When Michael Gove claimed during the EU referendum that “Britain had had enough of experts”, it raised many eyebrows and caused collective eye rolls from the expert community and beyond.
Two years on, his comments are still relevant, for better or for worse.
When economists warned about the negative impact of Brexit and when MEPs explained the complicated administrative problems of the UK extricating itself from a 30-year union, it was labelled “project fear”.
However, this insistent denial of truth has led us down the garden path in terms of the Brexit we might face in March. A Brexit deal that was initially touted by Fox “as one of the easiest in human history” has turned into a “60/40 no deal situation”, with no sense of irony. It has left many of us wondering how we got here.
The UK is not alone in its growing distrust of authority figures. Our neighbours across the pond are trapped in the grips of Trumpian fake news, modelled on Putin’s theatrical misdirection tactics. As such, in the age of fake news, this atmosphere can lend even legitimate news stories or factual warnings, be it about medicine supply after Brexit or global warming to be labelled as untrue. Unfortunately, the search for some form of balance in today’s media can place extremists upon elevated platforms, with their words then posited as harmless and a reasonable opposition. The line between media bias and balance has never been more blurred.
Outlandish headlines, and exaggerated stories of anomalous studies are more successful and ultimately pay their publishers more in the age of clickbait media and withering print press. We also know that people are more likely to share stories on social media if they feel shocked or outraged at their contents, even if these contents are not necessarily true. Ultimately, this fuels the fire of conspiracy. When given enough airtime, even conspiracy can begin to appear legitimate.
Those in awe at the sheer audacity of both Trump’s and the Brexiteers’ ability to play fast and loose with the truth during a pivotal time for the future of Europe and the US should perhaps look to postmodernism for answers as to the dearth of reality in debate in 2018. Postmodernism suggests that there is no such thing as objective truth, only multiple, relative truths. This is in stark contrast to the leading post-war philosophy of modernism which was defined by its rationale and belief in scientific fact as the basis of knowledge. When our politicians cast doubt on reality and truth, our ability to trust anything and anyone is thrown into disarray.
When truth becomes relative, the impossible becomes news. It is this concept that allows for the NHS to be given more money via the Brexit dividend (so says Theresa May), whilst the Brexit dividend continues to be a concept that does not exist (so says economic reality).This is now the era where something written on the side of a bus is taken as factual proof, while what used to be incontestable expertise is being kicked down the road.
We are now increasingly bombarded with confirmations of our suspicions that we are right to no longer place trust in authority. In the face of the Cambridge Analytica scandal where personal data collected by Facebook was exploited in order to target voters, and illegal spending in the referendum campaign reveals the power that well-placed money has to change people’s minds, the impact of this has still been ignored by many – accepting that there is an incredibly high chance your opinion and, most importantly, your vote were essentially bought isn’t an easy process.
The hardening of the belief that we ought not to change our minds, but buckle down and “get on with it” is cognitive bias at its very finest. In time, this grows to either anger or political disaffection, and illustrates the state of the Brexit debate today. Most people are either still hard-line remainers, hard-line leavers, or past the point of caring what happens; polling remains very similar to the day of the referendum, although with the recent rise in popularity for a People’s Vote on the final deal, this has started to slowly shift.
The delicate and intricate connection of all of these problems signals a sea change in how we think about truth in the UK. The question of how the public can learn to trust authority figures and experts once again is a tricky one, it is perhaps the question for our times.
The EU is leading the way in preventing widespread information and fake news, as the European Commission is launching an EU-wide initiative to combat voter manipulation through social media ahead of the upcoming elections next May. An independent network of fact-checkers and action to stimulate quality journalism is also in the works.
These plans will only involve the EU27, but let’s hope the UK will be willing to listen to these experts beyond Brexit. It’s for the sake of our treasured democracy.