From Post-Truth to Post-Ethics


[Versió catalana | Versión castellana]

Salvador Alsius

Department of Communication
Universitat Pompeu Fabra



On the last night of August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, died after being in a car crash in the Pont de l'Alma road tunnel in Paris. Among the circumstances surrounding the event were the actions of the paparazzi, who had relentlessly pursued "the People's Princess" and her companion that evening, just as they had done on previous days. Over the twenty-four fours that ensued, the world's media, in every language imaginable, spoke of nothing else. For unrelated reasons, I had the opportunity to view television discussions on different continents, and my impression was that there was only one topic of conversation anywhere in the world. The entire experience led me to formulate a modest theory: never before in human history had there been such an intense global debate as the one that arose from that situation, in terms of the numbers of people broadcasting opinions and the concentration in time.

It is surely no coincidence that the global debate revolved around an issue that so clearly concerned journalistic ethics. Indeed, in the twenty years that have since passed, other events and situations have reproduced the phenomenon. By way of example, we think of the circulation of the image of the drowned Syrian Kurdish boy, Alan Kurdi, lying face down on a Turkish beach or the widespread controversy sparked again and again by the publication of photos or videos showing dead bodies after a terrorist attack.  

Increasingly, communication permeates our social, political and economic life. So much so that what is transmitted through the media has become a parallel reality that hides or subverts what we have now come to consider, with a nod to the sociology of knowledge, the "authentic reality". The long-standing aphorism "if something doesn't appear on television, it doesn't exist" continues to apply fittingly to a rather sad, but irrefutable state of affairs. With the advent of social media, it has become even clearer that the phenomena and flows of communication are determinant in shaping how the world is viewed by whole swathes of the populace, particularly among segments whose young age or educational level may make them most vulnerable.

The saturation of our consciousness by media messages has had a bigger epiphany with the arrival on the scene of the concept of "post-truth". As is well known, the term was hailed by the Oxford Dictionaries in 2016 as "Word of the Year". "Post-truth" is a neologism that refers to an environment or context in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Apparently, the word first debuted in 1992 when it was used by the Serbian-American screenwriter and playwright Steve Tesich in reference to information broadcast about the Gulf War. Later it was given academic credentials by the US sociologist Ralph Keyes in his book The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, published in 2004, and by another sociologist, Eric Alterman, who defined "post-truth" as a "political weapon of disinformation" and cited as an example the justification given by the Bush administration to curtail freedoms and instigate wars after 9/11 with the backing of a deeply fear-riddled nation. Ultimately, the concept was turned into a journalistic catchword when it appeared in an editorial in The Economist (2016) that hinted at the likely outcome of the emotion-charged US elections, given the state of broad swathes of the electorate, noting: "Mr Trump is the leading exponent of 'post-truth' politics—a reliance on assertions that 'feel true' but have no basis in fact".

There has been a more or less enlightened discussion about the extent to which post-truth is a concept that stands on its own or is a mere reformulation of what has always been considered an outright lie, plain and simple. Goebbels once shamelessly argued that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. People have a point when they maintain that lying and the will to deceive have always existed, ever since the trickery in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. It is also true, however, that there are distinct features that attest to the newness of the concept. One of these features is the exponential multiplication of untruths that can occur with the new social media, and another is everyone's involvement in these ambiguities. As the lecturer Gabriel Colomé has written, what is new is not the fact that politicians lie, but the construction of a virtual reality in which truths and lies are one and the same.

It is far from my intention here to defend a pan-communicative approach, that is, the notion according to which, given that everything can be treated as communication, human conduct and social life must be explained by means of communication theories and that the rules of coexistence must be those dictated by an ethics of communication. What is certain, however, is that this patch of public morality is increasingly important and that it can, if nothing else, serve as a model for reflections on any other aspect of ethics.

Ethics is the territory of doubts. All those areas about which democratic societies are sufficiently certain, even if their certainties are relative and provisional, become instituted as positive law. We could say that law is a hard nucleus that takes shape around a cytoplasm that we will call ethics or deontology when we limit it to good professional practice. In some fields of human activity, the appearance of a large number of new phenomena means that there is not yet much nucleus and, by contrast, a great deal of cytoplasm. This is the case with journalism and communication in general. To give only one among many examples, some years ago no code of conduct spoke of a right to forget. Now the permanence of documents on the Internet and the harm that their indelibility can cause, especially to vulnerable people, is a major subject of debate in press councils around the world.

This is not the only ethical area in which the cytoplasm of doubts is disproportionately large with respect to the nucleus of certainties. A similar area in this respect is bioethics. The issues of euthanasia, stem cell use, embryo preservation, the proliferation of cyborgs, and animal rights pose questions not only for scientists but for everyone else too. There are many open controversies in which scientific assertions, ideologies and personal beliefs still overlap enough for us to reach a broadly shared consensus.

But now that I have made it rather clear that as someone who has a modest familiarity with the subject, I am not merely focused on my own self-interest, let's return to the ethics of social communication. There are at least two aspects that I would like to underscore because they form part of the wealth of new phenomena to which I was alluding and because they seem to me to transcend the specific field and pose moral issues that speak directly to the democratic life of society. One of these issues concerns the content of messages, while the other relates to the technologies that permit their circulation.

