The Business of Ideas is in Trouble: Re-Injecting Facts into a Post-Truth World

December 9, 2016

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Oxford Dictionary has awarded its 2016 “word of the year” distinction to “post-truth.” Exactly a decade after bestowing the same honor on “truthiness” (a term first used by satirist Steven Colbert) we have moved from a world where facts mattered, to one where facts were flexible, and now to a world where facts are an increasingly irrelevant way of influencing people.

This coincides with an era in which our politics are becoming increasingly populist. And while populism and “post-truth” are not synonymous, they do complement one another and complicate our world when deployed in concert. Political influence has changed and we are no longer in an era where technocrats reign. Elites are despised and the opinions of experts are disregarded in favor of emotions or gut feelings. As the Conservative MP and Brexit campaigner Michael Gove put it, “people have had enough of experts”.

This has been a long time coming. Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm and my previous employer, issues an annual study into the state of trust around the world. Over the past few years that study has pointed to a clear trend: the erosion of trust in authority figures and the rise of trust in “people like me.” We called that the inversion of the pyramid of influence. It means that your neighbor is just as much a source of insightful analysis on the nuances of U.S. foreign policy towards Iran as regional scholars, arms control experts, or journalists covering the State Department. The game has changed.

No doubt many War on the Rocks readers carry out work where influence is salient, whether working on the Hill, in agencies, lobbying and advocacy, journalism, or in one of Washington’s many think-tanks. Having consulted with a variety of these organizations both in London and Washington, I have seen the rise of post-truth and its impact on this sector first-hand and through frustrations voiced by clients. The recent successions of Brexit and Trump’s victory have shaken the Western political establishment. However, as a digital marketer, I’m less interested in simply bemoaning our political status quo and more interested in helping those manning the barricades against the forces of post-truth by empowering them to put facts back into the debate.

While think tanks should not compromise their integrity or the quality of their research, they need to place more emphasis and strategic planning towards how their ideas reach the public. Think tanks have never skimped on the product itself. These organizations seek out the best minds from top institutions and give them support to do top-shelf research. However, when it comes to projecting their ideas into the world their current approach is ineffective and unsustainable.

So how do those of us in the business of ideas do our jobs when facts matter least?

Start Thinking about Everyday People as End-Users of Your Work.

It is time to master the art of storytelling. For too long think tank outputs have been crafted to resonate inside the Beltway and Whitehall. That inherently means it has very little impact elsewhere. Think tanks need to stop their approach of trickle-down influence, whereby traditional media coverage is the conduit through which their work will be condensed and eventually be consumed by the public.

Think tanks must shake the perception that they are soulless, empty vessels for policy and take a page from how many NGOs and charitable organizations promote their work: through constructing compelling narratives. Your latest report on the enduring impact of fostering an innovation culture in defense acquisitions offices might be a page-turner for a nutty segment of the wonkery, but it is unlikely to be interesting to a wider population without an effort to make it speak to them in some way. The findings certainly won’t be consumed if they’re only put out into the world through a press release with an executive summary, a PDF link, a staid roll-out event with a dozen people, and a tweet or two.

For the sake of comparison, look at what Breitbart does. In an interview with Bloomberg, Editor-In-Chief Alex Marlow explained how stories are selected and rolled out:

When we do an editorial call, I don’t even bring anything I feel like is only a one-off story, even if it’d be the best story on the site….Our whole mindset is looking for these rolling narratives.

Writing for Bloomberg, Joshua Green goes on to explain that the alt-right Government Accountability Institute:

builds rigorous, fact-based indictments against major politicians, then partners with mainstream media outlets conservatives typically despise to disseminate those findings to the broadest audience.

We may disagree on how fact-based these indictments are, but the result is clear: It works.

For all significant projects and research, think tanks should invest in creating complementary content that is easily consumable, has the potential for virality, and that promotes engagement from the general public. For smaller projects this could be an easily sharable infographic or other forms of data visualization. For larger projects, investment in large-scale campaigns can allow for continued dialogue and discussion that can extend well beyond a report launch.

Some organizations should ditch the idea of a report “launch” all together, breaking larger ideas down into smaller, more easily consumable pieces of content that can be used to string together or storyboard a narrative over several months. While there has been some attempt at this by think tanks in the foreign policy establishment, there needs to be a more concerted effort to produce short-form content that might not hit all the nuances that your major report does, but that tells a story in a form that even those without a Master’s degree in War Studies can engage with.

Beyond simply being fronts of research and data, think tanks should strive to be interactive points of discussion and engagement with the public. For example, the new iteration of the Stimson Center’s South Asian Voices platform, which my firm built, works to bring new voices into the conversation around South Asian security affairs and develops future leadership from places other than elite institutions. South Asian Voices also offers a mass online course titled “Nuclear South Asia,” providing access to research and knowledge to everyone, for free.

Embrace the Web, Even the Weird Parts, and Take Social Seriously

Think tanks need to push their digital strategies to move beyond simply running institutional Twitter or other social media accounts. Twitter and Facebook are fantastic for showcasing your experts and engaging in substantive conversations with fellow wonks, but think tanks should look to use the “weirder” parts of the web too.

