A Brave New, Post-Truth World
Oxford Dictionary even declared ‘post-truth’ the word of the year.
As per The Guardian:
Defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.
Indeed, as even a cursory glance at Facebook shows us, the internet looks to be awash with people sharing ill-researched — or just flat out maliciously misleading — hogwash. Whether it’s your Cousin Becky sharing a piece about man-made climate change being ‘conclusively revealed’ to be a conspiracy of nefarious scientists, or Uncle Steven re-posting a memed image with damming statistics about ‘colossal, out-of-control welfare abuse’, our communal hall of mirrors is looking increasingly flooded with gibberish. In an attempt to quell the tide, Facebook has recently started to break out the buckets — testing a tool designed to let users rank an article’s headline based on how misleading they perceive it to be. As alarming an event as the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America calls for action after all, and the purveyors of these outlets of drivel which Facebook now wishes to flag have been receiving a lot of heat for their culpability in this travesty.
Think pieces on the matter abound. A piece in Vox, for instance, compares and contrasts Facebook’s efforts to Google’s own past struggles:
Six years ago, Google faced a problem a lot like the problem Facebook faced today: The web was being flooded with “webspam,” web pages with little useful content that were created solely to manipulate Google’s algorithm in order to generate traffic and ad revenue. Google’s successful response to this crisis tells us a lot about how Facebook can deal with today’s fake news epidemic.
A report in The Verge explores the evolution of the formatting and display of news, especially over a medium like Facebook, and how we as a news-gathering public relate to it:
Over centuries, print media developed a visual language of credibility that became second nature to most readers: crisp type and clean, uninterrupted columns communicate integrity, while exaggerated images, messy layouts, and goofy text inspire doubt. On a physical newsstand, it’s still easy to tell the National Enquirer from, say, The Atlantic. Online, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two.
The BBC, too — that most austere, revered fount — has gotten involved, collaborating with filmmaker Adam Curtis to air a documentary called Hypernormalisation, the thesis of which, complex though it is, could roughly be boiled down to: we are all of us, day to day, looking at a fake world, convinced that it is the real one. Cold, hard, impersonal facts are becoming harder and harder to discern from flighty, mercurial opinions, and as a result we wander about in an apathetic haze.
In other words, there seems to be a decently broad sweep of consensus among the serious institutions of journalism: When it comes to information, we are entering dangerous, uncharted territory. Our old systems are failing; the bulwark of a truth-telling, investigative press is disintegrating before our eyes. Tread lightly. Here be dragons.
Except here is instead where we must pause, consult our map, and raise our head to the serious institutions and say, ‘Yes. Here indeed be dragons. But we have been in their waters for much, much longer than you claim. And, my oh my, don’t you look awfully scaly?’
The Mainstream Media: The View From Britain
A few years ago the British newspaper, The Independent, reported on a study with a truly glorious headline:
‘British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows.’
According to The Independent, ‘The research, carried out by Ipsos Mori from a phone survey of 1,015 people aged 16 to 75, lists ten misconceptions held by the British public.’
You might think you could guess the scale of these misconceptions. Slightly skewed perhaps, a few percentage points here and there, and maybe around relatively trivial issues. As it happens, the issues are some of the most prevalent, and politically powerful in the country — immigration, welfare, and crime for example.
And, the scale? Oh boy, the scale.
Teen pregnancy is thought to be 25 times higher than the official estimates: 15 per cent of of girls under 16 are thought to become pregnant every year, when official figures say the amount is closer to 0.6 per cent.
26 per cent of people think foreign aid is in the top three items the Government spends money on (it actually makes up just 1.1 per cent of expenditure), and that 29 per cent of people think more is spent on Jobseekers’ Allowance than pensions.
In fact we spend 15 times more on pensions - £4.9 billion on JSA vs £74.2 billion on pensions.
And my personal favourite:
Benefit fraud: the public think that £24 of every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed. Official estimates are that just 70 pence in every £100 is fraudulent - so the public conception is out by a factor of 34.
Once more with feeling:
‘So the public conception is out by a factor of 34.’
That is just batshit fucking insane.
Similar figures to these abound, and the picture is the same in the United States. Anecdotally, too, I am sure everyone reading has a story or six about a popular misconception regarding politics, science, or something equally vital. The simple fact of the matter is that the public is, in general, woefully misinformed. In many ways, this is understandable. People live busy lives. It’s hard enough to spend the day digging through one’s own personal bullshit without using up the evenings to consciously correct and fact-check the bullshit being beamed across the airwaves and travelling down our internet pipes.
But the crucial point here is: this did not begin in 2016, and it did not begin with a few small springs of gibberish. Yes, those websites which have been flagged over the past few months for posting flagrant nonsense about Donald Trump winning the popular vote or climate change not happening are a problem, but as pernicious as influence as they are they remain small fry by comparison. The old hands at this game, the establishment media — they are the ones who shape history.