In the case of the content of messages, I am referring to hate speech. Once we have protected the freedom of expression and protected it well, there are red lines that have long been familiar to those of us who are engaged in the regulation and/or self-regulation of media. One is the protection of minors, while others include information affecting our collective security and the qualitative and quantitative excesses of advertising. Of late, a further red line is taking shape. Internationally, it has become known as hate speech and it is expected to be addressed in the new European directive on audio-visual media services to be approved in 2018. As the laws of different countries necessarily adapt to the directive, hate speech will become enshrined in the regulatory sphere. Long beforehand, however, Spanish and Catalan laws have curbed hate speech in keeping with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, the recommendations of the Council of Europe and the resolutions of the UN Committee, which have referred to the spread of statements that promote or justify—or even incite—racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or any other form of hatred based on intolerance. Not all political groups, it must be said, uniformly defend the extent of these constraints. Some dispute the constraints on the pretext of freedom of expression or with the argument that it is hard to discern who has the authority, and who does not, to determine exactly what is meant by an expression of hate. In May 2016, the European Commission agreed a code of conduct for companies in the technology sector (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Microsoft) to combat incitement to hatred on the Internet. Only a brief wander through any social networking site is required, however, to verify that intolerance, very often of a clearly Fascist stripe, continues to spread like wildfire.

While the second issue has no direct relation to the first, it is also a phenomenon of the world of communications that, nonetheless, strongly affects social conduct. I refer to the growing importance of the accumulation and use of big data. Very recently, the expert Martí Petit has published an essay entitled "Desconnexió connectada. Societat digital, Catalunya i Europa", in which he clearly and vigorously explains the paradigm shift confronting us. He addresses the leap from the analogue world to the digital world and argues that the shift from a communication system without algorithms to one that uses algorithms will be as great or even greater, or that it already is. The algorithm is a basic mathematical concept that has taken root in our lives in reference to data processing and has enabled us to become unconscious of how our identity is being turned into fodder for commercial rapacity and political manipulation. The myth of the Internet's neutrality collapses and an Orwellian premonition surfaces in the most inconspicuous details of our daily life.

Taken together, these issues radically affect the prevailing system of values and they force us, both as a society and as individuals, to reconsider the conventions, codes and rules by which we want to govern ourselves. If we accept the premise that information and communication are not only scientific concepts that are increasingly transversal, but that they also generate a wealth of specific phenomena that guide our lives, it becomes even clearer that our ethical stances toward these phenomena are de facto the ones that define our moral frameworks. According to this logic, the effects of post-truth may be moving us into a "post-ethical" era. In the same way that the concept of "post-truth" is in dispute from people arguing that, at heart, it is merely a new name for the same lies as ever, it is also possible to think that the other newly minted word above means nothing other than what is already familiar to us as moral relativity. I do not know; I am not a philosopher. It does feel, however, that we are now passing one step beyond relativism. Situational ethics no longer govern our actions, because situational ethics are making certain principles elastic. Rather, we now face a refusal to embrace any principles, either because of a lack of willingness to do so or simply because of the impossibility of recognising them amid so much information pollution and confusion. Ideology and utopia form a totum revolutum and the liquid society now reaches a gaseous state.

Above, I noted that these issues speak crucially to us on the social level, but also on the purely individual level. What is occurring is that the system of duties is being profoundly shaken. I'll leave the world of communication for a moment to offer an example. It is true that one of the major blights of our society and our political system is corruption, which acts as what economist Elena Costas has called "un poderós dissolvent de la democràcia" (a powerful solvent of democracy). According to public opinion surveys, this view is endorsed by broad swathes of the populace. Yet how many people collect or receive payment for an invoice illegally, operating cash in hand? This little swindle is accepted as normal by people of all sorts. Similarly, the order of business in the field of communication is a lack of being consequential between what we condemn and what we ourselves do. Social media have had the virtue of turning everyone into a potential broadcaster of messages. While potentially a tremendous way to give voice to the voiceless, however, this also has its shadows. Because the people who complain about the media's big lies are the same ones who spread unsubstantiated information. And the people who denigrate the "big brother" that uses algorithms to monitor their actions are the same ones who heedlessly, unabashedly cast traces of their own identity far and wide.

These reflections lead me directly to a "last but not least" point that I would like to underscore: the importance of media education or media literacy. In all the debates that I have lately attended on the concept of post-truth or on the various principles and applications of communication ethics, someone has always come forward to argue that one of the potential solutions to change the current state of affairs must involve in-depth work on these questions in the field of education. For example, in the course of a splendid evening devoted to post-truth on TV3 a few months ago, the dean of Catalonia's Association of Journalists, Neus Bonet, said that educators have recently become very concerned with the diet or eating habits of students and families, whereas they have perhaps been rather too little concerned with another kind of diet, their media intake.1 In effect, this is the big issue that remains to be addressed. Our schools have always needed to give greater attention to education not only on the subject of knowledge and how to handle the languages of new media but also on how to engage in responsible and critical consumption of such media. To these needs, we must now add the need to develop guidelines for using the new digital tools that children and teenagers have at their fingertips. It is necessary to debate whether these matters should be addressed in schools as a specific subject or transversally. In any event, however, media literacy appears to be an insufficient, but absolutely necessary condition to change the current state of affairs.



Alterman, Eric; Green, Mark (2004). The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America. New York: Viking.

Costas, Elena (2017). "La informació, dissolvent de la corrupció". Ara, 31/10/2017. <>. [Consulta: 05/12/2017].

Keyes, Ralph (2004). The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Petit, Martí (2017). Comunicació, xarxes i algoritmes: per una política digital pròpia a Catalunya. Barcelona: Angle Editorial. Premi d'Assaig Irla 2017.

"Post-truth politics: Art of the lie" (2006). The Economist, September 10th. <>. [Consulta: 15/11/2017].

Tesich, Steve (1992). "A Government of lies". The Nation, January 6/13. <>. [Consulta: 05/12/2017].



1 The show Veritats compartides ["Shared Truths"] appeared on TV3 on 23 May 2017 as part of the documentary series DOCS Barcelona. <>. [Consulted: 15/11/2017].



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