Word boffins prompt post‑truth debate for communicators

By Cormac Bradley

Every November, downtown Oxford plays host to an unusual, and pretty unique, gathering.

The phone call would have been made to the chosen few a couple of weeks beforehand – a call the lexicography boffins at Oxford Dictionaries would have been waiting on all year. Pack your bags, get on the next available flight, and make your way to the banks of the Thames… The time has come to discuss the shortlist for the Word of the Year 2016. 

When they arrived in the deliberating room, there, printed on a page in front of them, would have been a list of words or expressions chosen to reflect the passing year in language.

Their job? To identify the one that captured the “ethos, mood, or preoccupations” of the previous 12 months. 

One can only imagine the fervour, excitement and debate that ensued as these learned men and women made their way through the nominations, one-by-one.

No doubt the Scandinavian representatives made a strong case for “hygge”, which, as practitioners will know, is a ‘quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of well-being’. Those with a European bent would have argued strongly for the cultural and political impact of “Brexiteer”, following a strong showing for “Brexit” in the shortlist in 2015, not to mention the future potential of “Bregret”, “Brexodus” and “Bremain”.  The techies amongst the group  might have pitched hard for ‘chatbot’, a computer programme designed to stimulate conversation with human users, especially after Microsoft’s now infamous introduction of its chatbot Tay in March last year .

In the end, after undoubtedly hours of heated deliberation, the group plumped for a hyphenated word that had seen a massive 2,000% increase in usage over the previous year – “post-truth” - officially: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

The judges, like everybody else of course, would have been influenced by a year dominated by social and political upheaval, epitomised by the EU referendum in the UK and the US presidential election, and the uncertainty and confusion that prevailed across the globe.  When the President of Oxford Dictionaries,  Casper Grathwohl, announced that post-truth was not only their word of the year, but was in line to become ‘one of the defining words of our time’, it was a clear indication that the concept was more than just a passing trend.

The advent of the post-truth world, and its entry into public consciousness, creates an interesting backdrop for communications professionals.  How do you seek to target and influence audiences that are increasingly cherry-picking information and sources that match their own thought process while dismissing the rest?

It’s important to remember however that post-truth, and its first cousin fake news, are not new concepts. 

My college dissertation some years back was on the role propaganda played in modern day conflict and how, at times of turmoil, people are more influenced by extreme or one-sided views. The Oxford Dictionary definition of propaganda? “Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.” Sound familiar?

Communications professionals, academics and enthusiasts increasingly find themselves in consensus that some of the stories, campaigns and rhetoric publicised from both sides of the Atlantic over the last 18 months are not dissimilar to the signature traits of old fashioned propaganda. 

What has changed since my college days is how news and information is consumed and, critically, the speed at which it spreads (particularly via non-news platforms), challenging the agility and ability of communicators to fact-check and respond authoritatively. 

Public awareness and debate on the concept of post-truth, prompted by the likes of our friends at Oxford Dictionaries, can only help to emphasise the responsibility all of us have to read more widely, query what we read and understand our sources.  Increasingly, blatant falsehoods, dressed up as factual news, are being called out for what they are.

With greater understanding and knowledge, those on the side of promoting facts over fiction, expertise over ignorance, just like those battling the propagandists in times past, should eventually prevail and have their story heard.  

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