This is not a partisan issue either. It is not simply the case of ‘Fox News Bad; New York Times Good’. Yes, of course, one is a cartoonishly gaudy manifestation of evil while the other sometimes actually speaks sense, but the truth is far more nuanced than that.
I have written before about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn over here in Britain, and I specifically mentioned a study in that piece by the London School of Economics, entitled: ‘Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press.’ I will quote the key passage from that study once more here:
Our analysis shows that Corbyn was thoroughly delegitimised as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate and even more so after he was elected as party leader, with a strong mandate. This process of delegitimisation occurred in several ways: 1) through lack of or distortion of voice; 2) through ridicule, scorn and personal attacks; and 3) through association, mainly with terrorism.
All this raises, in our view, a number of pressing ethical questions regarding the role of the media in a democracy. Certainly, democracies need their media to challenge power and offer robust debate, but when this transgresses into an antagonism that undermines legitimate political voices that dare to contest the current status quo, then it is not democracy that is served.
And therein lies the rub. We are being told to fear for the state of our democracies because of the apparently meteoric rise of a ‘post-truth’ world, but the fact of the matter is that we have been living in that world for a very long time now. This is a situation that stretches decades and decades back — centuries even. There is perhaps no greater example of it than the unified front presented by ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ outlets of all stripes over a decade ago in helping to sell the lie that led to probably the defining moment of our time: the bloody, unforgivable crime that was the invasion and destruction of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands dead; millions displaced; and the seeds for unimaginable further destruction sowed. Where was the voice of the hard-nosed, investigative media then? It fell in line, as it almost always does.
Beware False Dichotomies
The famous linguist, scholar, and political commentator Noam Chomsky famously came up with a model to describe this phenomenon. Working with Edward S. Herman in the 80’s he developed the Propaganda Model of media control. It argued that large media companies, owned by big business and dependent on advertising revenue as they are, would have a vested interest in not challenging the status quo beyond a certain point. Yes, there would be a freedom of debate allowed, but that freedom would only be permissible within accepted margins. Crucially, Chomsky and Herman explained, these ideals would not be enforced in any overt way. This would not be a hammer-fisted Soviet approach, but a far more sophisticated and self-enforcing system, much more efficacious by this design. Journalists would come to learn what was acceptable. The Iraq War serves as a useful case study once again. Commentators — respected conscientious liberals and hawkish conservatives alike — joined the chorus of drum beats for that invasion. They may have framed their reasons differently, but the end result was the same. Those who voiced opposition were either marginalised, ridiculed, or attacked, and visibly so. The idea, the reflex, of conformity that way becomes ingrained, invisible, within the profession. Dissent still exists, of course, but again within very specific boundaries. Some things just cannot be questioned. The primacy of the Western world and its ‘enlightened’ status compared to the rest of the globe; the benign nature of the motives that guide our foreign policy; the fundamental correctness, minor flaws aside, of consumer capitalism and a heavily financialised economy - these are, in effect, sacred pillars, among many.
The power of the mainstream media is slowly waning. It still holds unbelievable sway over public consciousness — both in more overt ways like fact manipulation and more subtle, insidious ways such as value inculcation — but it is waning nonetheless, and people are slowly losing their faith in it. The system that has for so long been propped by it has repeatedly failed to address many of the concerns of the people it claims to represent. The media, in its servile, cosy relationship with power, has given a free pass to governments time and time again. It has let them impose crippling, life-destroying austerity on their populations to ‘compensate’ for a world-changing banking crash while allowing the financial sectors responsible to go essentially unpunished. It has championed neocolonial interventions abroad because governments have told them that they knew what were doing and that they were doing it for the right reasons. By simple virtue of the fact that it has not been blasting every front page for years with dire warnings about the looming climate catastrophe that now almost certainly awaits us it has failed by its own standards. The media has lied, withheld, and systematically failed to speak truth to power, and after decades of doing so, people have noticed. Trust was catastrophically undermined, and a violent populism was unleashed that is now on the precipice of putting a dangerous and deranged fanatic into the White House, with the help of that very same media and the countless dollars of free publicity they gave to him.
In the midst of all this, an endless tide of reports from those same institutions about the rise of ‘fake news’ and the dawn of a deadly ‘post-truth’ world. Who can save us from this apocalypse, they will ask in dismay. Who should be the only trusted source of information? Who, indeed? I wonder what their answer will be. It’s all very well clamping down on racist nonsense that presents itself as objective fact, or sexist tripe that tries to wear the mask of Real News, but to begin the march down the road of censorship is to walk a path lined with daggers.