Many people believe that the “post-truth” period the world is entering now is something new, but in fact, most people historically and those who lived in totalitarian regimes in the recent past have existed in a “post-truth” environment in which faith overwhelmed facts, according to Vitaly Portnikov.
Indeed, the Ukrainian commentator says, “the cult of truth” existed for only a remarkably brief period in a remarkably small number of countries where high-quality media promoted the idea that facts matter and that all beliefs should be checked against them rather than simply accepted.
“The strength of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century consisted in a return to the middle ages and from an era of knowledge to one of faith,” Portnikov says. Even as “the Western world with the help of new technologies consistently developed … the Bolsheviks converted their own ideology into a genuine religion” and their media into a “post-truth” one.
The Soviet media “existed in a hermetically closed space. It did not compete. It invented facts and did not reflect them. The customary agenda of a Soviet newspaper was flourishing in a time of hunger, ‘the rotting’ of capitalism, and stories of spies everywhere as a kind of children’s story for ‘the new Soviet man.’”
What is most interesting about this and often not remarked is that “the majority of the population of the USSR preferred to believe in all this without reflecting about any of it. Only near the end of Soviet times did Western broadcasters like Radio Liberty and Voice of America “supply their listeners with real news and not ‘alternative facts;’ and these stories were ever more connected with the life which the ordinary Soviet man lived.”
According to Portnikov, “the leadership of present-day Russia is trying on the level of propaganda to return to Soviet propaganda with its mythology and it is succeeding,” as one can see by the widespread acceptance among Russians about the supposed existence of Ukrainian “‘fascists’” or even “‘the crucified child.’”
The question arises: “how is this possible in our time?” People can turn to almost any source via the Internet; but “as it turns out, in an era of total access to information, it is much easier to deceive people simply because a lie is so easily unmasked.” People in Russia and the West accept what they hear because they believe that otherwise it would be unmasked.
And because they believe that, they make ever fewer efforts to check what they are told by media outlets they routinely listen to or watch. This makes them much easier to mislead because they assume that they can’t be and allows their rulers to move back from “an era of knowledge into an era of faith.”
Another factor at work has the same outcome: People choose their favorite sites or their favorite channels and rely on them, again without checking, because that provides them with a significant degree of personal “comfort” and that in turn means that they will accept as true what is only a matter of belief.
“That is why President Donald Trump is right when he talks about ‘fake news.’ Such stories are fake from his point of view because they do not correspond to his own picture of the world.” Trump at least reads papers and watches electronic media outlets that provide this alternative picture, even though he doesn’t accept it as true.
But someone a generation younger, Portnikov continues, won’t bother to read or watch any alternative at all. And in Russia that means that people who back Putin will watch the 1st Channel [Russia’s premier TV channel, which is controlled by the state just as all channels with large audiences – Ed.] and not check it against any other outlet or even against the reality that they should be able to see around them.
That pattern creates a dangerous new world, one in which people act not only facts but only on beliefs, a world which, the Ukrainian commentator suggests, is going to be full of surprises, the most serious of which – although rooted in the past – are still very much ahead of today.
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