In post-truth politics, numbers aren't meant to be accurate. They're meant to evoke images.
It was unlikely that Donald Trump would abruptly change tones in the immediate aftermath of the election. It is true that the his statements don’t feel as poisonous as before (on the surface), due to the expectations as POTUS and the absence of a direct adversary.
However, the mass that elected him is very much alive, and he’s still willing to galvanise it. The most glaring example is his post from November 27th:
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
To debunk this, the media countered with facts, which seems the natural thing to do. Fact checking website Snopes.com deemed the number completely unsubstantiated, and Reuters made sure to include the words “with zero evidence” in its headline.
However, this is seems to be missing the point, at least in part.
The people re-tweeting the made-up statistic are not concerned with its accuracy. They are not the ones who will pause to fact-check, as Sweden’s Metro group is encouraging web users to do:
What resonates with Trump’s audience (and a like-minded public overseas) is merely the idea that illegal residents could turn up at a voting booth and “rig the election”.
Same goes for another of Trump’s recent tweets, right after the stabbing attack at Ohio University:
ISIS is taking credit for the terrible stabbing attack at Ohio State University by a Somali refugee who should not have been in our country.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2016
It does not matter that no trend correlating refugees and terrorism can be inferred from numbers. In the eyes of Trump voters, it’s still a fact that one of them nearly perpetrated a massacre. It is the fear (and anger) of being the one-in-a-billion victim that such messages, unsubstantiated they may be, succesfully exploit.
When we come across statistics that resonate and support our suppositions about reality, we are likely to give them less scrutiny than otherwise. The reason they’re called post-truth politics is because they’re not concerned with how reality is, but how well one group of people (read: voters) can impose their narration of reality on the political agenda.
Trump’s statements resonate with his voters not because they’re descriptions of reality, but because they express fears and anger about possible scenarios. A terrorist attack by a Somalian refugee is not statistically significant, but concretises the ominous prophecies that Trump repeatedly made regarding “compromised” countries.
Inflating the truth is fine as long as it makes particular, local interests legitimate. As with most things in life, people are concerned with what happens in their garden. It doesn’t matter how many refugees are in the US in total, the Trump voter wants the one in his neighbourhood gone. It’s not about coming to a conciliation of truths, it’s about imposing the one that best suits one’s beliefs.
Statistics are a matter of percentages, fractions and ratio. But the war on false news is also a war on unacceptably mystifying ideas.
And more often than not, ideas are a matter of all-or-nothing.