“The truth as affirmed and broadcast by any institution is intrinsically, programmatically contestable. For every fact there is anti-fact”.
So we said in 2010 to launch our trend Counter Culture, a trend that has only strengthened – anti-fact by alternative fact, culminating, perhaps, in The Oxford English Dictionary naming post truth as the word of 2016. But what kickstarted this trend and what’s caused it to grow so much?
This trend has its roots in investigative journalism, conspiracy theory and any pursuit of truth running counter to the status quo. There’s still something alluring about a counter view: a feeling of being let in on a secret truth that the majority don’t know. But it was the information age and the boom of consumer reviews which first spurred us to write the trend in 2010. Suddenly for every claim a brand or government made, there was a voice countering: a hotel might claim it is beautifully situated, but reviews on TripAdvisor say otherwise. While consumer reviews started off being a useful resource to verify brand claims, they soon reached a volume that for any product or offering you could eventually find a 1 star review disagreeing with everything else. The truth became a relative concept, one person would claim a hotel was peaceful, another would claim it was on the noisiest street; one person online would say that sugar is deadly, another would claim it’s perfectly healthy – there was no way to tell which was empirically true, and maybe neither were. People started to talk of avoiding reading reviews, afraid they would find one single negative review which might overpower the others put them off the whole brand.
Fear and cynicism
In line with this we’ve been tracking an absolute evaporation of trust in authority of all kinds. We track trust levels in the UK back to 1980 and in every arena, those who easily accept the authority of others is falling. From the law – trust in police has declined from 84% to 54%, to teachers – falling from 68% to 40%, to political leaders – always low at 42% but now at a minuscule 11%.
Alongside this cynicism blooms. There have been enough high profile u-turns of facts for consumers to now treat any claim with healthy suspicion. In 2010, Audi’s Superbowl advert told the public that diesel was clean diesel, more eco-friendly than any fuel, the environmentally friendly choice. Fast forward to today and countless studies now show that diesel is undeniably dirty diesel: polluting, carcinogenic, a downright menace to personal and environmental health. But high profile absolute reversals of fact like this are now regular, in the political and commercial world alike. To the consumer, cynicism is becoming a way of life.
Adding fuel to the fire is a healthy culture of fear: in 2015, when we last asked, 60% of the UK thought that too many good things from the past have disappeared. Despite the fact that old wisdoms are continually overturned, people feel the past is sacred and somehow better, simpler than today. New studies then are treated with as much suspicion as old. If this new truth disproves the old truth: which do I believe?
So where does this leave us today? Well despite the coinage of post-truth, consumers continue to search for the answers, 36% of EU 28 countries have now used a fact checking website to check if a story they’d read was trustworthy. In the run up to the UK General Election, The Times launched a Filter Bubble Buster’ messenger bot, under its political sub-brand Red Box, to help give readers balanced information. On giving the bot their postcode, users were then sent polls and information relevant to their local constituency, curated by The Times’ social media team, which claim to offer a balanced view of all sides of the campaigning.
And what’s next for truth? Cynicism remains the default mode for consumers, but they are turning to new methods to work out what they want to believe. We predict it’s getting more personal, as consumers turn to influencers, who are simultaneously more expert than an everyday consumer reviewer, but also have closer connections and communities with their followers, offering a truth that feels more personal. We’re also seeing the rise of micro-influencers: brands leveraging ordinary consumers with small followings who truly love and advocate a brand and using them to pass on trusted word of mouth advertising. At the same time truth is also becoming more quantified: blockchain, the technology which underpins bitcoin and provides the inviolable digital ledger which verifies transactions, will start to be used to track supply chains and verify the original creators of content from music to memes. This may spell an end to fake news and alternative facts, but what remains is the fact that truth is now undeniably a relative concept.