The Politics of Deceit

The term post-truth became a buzzword when the Oxford English Dictionary declared it as their word of the year in 2016, referring to it as “circumstances in which objective facts are less effective in shaping public opinion than appeals to sentiment and personal belief”. Though, there lies no unanimity over the antiquity of this concept. Is it something new or something that has always been with us? All this is yet to be answered. However, in the last few years, we have witnessed the abrupt rise of such political leaders and campaigns that have gained exceptional and resounding victories by relying on half-truths, lies, and innuendos. Yet, the masses render enormous support to them. Such a development is epitomised in both the national and international politics as indicated in India and the United States (US).

Narendra Modi’s walkover in the Indian elections followed by Donald Trump’s narrow defeat to the Democratic contender Joe Biden calls for attention. Despite the defeat, the leaving president managed to secure whopping votes surpassing 70 million, which is more than any losing candidate. Thus, altering the political landscape and marking a drastic turn in the dynamics of democracy. From a “game rigged by the powerful” to a game rigged by counterfactuals. This transition is highly intricate, as power shifts from the material to the abstract domain of narratives, discourses, counterfactuals, and propagandas.

Pertaining to this development at its height during 2016, researchers from the RAND Corporation released a report warning about the rise of a particular propaganda technique, “firehose of falsehood,” where political leaders bombard the masses with more lies than they can keep up with. According to the report, such lies do not have to be believable, consistent, or even realistic. It was observed that even obvious lies had the ability to be highly effective in shaping public opinion. Interestingly, the report was neither about Mr Trump nor Mr Modi; instead, it was about the Russian President Vladimir Putin. All this raised an interesting question of how could powerful democratic leaders benefit from telling obvious lies?

Problematising the Truth: 

The process of problematising the truth is the progeny of a highly interconnected, flattened, and mediated world where the leaders propagate controversial statements in a high volume in a continuous manner. However, such propaganda does not make any commitment to reality; neither does it comply with its consistency. Research indicates that the more familiar we are with a lie, the more likely we will take it as true. Much of the propaganda we have been witnessing in the electoral campaigns spearheaded by Donald Trump and Narendra Modi since 2016 is a vivid illustration of realpolitik where the statements deviate from facts indicating a kernel of truth.

Battle of discourse setting and the narrative building is a very apparent demonstration of power in the age of infocalypse where leaders entertain the media, confuse the audience, and overwhelm the opponents.

The most jarring example of this was when India made a fictional claim of holding a surgical strike within Pakistan in 2016 and hitting terrorist camps in Balakot in 2019. Both the claims were rebutted after fact-checking. Similarly, Trumpism also parallels this firehosing technique as indicated in both of Trump’s election campaigns. Further, in his recent “stop the steal” movement, Trump portrayed the same offensive rhetoric and misleading statements that dictated his entire presidency. His constant allegations regarding vote-stealing were shunned by at least 61 courts as unsubstantiated, including many courts with Trump-appointed judges. Recently, Trump was also accused of indirectly inciting the Capitol storming through his agitational rhetoric coupled with conspiratorial lies, instilling a sense of imminent doom. Consequently, Twitter permanently suspended Mr. Trump’s handle on the social media platform, on account of inciting what can be called as a kind of terrorism named “stochastic terrorism” which is employed by political demagogues to incite and channelise mass anxiety. This process translates into a fascist manipulation of democratic fault lines.

The startling fact is that the unmanageable volume of falsehood created by these leaders’ hails from states where one has been re-elected, and the other has broken records with an enormous increase in his popular vote, despite losing. What all this tells, is that the iterative cycle of these obvious lies is not about persuasion but power. When these political figures manipulate facts for political and social leverage; they symbolise that they are not restricted by reality. This battle of discourse setting and the narrative building is a very apparent demonstration of power in the age of infocalypse where leaders entertain the media, confuse the audience, and overwhelm the opponents.

The ability of words to make people take a particular course of action is tremendously bewildering in this globalised world. It aids both the dispersion of false rhetoric and consolidates the rancour produced by narcissistic leadership, especially in the populist zeitgeist.

This era indicates the inception of denialism, desperation, and deception, where truth is being problematised to attain political, social, and economic objectives. Various historical epochs depict distinct narrative ecologies, that can be viewed as a space of emergence, interaction, competition, and decay of narratives and counternarratives. However, the ability of words to make people take a particular course of action is tremendously bewildering in this globalised world. It aids both the dispersion of false rhetoric and consolidates the rancour produced by narcissistic leadership, especially in the populist zeitgeist.

Rising Tide of Mediated Populism 

From Russia’s “firehose of falsehood” to Trump’s “alternative facts” leading to Modi’s “doublespeak”, are confusing strategies of normalising demagogic power. Resultantly, it strengthens the electoral populism and its spread around the world. Uncoordinated mayhem, triggered by firehosing falsehood and disseminated by media, generates this mediated populism. In such a scenario, the angst of the people is channelised to launch a global civil war propagated by their populist gurus. The media also holds a crucial part in this as its emphasis on the manipulators and their chicanery, rather than on the substantive problems is perhaps inevitable because it represents a variety of facets of any state’s political culture. Personalities have become more powerful than institutions, facts remain ambiguous, and oversimplification is the standard.

The Force of Performatives 

The tidal shift towards mediated populist demagogy is better understood as a performative ideology. The way the leaders of the post-truth populist age lie, makes the obviousness of the lie a part of the powerplay. Donald Trump’s and Narendra Modi’s use of Twitter shows that a charismatic leader demonstrates a unique ability of populist performativity. The leader demonstrates a persona, like “Trump’s defiant and Modi’s ordinary persona”, embodying a mission to save the people from their foes. Essential to this charismatic leader’s performative strategy is an effective dynamic rendering a strong appeal to authenticity while analysing “the people” as functional political subjects. It does so by employing discursively patterned sentiments with deep ideological implications.

The statements regarding the relativity of truth, or deconstruction of truth regimes, have seeped out into a broader political world, at theexpense of the truth itself. The facts are moulded, stigmatised, reshaped. In a flattened world, media sensationalism has triggered mass anxiety that is being utilised by a few. This tendency is the most prominent in the world’s largest democracy, and the world’s harbinger of democracy, India, and the US, respectively, suggesting that perhaps the goal of firehosing is to assert power, fact-checking remains useless. Arguing with the obvious has become the new normal, and reality has been reduced to a matter of picking sides. The mind-numbing political fights miss the whole point of sound deliberations as truth has been reduced to just a position robbed of its power. The question remains; would we be able to survive this tide of deceptive political infocalypse?

Rida Fatima

Rida Fatima

Rida Fatima is a graduate of the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid -I-Azam University. She serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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