arousal and sentiment, potentially stimulating an antisystem backlash, including its perceived emphasis on rationality and institutions. —PNAS 2021-12-21
The researchers conclude that the post-truth surround is a danger to society but also that it can be addressed.
Clearly, the surge of post-truth discourse does suggest such a shift, and our results are consistent with the interpretation that the post-truth phenomenon is linked to a historical seesaw in the balance between our two fundamental modes of thinking. If true, it may well be impossible to reverse the sea change we signal. Instead, societies may need to find a new balance, explicitly recognizing the importance of intuition and emotion, while at the same time making best use of the much needed power of rationality and science to deal with topics in their full complexity. Striking this balance right is urgent as rational, fact-based approaches may well be essential for maintaining functional democracies and addressing global challenges such as global warming, poverty, and the loss of nature. —PNAS 2021-12-21
I discussed how we can confront the post-truth machines in 2019, as well as the potential for prebunking conspiracy theorists in 2020. I concluded that critical thinking requires us to constantly question assumptions, especially our own. To develop these skills, questioning must be encouraged. But this runs counter to most schooling and training practices. When do students or employees get to question underlying assumptions of their institutions? If they cannot do this, how can we expect them to challenge various and pervasive types of ‘fake news’?
The elites — government and market — cannot have it both ways. They cannot have an educated citizenry as well as a compliant workforce. In addition, with the wide use of consumer social media, and their dark sides, we need to actively engage in proactive messages on a continuous basis. Waiting for the conspiracy theorists to act first is a grave mistake. Their influence is greater than their numbers.
The term —Agnotology — “the strategic and purposeful production of ignorance” is introduced by danah boyd in an excellent piece (2019) on what lies beneath the flood of fake news.
“You will not achieve an informed public simply by making sure that high quality content is publicly available and presuming that credibility is enough while you wait for people to come find it. You have to understand the networked nature of the information war we’re in, actively be there when people are looking, and blanket the information ecosystem with the information people need to make informed decisions.” —danah boyd
The digital information ecosystem extends emotion through an ongoing series of manufactured media spectacles. Traditional journalism — with its attempts at presenting both sides — is obsolesced by the very nature of its assumption of a neutral point of view. Return to nature movements — such as we are seeing with anti-vaxxers during this pandemic — retrieve the pastoral impulse for an imaginary kinder and gentler society. We are left in a state of constant doubt as conspiratorial content becomes easier to access than solid scientific information, especially online and only a click away.
We are in an information war. Understanding this is the first step in fighting for democracy.
Find this post useful? Check out the perpetual beta series