In the wake of the successful Leave campaign, many commentators have moaned about us being in a “Post Truth” society, where you can post a big lie (such as £350m a week for the NHS) and then admit that it’s a lie as soon as the ink is dry on your victory. The fact is “Post Truth” campaigning was not invented by Boris Johnson, Lynton Crosby or Donald Trump. The term was coined in a book by Ralph Keyes in 2004, was articulated by Lyndon B Johnson in the 1960s and probably stretches back to the exile of Cicero in 63 BC.
The question no-one seems to answer is how to deal with Post Truth campaigning. It’s not good enough to trot out the Jonathan Swift quote “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it” (reinterpreted and attributed to Mark Twain and Churchill among others). You need to find a way to make the truth fly.
The first is to recognise you aren’t playing the same game. If someone is posting falsehoods the traditional response was rapid rebuttal – something practiced to great effect by the Blair spin machine (much derided but wouldn’t the Labour Party love to have something half as effective today). That assumes both sides are playing a high contact sport – like Aussie Rules Football – on the same playing field. But modern campaigning exists to either change the game or charge the venue – so Remain was playing at Twickenham while Leave was scoring goals at a large number of football league grounds that the metropolitan elite didn’t even know existed, never mind played at.
If you move beyond the political to NGO campaigning the situation is amplified. NGOs, I’m afraid to say, are often guilty of conflating facts to build a story that their targets – often big businesses – struggle to repudiate effectively because they are focusing on challenging the basis for the argument – “the truth”, rather than focussing on the message. What they need to do is push their alternative message, which they are well equipped to support with verifiable facts. In other words, change the game yourself.
The second issue is supposed lack of trust for experts. Why do people consider the Incredible Hulk, Mark Ruffalo, to be credible when he talks about fracking, yet don’t listen to eminently credible scientists? There is an assumption that people connect with celebrity. But if that is so why didn’t David Beckham, surely Britain’s most loved sportsperson, swing it for Remain? The answer is people connect with connection – they trust messages from those that they listen to on a daily basis. This is not just a case for localised campaigning, which everyone back to the Romans in Britain know works (why else promote prominent Celts to positions of power after the Boudica revolt?), it is a case for finding the connection and using it.
Again NGOs are excellent at this – particularly with social media campaigns where the information is deliver by someone local, someone in your connected circle etc. Again businesses are not very good at this because they are not used to communicating in a Lego bricks way – piece by piece. It’s time consuming, expensive and – to be honest – the 25-year-olds in head office with a degree in PR find it difficult to frame messages the resonate with 45 year old delivery drivers. Sometimes you have to recognise that if you aren’t good at something, don’t try doing it. Find a different approach – change the game or change the venue.
Finally, and most importantly, recognise we are in a “Post Truth” environment and cut your cloth accordingly. As Game of Thrones fans will tell you, don’t fight with spears when the other side have dragons. Find your own dragons.