Fostering Intellectual Freedom in a Post-Truth Year

General Interest, Information Access, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Joyce Johnston

The Oxford Dictionaries group announced its 2016 Word of the Year (WOTY): “post-truth,” or “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In other words, it suggests, facts are now irrelevant; only personal response matters.



emojiWe probably should have seen this coming.  The 2013 WOTY was “selfie” — a photo in which the objective background mattered less than oneself. And self-absorption was rewarded: Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar selfie with other stars was officially the most popular tweet of 2014, with 3.3 million retweets and 2 million favorites in 151 different countries. The next year, the Word was “vape,” which implicitly encouraged folks to ingest noxious substances without fear of evil consequences. Then finally, to sever any remaining connection with the real world, 2015 eliminated words entirely by declaring an emoji the 2015 WOTY.  Tellingly, the emoji was “face with tears of joy.” Laughing, crying, or both together, all that mattered was personal expression. Evidence vanished entirely.

As Steven Poole observed, “A well-chosen word of the year tells us something about the cultural conversation over the past 12 months … [It is] one way to plot a cultural narrative.”  If that’s true, the WOTY mirrors cognitive disaster. After all, the very concept of intellectual freedom is founded on using one’s intellect to evaluate freely available, accurate information in order to make an informed decision.

Yet there are signs of hope for intellectual integrity. First, there’s a hunger for truth out there and some real talent for finding it. When Princeton University hosted a hackathon to develop an antidote for fake news (aka claiming truth for a situation that the writer wishes were true), a team of students did just that. In only 36 hours, they designed an algorithm to detect invented reporting, then whimsically named it FiB since it operates on Facebook, the most famous forum for fantasy information. The algorithm labels sites “verified” or “unverified” so readers can know the difference.  Better yet, so many people actually wanted to know what’s true that the site crashed due to high demand; it’s now available on the Chrome web store. Best of all, the creators have also published FiB as an open source code so anyone who cares about evidence can improve it for everyone’s benefit.

Post-truth material also presents a wonderful opportunity for teachers, parents, librarians, or any other citizen who’s trying to develop some sophisticated BS-detection skills. Instructional materials abound. Sources as diverse as Snopes, The Washington Post and CNN all offer advice on post-truth detection. So many folks are outraged that a search on “ways to detect fake news” came back with 6,540,000 results in only 0.66 seconds. A follow-up search on “ways to counteract post-truth” yielded 7,730,000 hits.  By having students review a varied selection of all those websites, instructors can let them discover, evaluate, and create for themselves a list of “top 10” defenses against intellectual dishonesty, or critique different groups’ take on the post-truth problem. Meanwhile, students will be internalizing what we all need: reality-identification criteria that allow us all to make free, but intellectually informed, decisions.

Joyce Johnston has been writing and speaking on digital intellectual property and virtual instruction for more than 20 years. As a non-librarian, but a proud member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, she has provided updates on intellectual property at its annual conference for the past 10 years. While on the Executive Committee for the 700-person World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (aka EdMedia), she serves on task forces on undergraduate research, evaluation of digital instruction and community wellbeing at George Mason University. Early entry into online instruction led to fascination with educators’ construction of their virtual identities, then most recently to a growing concern over ownership of that identity. She is currently tracking two related issues: first, the ways that the EU’s right to delist (better known as “the right to be forgotten”) allows its citizens to expurgate their digital profiles worldwide. Second, she monitors the collapse of the EU-US Safe Harbor agreement, which means that no one knows what personal data can be collected from employees of multinational corporations and schools, or how that data may be used.


  • I love the rhetorical device you used to demonstrate your point that “facts are now irrelevant; only personal response matters.” By leading with selfies and vaping to elicit emotional responses from people which are irrelevant to your topic while using judgmental and inflammatory language that does nothing to prove your point, you’re showing how easily people’s feelings can be hijacked to convince them to support a point of view without reason or evidence, all while creating an intellectually dishonest narrative that can influence community conversation in unexpected ways. Very subtle!

  • How are “selfies”, “vaping” and “emojis” irrelevant when they were the WOTY for the past three years? Perhaps in a “post-truth” world you don’t pay attention to what the WOTY choices were–you just issue snarky remarks to show how above it all you think you are.

  • I think selfies are more complicated, and interesting, than this post suggests. I see trans people using selfies as political speech: ways to assert that they are beautiful and trans bodies are beautiful, even if people have said otherwise their whole lives. I see people posting selfies, and encouraging their friends to do so, as ways of building community and activating social connections, particularly when their community is geographically far-flung. I see people posting, and requesting, selfies to invest in mental health for themselves and their communities – seeing their friends’ smiling faces as a way to fight depression, for instance. And I’ve seen interesting analyses suggesting that anti-selfie sentiment is part of a general tendency to trivialize forms of self-expression and artistic expression that are popular with young women.

    So for me, there’s no arrow that clearly points from selfies to anti-intellectualism.

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