The Golden Age of B.S.

This is the third of Havas PR’s “11 Trends for 2016.”

The Internet and its offspring social media are democratizing free speech. Anyone with a connection can share his or her opinion on anything, which in theory is a great development—the First Amendment writ large, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of mainstream media. In theory, people can now put their ideas out there, debate them with others, examine the evidence readily available online and come to well-informed conclusions. In theory, it’s quick and easy to research claims flying around the Internet by consulting websites such as Snopes, Hoaxbusters, Hoax Slayers and Politifact.

In practice, we’re finding that things don’t work that way. In practice, people hang out and interact online with others who think like they do, creating echo chambers of similar opinions. In practice, when people with different opinions meet and argue, they shout rather than listen and become more entrenched rather than considering and weighing different points of view. In practice, people don’t skeptically check up on claims, provided the claims confirm their own opinions. And when they do check up, it’s easy enough to find evidence online to support pretty much any opinion. In fact, rather than trying to track down the truth, it turns out that most people are satisfied with some form of truthiness, defined by Stephen Colbert as “what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are. What feels like the right answer, as opposed to what reality will support.”

In the overall media ecosystem of ideas and information, the Internet is driving a trend that strongly favors emotion-stirring, eye-catching claims backed up with a quote or an image. These are proving to be the best adapted to survive and reproduce. It’s a fertile environment for the spread of conspiracy theories and public panics such as fears about the MMR vaccine. The more the Internet serves up unimaginable things—a bird snowboarding on a roof, a man flying at high speed in a wingsuit, acrobatic stunts atop skyscrapers—the more anything seems possible and the harder it becomes to judge what’s true and what’s faked. As we said back in 2006: “Lying in all its forms—from little white ones to grand-scale deception—has become part of our cultural mainstream. It’s a time of quasi-truth that makes discerning real from fake or true from false an almost impossible task.

Updating this to the sort of terms being used in the presidential primaries now, B.S. is looming even larger in our cultural mainstream, as evidenced by a recent academic paper titled “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit.” Its conclusion: “Bullshit is a consequential aspect of the human condition. Indeed, with the rise of communication technology, people are likely encountering more bullshit in their everyday lives than ever before.”

Facts and truth will matter increasingly less in the constant struggle for media attention. Provided they don’t break the law, brands and especially individuals in the public eye will find more mileage in making big, bold claims than in sticking scrupulously to the facts and hedging everything in careful language.

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