In the recent past, a new word, “post-truth,” has emerged and is now part of the vocabulary in dictionaries.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
The use of post-truth was exacerbated by the events leading up to the British referendum to exit the European Common Market, commonly known as “Brexit,” and the recent US election where facts were less influential.
It will get worse as communication experts across the world gear up to use the same approach to many issues that can be more appealing to people’s emotions.
There will be less and less facts, especially in Africa where divisions along ethnic lines run deep.
It does not take a genius to cause a far-reaching disruption of peace as has happened in the US, or as happened in Kenyan during the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
The messages that succeed are simplified to embrace wide ranging issues, but are vague in their interpretation.
Brexit proponents had such simplified messaging like: “Let’s take control! Brexit and sovereignty”, “Take back our country,” but none of these could explain the complexities of trade, British influence across Europe and the world or how the country will deal with economic consequences of the exit.
Before the dust settled, Donald Trump was promising to “Make America great again.” Even the savvy US media could not make him explain how.
These kinds of messaging are designed for social media where it can be said over and over again until it becomes the truth.
Twitter doesn’t take more than 140 characters, but it proved quite effective in both the Brexit and Trump campaigns.
It is perhaps imperative for people to know that by social media distorting the truth, it is history repeating itself as in the past such messaging was used to persecute innocent Jews in Nazi Germany.
It must always be remembered that distorting the truth has its consequences no matter how long it takes.
Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels said: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie.
It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
It is too soon for us to forget our own experience in 2007/2008 when people took to social media and short text messaging to inflame people’s passions to violence.
Some intentionally or unintentionally forwarded messages that caused disharmony among the people and the outcome left wounds in our hearts that would never be healed.
There were messages like, “our people have been finished”, “do the right thing.” Essentially, words became weapons.
In retrospect, virtually everyone misjudged the extent to which violence could go.
Most thought it would be a temporal disruption as in previous elections. As we prepare for the 2017 plebiscite, we should have 2007/08 in mind and never underestimate what people can do given the recent successes of truncating the truth and appealing to emotions.
It is for this reason that in my view, we must begin voter education now and repeat it over and over until the election date.
These can be done easily through media by focusing on the facts until we believe they are true.
As the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission focuses on getting the necessary resources in place, we should have a parallel process dealing with information, education and communication of critical issues the electorate must seek from their prospective representatives.
This will require an independent body such as the National Cohesion and Integration Commission.
It does not help to deal with politicians after the fact when they have resources to proactively deal with hate messaging.
The post-truth era will be the norm in political communication in the next few years. It is a divisive and destructive strategy.
It has its ramifications that must be dealt with proactively in countries that will have major political decisions like Kenya in the coming year.
As such, we must not wait till the problem occurs. We must take proactive measures to protect truth and avoid the consequences of divisive politics.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.