“Tell the truth, or someone will tell it for you”
The Truth. Philosophers have fallen out over it, wars have been started because of it – and despite it, the entire legal system is based on it and Tom Cruise famously couldn’t handle it. It’s even, on occasion, found its way into Advertising. The truth clearly matters, but something seems to have happened to it. Trump, Brexit, Trump Jnr, the queasy Fake News rollercoaster, everything about that OJ guy, Trump again. Which begs several important questions, particularly for those of us in the business of communication. What is the truth? Is it getting faker? And, if so, what can we do about it?
First off, the truth is basically a lie. A helpful fiction. In theory, it rests on a foundation of ‘facts’. Facts are to truth what gold is to money and Alfred is to Batman. They underpin it, give it credibility and keep its terrifying real identity secret. But facts are open to debate. Most people in most places would agree that the stars are distant suns, not holes in the sky; that gravity grounds us, not invisible fairy glue; and that Piers Morgan is an idiot. These are widely acknowledged and universally acclaimed. But the further we move away from personally observable laws of physics, the more debatable things become and the greater our reliance upon belief. You may believe that the moon landings were filmed by Stanley Kubrick on a Hollywood lot and that you really weren’t that drunk last Saturday night, but I may disagree. Trust me, you were a disgrace. Really what we call ‘the truth’ is largely a matter of personal opinion.
To make matters worse, it seems that the truth is becoming increasingly subjective, in places you’d expect it to show more backbone. Scientists across a variety of fields have noticed that all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings enshrined in tedious text books are becoming increasingly difficult to replicate. It’s as if – to paraphrase Einstein – God got bored with science, abruptly hopped on a flight to Vegas and started playing dice with the universe. As it turns out, the fault probably lies not with science but with scientists, who are as guilty as anyone of unconsciously filtering the various truths they’re presented with to conform to their existing world view. The ones that reinforce it tend to be embraced, the ones that are discordant with it are discarded out-of-hand. Selective reporting and publication of scientific findings threatens to blur the line between science and pseudoscience, just as tailored news feeds keep Republicans and Democrats in a state of mutually uncomprehending rage, and Facebook groupthink makes Vegan Environmentalist Fidgit-Spinners assume everyone’s a Vegan Environmentalist Fidgit-Spinner. Technology may have exacerbated this phenomenon but it existed long before algorithms, filter bubbles and deranged chat groups called ‘The Earth Is Flat’. Even if the truth is out there, we’re often blind to it.
It’s no surprise, then, that the truth has always been open to deliberate manipulation for both relatively benign and vastly more sinister reasons – whether that means selling people more Captain Crunch by selectively highlighting its virtues or taking the truth out for a psychotic, power-hungry joyride. According to that delight of a man, Joseph Goebbels:
“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”
Psychologists call this the ‘Illusory Truth Effect’. Life gives us a million things to occupy our minds – like putting the washing on and avoiding Game of Thrones spoilers – so we don’t have much time to devote to putting our rational brains into gear. As a result, like the indolent bipeds we are, we use shortcuts. Repetition makes things seem more plausible, and the effect is more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information. Like the entire internet. Welcome to the 21st Century, a place where our defenses against untruths are down, if not completely out.
So, we can’t trust the truth to be truthful. But where does that leave us? In a line at the drug store with noise-cancelling headphones and a prescription for Valium?
Happily, no. The reality is that it’s been a post-truth world ever since Adam and Eve promised they wouldn’t eat that apple. And whilst the truth has been taking a bit of a beating lately, it’s still the case that, sooner or later, bullshit tends to run into reality, wreck its car and end up in hospital with an eye-watering medical bill and zero flowers. It happened when Bernie Madoff decided to make money out of thin air, it happened when Pepsi decided that world peace was only a Kendall Jenner away, and it’s happening to Trump and Brexit. Just far too slowly. The truth’s simply having a hard time wading through the growing river of slurry to get to us. So, this isn’t an argument for resignation or complacency, it’s an argument for vigilance. Whether you’re tweeting to millions after a hard day’s golfing, selling 17-blade razors on national TV, or just arguing with a group of your closest 500 virtual friends, you have a responsibility to cut the crap. Those of us in marketing forget at our peril that great brands are built on their own truth, anchored in what their businesses actually offer, tethered to reality rather than vacuous hope or meaningless purpose. And however benign our actions might seem, we’re either adding to the growing pile of bullshit or we’re not. If we are then we’re complicit in an environment where it’s becoming OK to take reality out for a deeply irresponsible joyride. The truth may be fake, and we may never truly grasp it, but that only makes our efforts to get nearer to it more important than ever.