The Proliferation of “Alternative” Truths

Primarily as a result of globalization and the democratization of information to the masses, the theory and practice of politics and governance have been undergoing a steady evolution.

Trump delivers Joint Address to Congress. (Official White House Photo: Shealah Craighead)

With access to more open source (and closed source in some cases) content online, and the ability to instantaneously communicate virtually anywhere in the world, the conventional state has been under constant pressure to maintain a monopoly on the utility and dissemination of information. A rapid and dramatic increase in this trend has emerged under the Trump Administration.
This article explores the question of whether Trump’s executive branch is run by and for open source information from partisan mass media and, if so, what this means for governance in an age of globalization. In other words, are alternative “truths” eclipsing fact?

Less than a year into his presidency, President Trump has made many prolific ‘firsts’ in both practice and policy. More often than not, his statements, tweets, gestures, and what can only be reasonably interpreted as diplomatic and political gaffes, are at the centre of attention for social media, late night talk shows, and exhaustively in-depth analyses around the world. 

The same can be said for his cabal of colourful surrogates that, at best, create contradictory press releases or inadvertently coin such Orwellian language as ‘alternative facts.’ Some recent highlights include: Trump’s social media slam of Mayor Khan after the June 2017 London Bridge attack; his pardoning of Sheriff Arpaio, who deliberately and knowingly infringed on constitutional rights of Americans and spurned the rule of law; as well as his broader position on racism, which can be interpreted as both ambiguous (by supporters) and racially biased (by critics). These have made one breaking headline after another the new norm. This article will not touch on these topics, as they have been covered extensively and, by the time of publication, will have already been outshined by newly trending topics emerging from the highest political office. Instead, we will tackle a topic of a more philosophical nature. Trump’s impetuous disdain for structure and stricture alike are of global renown. What is also well known is how he consumes the information that influences his policy, which, by his mere utterance, becomes an official U.S. position. 

President Donald Trump talks to members of the press. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

This drift towards unilateral policy-making is unprecedented in modern liberal democracies – the policies of the past have been the result of intense (often collaborative and even combative) discussion and deliberation by government leaders (note the plural) who felt the weight of accountability to the entire public (not only their voting base). 

The implications for this new dynamic are more vast than the first order effects often ruminated upon in political analyses; they are evidence of a deeper and symptomatic trend for governance in a ubiquitously connected liberal democracy. The effect of the President’s consumption of open source information (and the selective provision of this information by his aides) must be closely examined as we assess exactly how this dynamic is changing the face of governance in an age of globalization.

Open-source Executive Branch
On the campaign trail, Trump was well known for his polarizing, inflammatory, and often ‘factually loose’ tweets. While career politicians in both parties have employed social media for years, it has often been the proliferation of boilerplate statements of approval, endorsement, or condolence that became the norm for the U.S. constituent (hereby known as the “information consumer”). 

Trump, however, was the exception to this – a trend that none of his competitors in either party were able (or willing, in some cases) to match. With the President maintaining his personal Twitter account alongside the official POTUS office, pundits, comedians, and foreign affairs specialists from around the world now wait with baited breath to see the tone and substance of the early morning informal statements from the White House. 

The question of where this information comes from has been routinely reviewed. Sometimes, it is content retweeted from renowned conspiracy theorists (InfoWars’ Alex Jones) or white supremacists like David Duke, but it has also proved to be simply nonexistent (“what’s happening last night in Sweden” and the “Bowling Green Massacre”). He has been distressingly successful at eclipsing the truth with bluster.

Even before his inauguration, Trump was notorious for not being interested in his classified intelligence briefings, preferring to gain purported situational awareness from news sources that confirmed his established beliefs or, in some cases, to obsessively latch onto those that did the opposite. 

In terms of the straightforward reiteration of information by the office meant to be among the best-informed in the world, Trump quickly set a new low. Many anticipate that this style will be abandoned by future administrations, however, observation suggests this assumption might yet prove tragically incorrect.

Reince Priebus (foreground) served as White House Chief of Staff for President Donald Trump from January 20, 2017 until July 31, 2017. When Trump replaced Priebus with John F. Kelly, he announced the change via Twitter while sitting aboard Air Force One on a tarmac outside Washington. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Even more pressing than this exterior conduct is the underlying paradigm exhibited in his behaviour, and the implications it has already carried for governance in a liberal democracy. In an age of globalized, real-time reporting, these impacts extend far beyond U.S. information consumers. Essentially, Trump is changing how governance works – in complex, and possibly long-lasting, ways.

Close aides have reported that Trump typically spends his mornings in the White House selectively reading print newspapers at length – albeit with a notoriously short attention span – while morning news programs play on the television. He is provided with a very small scope of articles and analyses, oftentimes those that praise his existing statements, actions, or more broadly his personality. While perhaps an attempt by an aide to curry favour, this same tactic of providing selective information was exhibited by his team on the campaign trail. Compared to the boilerplate messages so typically seen in senior political offices, one can easily identify a tweet that comes from Trump’s own mind and fingers.

Beyond the forwarding of content from fringe or outright extremist political pundits, Trump reportedly receives the vast amount of information he processes from open news sources. Typically, he relies on those channels (or “the shows” as he calls them) that reinforce his already established viewpoints, such as Fox and Breitbart. His subsequent tweets often target the ethics or professionalism of those journalists, analysts, politicians, and others who reject or condemn his performance or personality. 