While most of us may eventually see viral content on Facebook or Twitter, its genesis is usually on places like Reddit or Tumblr. While there are risks in using these platforms (4Chan in particular is a dangerous place for the uninitiated) there is a ton of promotional value being left on the table if you don’t use these sites. I almost never see experts in the policy space participate in Reddit AMAs (Ask Me Anything) which provide the public with an opportunity to have the questions they’re interested in answered.

Organizations should look outside the “likes” and “followers” metrics on social media. Both Facebook and Twitter, along with other platforms, offer paid advertising options with sophisticated targeting tools, making it easier than ever to reach your desired audience beyond your organic reach. Do you have a report that is relevant to people in a particular region or members of a particular demographic? Why aren’t you targeting them with a small paid campaign?

Consider who you have running your social media accounts. Is it your intern or other junior staffers who have been tasked with this role by virtue of being the only members of your staff who are “digital natives?” While it’s unlikely they’ll do anything embarrassing on your organization’s account (although they might), it is likely they’ll use these tools effectively without a strategy, which may be worse in the long run. Someone can be an expert at driving a car but be an awful navigator. Where is your social media team driving you?

Final Thoughts

Outreach, branding, and taking risks online can be scary propositions for organizations who, let’s face it, can be a bit buttoned up. Funders often prefer (or explicitly require) that their charitable donations go towards the actual work of research and as such, budgets may not have room for promotional expenses. On the first point, the real risk is falling further into obscurity in a world where substance is trumped (no pun intended) by image. On the latter, we need to start reprioritizing our approach (and frankly, our budgets) to reflect a dire need in the think tank sector.

While everyone loves free canapes and liberally poured wine (or Laphroaig if we’re lucky) after a public policy chat, if we reallocated some of our catering budgets, along with our brain power, to digital strategy we may have a shot at putting facts back on the menu.


Tom Hashemi is the director of We are Flint, a research, design, and communications agency.

Image: Project Manhattan

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8 thoughts on “The Business of Ideas is in Trouble: Re-Injecting Facts into a Post-Truth World

  1. > For the sake of comparison, look at what Breitbart does.

    ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?????????????????????????????????

    Are you suggesting that supposedly intellectual think tanks just ascribe to a partisan narrative like Breitbart? Sure you might get on neo-Trump’s cabinet, but is that what you wanted?

    > For the sake of comparison, look at what the Communist International does.

    And Stalin was super popular, maybe we should take a lesson in constructing populist narratives?

    All you need to do is sell out and construct a narrative that espouses a popular belief, and you’re golden.

  2. **[…]we have moved from a world where facts mattered, to one where facts were flexible, and now to a world where facts are an increasingly irrelevant way of influencing people.**

    That’s simply not true. Political “facts” always were flexible and will always be flexible.
    What actually changed is that nearly every person on the planet now has internet access and everyone can voice its opinion and gather information.
    Every news agency and “blog”, no matter how small, has worldwide reach.
    Everyone can setup a news website, everyone can use open source material and his own research or those of others and publish a story which will reach millions.

    No, we dont live in a “post-truth” era but we life in a era in which every housewife can challenge big news agency’s and sites and even the most intellectual think-tanks.
    It’ oblivious the big news sites, the politicians and some think-tanks dont like that.

    Especially trough 2015 and 2016, the political and medial establishment have often acted in a way that sow distrust.
    People increasingly felt they are only shown one side of the coin and prevented from even talking about the other side (see migrant crisis 2015).
    The political and medial establishment seemed to act basically synchronized, speaking with one voice.
    Alternative media and blogs have filled this gap. In some cases (see RT) foreign media has exploited this distrust/information gap to push a counter-narrative.

    **Having consulted with a variety of these organizations both in London and Washington, I have seen the rise of post-truth and its impact on this sector first-hand and through frustrations voiced by clients. The recent successions of Brexit and Trump’s victory have shaken the Western political establishment.**

    First, people who voiced support for Brexit or Trump where basically called stupid or deplorables by large parts of the political and medial establishment.
    After Brexit and Trump “won”, the political and medial establishment quickly made out the culprits: Alternative news sites (Breitbart, RT and others), “Fake News” and generally Facebook/Twitter.

    The political and medial establishment did not come to the conclusion that large parts of the population think differently then them (maybe rightfully so), no.
    Instead they insisted upon that large parts of the population were simple-minded enough to be mislead by “post-truth” (alternative) media and “Fake News”. Now they try to crack down on that. They demand, for example, Facebook should delete not only “Hate Speech” (which also is a complex topic) but also “Fake News”.
    Mark Zuckerberg rightfully replied that there is no universal truth in political debate and social issues, filtering out and deleting certain opinions and news could amount to censorship.

    1. “Political “facts” always were flexible and will always be flexible.”

