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Part IV: Are We Living In A Post-Truth World?

A misinformation newsstand is seen in midtown Manhattan on October 30, 2018, aiming to educate news consumers about the dangers of disinformation, or fake news, in the lead-up to the U.S. midterm elections. The first-of-its-kind newsstand was set up by the Columbia Journalism Review. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
A misinformation newsstand is seen in midtown Manhattan on October 30, 2018, aiming to educate news consumers about the dangers of disinformation, or fake news, in the lead-up to the U.S. midterm elections. The first-of-its-kind newsstand was set up by the Columbia Journalism Review. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

This series is produced in collaboration with The Conversation

From an endless stream of political misinformation to inescapable lies on social media, are we living in a post-truth world?


Lee McIntyre, fellow at Boston University’s Center for Philosophy and History of Science. Author of “Post-Truth.” (@LeeCMcIntyre)

Christopher Beem, managing director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University. (@McCourtneyInst)

Interview Highlights

When we say post-truth, what do you think that means?

Lee McIntyre: “It’s easy to have a misconception about what post-truth means. And to say that we live in a post-truth era doesn’t mean that truth doesn’t matter anymore, or that no one cares about truth. It means that we live in an era where truth is at risk, where we’re in danger of losing sight of what truth means. In my book, I define post-truth as the political subordination of reality. So I think of post-truth as a tactic that’s used by authoritarians and their wannabes to control the flow of information so that they can then control the populace. It’s intended not just to corrupt our belief in some specific thing that’s true, but really to undermine the idea that we can know truth outside of political context.”

What’s different now?

Lee McIntyre: “It’s a great question, because the roots of this have been around forever. Politicians have lied. There have been, you know, enormous lies, enormous political subordination of reality, if you will: the Holocaust, American slavery. I mean, you just go back in history. It’s always existed. What’s different now? And I think the reason that the Oxford Dictionary named ‘post-truth’ their word of the year in 2016, is that this seems new in the following sense.

“The extreme political partisanship, married to the social media, married to how quickly misinformation and disinformation can get out there, I think makes this sort of a unique challenge of our time. It’s sort of a pandemic, if you will, of disinformation and misinformation that is new. So maybe the … roots that I explore in the book ‘Post-Truth’ have been there for a long time. But we’re now facing something that I think is a unique threat. And it’s new, at least in the American experiment. Here we are.”

What can we do to fix a post-truth society?

Christopher Beem: “Well, you know, democracy is hard. It requires things of you that are unnatural. It requires you to be passionate and yet temperate. It requires you to accept the idea that this person with whom you disagree vehemently has as much right to their opinion, and as much right to express it as you do. And the other thing it requires of you is a commitment to reflect your perspectives accurately, honestly. And it means hearing things or being concerned about the world as it is, rather than the world as you want it to be. None of these things are easy.

“And the only thing I can tell you is that in a democracy, we are all responsible. We are all sovereign. It’s not any one person’s job to run it. It’s all of ours. And so that means we all just have to commit to some things that are hard. And the truth is hard. Our biases push us in directions that make us disinclined to listen to things we don’t agree with; the things we don’t like. And so it’s only through a kind of personal commitment to the truth that any of this can be undone. And there’s so many things pushing us the other way right now.”

How do we make our democracy work now? 

Christopher Beem: “Well, I actually listen to a lot of my students ask the same thing. And … I did a TED Talk where I said one of things we need to do is to join something. Not political, but just anything that brings people together in service of some common interests, some common objective. So I said, you know, ‘Listen, if you’re a Penn State student, if you want to do ultimate or, you know, I heard that Penn State has a beekeeping club. It doesn’t matter. If you get together with people who are different from you and you don’t interact with them in terms of some kind of, you know, this is my name online and where there’s no accountability, but you actually interact with people face to face, it is much easier to come to understand that we’re very similar. In terms of what our objectives are for ourselves and our family and what we want out of the world.’

“And it’s much harder to hate each other, right? Because you come to see this person as being just like you, you know, fallen, feet of clay, doing the best they can and not want to hurt anybody. And so I think that is one way out: is to find those opportunities. They’re out there. And my colleague is in a community band. And, you know, she says, ‘Well, we just don’t talk about.’ But, you know, ‘I know that if something happens, there’s going to be 20 hot dishes.’ You know, there will be food. So that’s one place to start. Is just to kind of connect with people outside of politics.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Post-Truth” by Lee McIntyre

Excerpted from “Post-Truth.” Copyright © 2018 by Lee McIntyre. Excerpted with permission from MIT Press, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Conversation: “Lies, damn lies and post-truth” — “Even if we could find some isolated example of a politician who was scrupulously honest – former President Jimmy Carter, perhaps – the question is how to think about the rest of them. And if most politicians lie, then why are some Americans so hard on President Donald Trump?

“According to The Washington Post, Trump has told 6,420 lies so far in his presidency. In the seven weeks leading up to the midterms, his rate increased to 30 per day. That’s a lot, but isn’t this a difference in degree and not a difference in kind with other politicians?

“From my perspective as a philosopher who studies truth and belief, it doesn’t seem so. And even if most politicians lie, that doesn’t make all lying equal. Yet the difference in Trump’s prevarication seems to be found not in the quantity or enormity of his lies, but in the way that Trump uses his lies in service to a proto-authoritarian political ideology.”

The Conversation: “‘Is truth overrated?’ What the experts say” — “Last month, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker published an updated accounting of all the false and misleading claims made by President Donald Trump since he assumed office: 1,057: an average of five per day.

“That is, to be sure, a big number. But does it really matter? George Orwell famously said, ‘political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.’ Orwell speaks for most of us: To be a politician is to lie. And therefore many will ask: Five times a day, or 25 – What difference, really, does it make?

“Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher and a Jew who escaped Hitler’s Germany and settled in New York. In her essay, ‘Truth and Politics,’ she asked this very question. She argued that democratic society requires that we agree on two things. First, that there are such things as facts. And second, that we should strive to present those facts as best we understand them. In other words, we should try to tell the truth.

“Why? Because the more a politician – like the president, for example – fails to live up to these agreements, the more difficult it becomes for the rest of us to agree with, dispute or even assess what he says. When this happens, debate becomes increasingly pointless. And at some point, democracy itself is imperiled.”

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