These facts are nothing new, but they lend credence for insight into how Trump’s conduct and character is serving to change how governance is done and what this means for the public in a globalizing age of information saturation.

Donald Trump is, by all accounts, an easy man to please. His wants are singular and his desire is unitary. Because of this, he should be, for all intents and purposes, a force that can be gauged, assessed, and controlled with little sizeable effort from his staff. The reality, however, is quite different. The toxicity of the Trump administration is pervasive in its contaminating potential. We can see this with the revolving door of those who are close to him. 

While the psychology of the President is beyond the scope of this article, it is crucial to consider it in understanding the internal process that manifests in Trump’s policy expressions (be they scripted statements or early morning tweets).

Dangers of the Positive Feedback Loop 
The President relies on being empowered by having his established perspectives and viewpoints reinforced by means of obsessively unilateral praise. Likewise, he zealously pursues those who disagree, condemn, or insult him. The implications of how Trump consumes information, and how it affects his policymaking, and therefore becomes news again, is something that analysts must more readily and thoroughly consider if democratic institutions and the power entrusted to the executive branch are to retain their authority and legitimacy.

The cycle I allude to here is known as a positive feedback loop – a mechanism or process that becomes increasingly unstable with further disruptions. It is a causal matrix or a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more of ‘A’ that is produced, the more of ‘B’ is produced, which feeds back into the production of ‘A’. It is the amplification of a given dynamic, increasing in scope and breadth, as a result of that same amplification. Ultimately, it is a snowball effect, applied to fields from economics to electricity.

Without a doubt, Trump has created a self-feeding dynamic by primarily consuming news from sources that have evolved to cater to his consumption. This information then manifests in his spoken word, and his written tweet becomes outright U.S. government policy to which the world responds in nervous strides. He speaks to this content, refines it and formulates it. His closest aides and advisors know that he thrives on it and, in turn, their jobs secure and Trump is less inclined to tweet or retweet inflammatory and destabilizing content that throws the White House into “disaster control” mode.

What does this mean for governance? The positive feedback loop is a dangerous phenomenon. In many ways, it is particularly relevant to crowd mentality. The more a stampede forces itself into a crowd, the larger the stampede becomes out of sheer panic. When applied to the will of one man, however (in this case, the most powerful office in the world), the outcomes are as poignant as they are dangerous. 

These dynamics were witnessed before the Trump administration, certainly, but only as a gradual evolution that is consistent with institutionalized globalization, and not necessarily mainstream or volatile in its adherents and its relative importance to international politics.

I call this phenomenon the proliferation of alternative truths – the mass transfer of a highly valuable and volatile commodity (information), which may or may not be the truth as traditionally defined. A truth complex is a sustained version of events meant to be intersubjectively perceived as reality by the consumer base in question. 

The Complexity of Truth
In a globalizing age, we are all ‘information consumers.’ Ironically, it is in this age of ‘information saturation’ that many of us actually know less about the truthful chain of events going on in the world. There is a flood of truth complexes that seek to take hold of the minds of consumers – facilitating the imposition of a ‘desired’ reality – again, the proliferation of alternative truths.

It is for this reason that we have privileged information consumers – law enforcement, intelligence agencies, foreign services, oversight committees, and the independent judicial, legislative, and executive branches. These privileged entities serve to distil the background noise, acting on that which is left over in the best interest of the public, which is then informed in an accountable and transparent way of what took place, how, and why – as, of course, the elected government chooses to represent them. At its most basic, this is how democracy works, based on the mutual trust between constituents and civil institutions. Or, at least, this is how it is supposed to work.

In and of itself, information as a tool is nothing new. Governments of all stripes have sought to ‘massage’ a given truth-complex through the employment of disinformation, propaganda, or authoritarianism in order to promulgate a preferred perception. The presidency of Donald Trump, however, provides us with a fundamentally novel phenomenon. The positive feedback loop that comes from the consumption of news produced as a response to his consumption of that same information threatens to topple the democratic institutions that constituencies elect to represent them and, most importantly, to keep them safe. 

It is in these troubled times that the independence and utility of journalists, oversight committees, and the populace itself is more important than ever before. In an age of conspicuous consumerism, we cannot let truth become a commodity to be bartered and massaged for a purpose, and we must shield against having one-sided information sources reinforce pre-established viewpoints in government. 

The Demise of Truth
In many observable and empirical ways – to insider and outsider alike – the Trump White House has become a blend of Byzantine intrigue mixed with a dose of promulgated conspiracy theories and exacerbated by the sheer forces of globalized communications. The truth has become a commodity to be shaped into something gaudy that serves only to ineffectually reinforce the zealous narcissism that powers President Trump to act in a way that carries his brand to further perceived success. 

In this way, he has established a positive feedback loop in which he acts on the same information he serves to create, leaving privileged information consumers out of the picture, as the threat that they will challenge him is one that has been encountered far too many times in his nascent presidency. Trump does not see himself as the voice of the people; he sees himself as a loudspeaker to his own established beliefs in a geocentric universe in which he is its centre. In tandem with the sheer volume of information and competing truth complexes, and one notoriously short attention span, it is quite likely that we are witnessing the perfect storm for the downfall of truth in liberal democracy. 

Casey Brunelle is an intelligence and strategic studies advisor with more than seven years’ experience in both the public and private sector. He is a graduate of the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa as well as the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.