      Nope. Facts are facts — independently verifiable information. All else is hearsay, opinion, or fiction. It’s accurate to say that political information has usually relied on information other than facts. Journalism, which traditionally prided itself on presenting facts, has evolved to increasingly presenting hearsay and opinion, although they’re loath to admit it. (That’s opinion)

      Do “facts” = “truth”? Not automatically…it’ depends on how you assemble them, what you include, and what you leave out. Hence Colbert’s brilliant recognition that truth is now in the eye of the beholder, depending on how they assemble their facts, and how much those are diluted by comfortable hearsay, opinion, and fiction.

      1. **Nope. Facts are facts — independently verifiable information.**

        There is a reason why i put “facts” into quotation marks. The “facts” presented to us by politicians and the media are usually data mixed with opinion.

        Most topics politicians and the media talk about today are far to complex to have a single “truth”.
        Its not like saying Caesium has a melting point of 301.7 K which is universally acknowledge and can be proven again at any time.

        Politicians regularly talk about statistics and present their interpretation of them as fact. Someone else will hire different people to look into that and they in turn use another method to evaluate the date and their end result will look different. To many variables involved, also…who paid the guys doing the statistic ?

        Or Brexit. The stay campaign orders a researcher to write a report how the UK benefits from being in the EU. The leave camp does the same. Both will sometimes use the same data as source, sometimes different data, both will come to completely different results…whats the “truth” ?

        It’s simply “up for debate”.

        Besides…”independently verifiable information”…take Syria for example.
        Who bombed what, how many civilian casualties…most numbers presented to us as facts are hard to verify. Depending on their bias, people will believe different sources.
        The UN for example published casualties figures for the Iraqi Army and the media who picked up the numbers presented them as fact. The Iraqi government denied these figures and complained, suddenly the UN said “our sources may not be reliable, so we will stop publishing these numbers”.

        ** Hence Colbert’s brilliant recognition that truth is now in the eye of the beholder, depending on how they assemble their facts, and how much those are diluted by comfortable hearsay, opinion, and fiction.**

        I cant see whats supposed to be “brilliant” about that.
        Truth was and will ALWAYS be in the eye of the beholder.
        Religious people say the earth was created by god in x days, science says otherwise…still, millions of people will never accept this as “truth”. That whole thing is as old as mankind itself.

        Again, the “Post-Truth World” thing is a invention of the western political and medial establishment, they seem to need to explain to themselves the dwindling support by the ordinary people.

        The danger that arises from that debate is simply censorship. Censorship cant be the answer.

      2. In the present worldwide state of social anarchy, everybody does indeed believe they are entitled to their own facts, as well as their own opinions, contrary to the late Senator Moynihan. The online world allows every individual to design their own comfort zone, their own nest, lined with whatever stuff they want to line it with, and insulate themselves from all that discomforts them.

        In the world of bureaucracy, it’s common to identify and bemoan the existence of non-communicating “stovepipes” within the organization, where information moves only vertically but never horizontally. Well, in today’s world of design-your-own-consciousness, each individual person is in the process of becoming their very own, little, inconsequential personal stove pipe, never having any need or cause to communicate with anyone else not securely situated within the same vertical stovepipe. People are being conditioned from the youngest ages to constantly seek out and demand, no less, their own personal “safe space” where mental challenges are never allowed to take root or disturb their little world of karma.

        We see this throughout all of society today. And contrary to right wingers, this is not peculiar to lefties, it is common to all those who seek and demand ideological purity and safety, right or left, or any other ideological dimension.

        We’re becoming a world of “hothouse flowers” who immediately wilt and die whenever environmental conditions change but a smidgeon in any direction.

  3. It is the arrogance of anyone that labels themselves “the business of ideas” that puts think tanks at risk, not that facts have long been spun by the political class and that practice is now generalizing.

    Before they can hope to have value to the public, they must convince that public they don’t actually hold the public in contempt. They must either learn humility, or at least learn to lie more effectively.

  4. It’s “mission impossible” to expect that think tankers, intellectuals, and other formerly-labeled “pointy heads” who presumably deal in facts and logic to become effective social media mavens. That’s like expecting Donald Trump to act like a responsible leader … it’s just not in their genes to be or do any different than what they are.

    As wiggum writes here in this thread, the rise of the online world and social media, everybody is a self-proclaimed expert. In reality, the barbarians have broken down the gates and sacked the city. Social organization as it was known for all prior human history is now, well, “history”. Respect for institutions always declines when the barbarians decide we’re smarter or more powerful than the elites. Governments and geopolitical players who benefit from disrupting the present “world order” – like Putin and the Iranian mullahs and ISIS and so forth find it in their best interests to do whatever they can to further erode and eventually destroy all social trust in all existing social institutions (governmental, academic, religious, etc.).

    We are arriving in a new age of social anarchy, and we’re barely able to grasp the changes and havoc this anarchy will wreak upon all that we know.

    Trump and Trumpism is, unfortunately, our immediate future. Not wanting to make the same old, same old error of projecting current trends as if they have no place to go but more of the same, I will not say that this is our future. It seems that in human affairs, the laws of social physics seem to apply: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So maybe the pendulum will eventually swing back towards a more “factual and reason based social system” from its present growing anarchy. I hope so … but maybe just as the Roman elite also hoped for a restoration in the mid-fifth century AD.