For a while now I have been wondering about how we have come to the current state of affairs where objective facts and reality-based truths are subject to question at the same time that blatant falsehoods and denials of fact are promoted and increasingly accepted as part of contemporary social discourse. We now live in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” where reality denial and abject lying are regular features of the cultural landscape.
I cannot claim any expertise in tracing the origins of the phenomenon. What I can say is that fake news and truth relativism follow a long line of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda aimed to deceive or distract from a particular reality or fact. It has roots dating back to ancient times, where the practice of seeding public debates with false narratives was employed by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Chinese dynasties. In the late 20th century it was associated with a type of “yellow” journalism as practiced by the Daily Mail and National Enquirer, where stories about alien abductions and pregnancies shared space with false stories about celebrity deaths, illnesses, criminality, two-headed babes and assorted other lunacy. This overlapped with conspiracy theories peddled by Right and Left wing extremists, who saw dark machinations behind an array of global events.
As of the late 1980s another factor entered into the mix. The rise of post-modernism and its attendant notions of epistemological, cultural and moral relativism, liminality, intersectionality, post-structuralism, rejection of “objective” reality in favour of subjective, contingent and socially-constructed interpretations of “truth” and concern for the narratives of subordinated and traditionally unheard of voices (e.g. indigenous peoples, women, LGBT communities) gave intellectual foundation to the idea that nothing real was truely “objective” and that no fact was universally factual. Like four blind people groping an elephant, reality is defined by the position of the subject as much as it is by the empirical conditions in which s/he is located. And as Isaac Asimov noted with regard to his extraterrestrial beasts and characters, they only appear grotesque, scary and outlandish because we are trapped in the physical constraints of our own Earthly reality, which in turn determines the mental framework we use to categorise what is real, imaginary and unimaginable.
Post-modernism has been deservedly critiqued for its focus on subjectivity and relativity, particularly where it intersects with hard science (say, with regards to the laws of physics and biological imperatives). But it also is correct in bringing attention to the fact that history as well a values lie in the eye of the beholder, and that perspective is often socially constructed and not universally shared.
9/11 gave conspiracy theorists a major boost and the false pretences under which the US invaded Iraq (non-existent WMD “ready to launch” in Tony Blair’s words) spawned wide-spread skepticism about official claims and narratives once the ruse was exposed and the consequences revealed. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of social media and telecommunications technologies gave state intelligence agencies and non-state actors new channels of communication through which they could manipulate and distort “reality” for partisan, political, military, economic and diplomatic advantage.
It appears that the right-wing propaganda outfit Breitbart was one of the first Western agencies to introduce fake news into mainstream political coverage. Steve Bannon honed his skills in this dark art at Breitbart and used them very successfully during the course of the Trump campaign for the US presidency. He got a boost from Wikileaks, which was used by Russian intelligence as a conduit for hacked communications by and disinformation about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This in turn fed into the Rightwing echo chamber fronted by Fox News and conservative talk radio, who willingly and unknowingly parroted fabricated lies deliberately planted by Bannon and his coreligionists.
Trump then turned everything on its head. Although the mass propagation of “fake news” began with Brietbart and its ilk, Trump started (probably at Bannon’s behest) to use the term as an attack on mainstream, corporate media coverage of his campaign and later presidency. His assault on the free press has been relentless yet very effective because it depends on doubt about factual veracity in the media as a whole. On top of that Trump uses another tactic that seems absurd but which works: he denies obvious things he has said and done even if they have been recorded the day before and lies on top of lies to the point that it is near impossible to determine when the falsehoods began.
In Trumpworld objective reporting is fake and outright lies and deceptions are truth. Climate change is a hoax; the security threat posed by undocumented migrants of colour is real.
His advisors and surrogates imitate his style and add their own flourishes, such as Kelly Anne Conway’s remark that the administration deals in “alternative facts.” A whole machinery of Republican-linked PR and crisis management agencies now engage in institutional whitewashing and blacklisting via dissemination of fake narratives and denial of reality. Witness the case of the catholic school punk who confronted an Omaha tribe elder outside the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Within days of his smirking gob going “viral” on cellphone videos he was fronting up to leading television outlets spouting the manicured lies of a Republican advisory agency that he, in fact, was the victim of the encounter. Also consider the Republican-backed campaigns to link the Clintons to various murders and the infamous pizza parlour pedophile ring. And of course the “Obama is a Muslim non-citizen” trope.
The practice of using fake news and accusing honest media agents of doing so has spread world-wide particularly in rightwing political circles. Although authoritarians like Putin are masters at the art of disinformation, even upstart despots like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Dutarte have trotted out their variations on the theme.
But that is not the only realm where the post-truth moment has gone. It is now considered–at least in large parts of the US– to be a socially accepted strategy to deny, dispute and lie about objective facts rather than take responsibility for what actually happened. It is now acceptable to flout ignorance of facts, be they scientific or political, in support of a particular world view. It is now common for bigots to not only come out fo the closet but to openly display prejudice while denying doing so. One is no longer a racist; one is a proud white nationalist simply sticking up for his/her heritage and cultural values.
It is like a kid caught out stealing cookies from a bakery display jar. When confronted about stealing cookies, he yells “says who?” When told that he was seen by several people in the act of committing the deed, he yells “who are they?” When told they are responsible adults who just happened to be on the scene he yells that they saw wrong and even of they did see right they are plants and snitches out to get him. And when his parents turn up, they angrily take his side of the story even though he has crumbs on his hands and chin. At that point the baker and witnesses just want to move on, thereby allowing the kid to get away with his misbehaviour. So it is with Trump and an ever growing number of people enamoured by his type of approach to facts that do not accord with his notion of a preferred reality.
New Zealand has so far been largely spared the ignominy of embracing the post-truth moment. But if the actions of certain ideological circles are an indication, the introduction of Bannon-style politics is on its way, at least in terms of using fake news to cloud public perceptions of what is fact and what is not.
For the time being I remain confident that Kiwis have the ability to identify and call out the BS artists and purveyors of mistruths. And I am reminded of something that I have said to my children over the years as they came of age and found it difficult to discern fact from fiction when reality is contested:
“May your path be that of the gentle warrior, steeled by conviction. And may your eyes always shine brightly with the beacon of truth.”