Of all the improbable things that we are being asked to believe, it seems a growing number of people are settling for the idea that Macedonian teenagers posing as journalists and agents of Vladimir Putin posing as internet commenters swung the US presidential election for Donald Trump. It was fake news who done it, making commentators declare that Mark Zuckerberg could well be the most dangerous person on the planet. Full Frontal host Samantha Bee even interviewed two of the Kremlin’s trolls, and they assure us that they are behind this plot. Also, a fake news writer reckons Trump is in the White House because of him. So it must be true.
I think we can all agree that the other possibility – that we just witnessed a contest between two of the most unpopular candidates in the history of American politics, one of whom was marginally less terrible than the other at motivating his base to go the polls – seems less exciting by comparison. ‘Post-truth’, a descriptor first used in 1992 when the World Wide Web barely even existed, has been named word of the year for 2016 by the Oxford Dictionaries, and no less an authority than Salon reckons ‘it should scare the hell out of you’. Magazine managing editor Erin Keane goes on to make the fresh example of a claim by president-elect Trump that ‘thanks to his effort’ a Ford Motor Lincoln plant in Lousiville, Kentucky would not be relocated to Mexico. Such relocation had in fact never been announced or planned by the automaker, yet several media outlets repeated the claim unchallenged, and it more or less instantly became part of the public record.
Clearly, there is a problem here. But let us pause first of all to observe that it is traditional media that was implicated in repeating Trump’s claim. The fourth estate often boasts about being the first line of defence against the ability of power to lie to the people, which in turn is a necessary precondition to having a free society. Or so the theory goes. And perhaps you could blame Facebook for holding traditional media outlets to ransom, forcing them to scramble around like hypoglycaemic toddlers in order to grab those sweet, sweet clicks. But surely there are greater forces at play, and much deeper trends.
Let us put forward an alternative hypothesis, then: that in advanced countries such as the United States, mainstream media and official journalism enjoyed a long period of dominion over public discourse; that this power was in turn predicated upon political stability and an enduring, broad consensus between major parties; and that the edifice crumbled not as a result of technological forces alone, but also economic and social ones.
The modern newspaper – along with the figure of the newspaper journalist, armed with a set of strategies to establish independently verifiable facts – was the dominant information source of high capitalism, and its privileged status was a product of the ideology that it contributed to promote. A journalist could move from one newspaper to another, even if of very different political bent, because of the common norms that governed the gathering of news, which in turn implicitly guaranteed a measure of freedom and impartiality among these practitioners.
By contrast, Facebook, along with social networks and the entire infrastructure that enables Macedonian teenagers to make money circulating fake news stories among the American public, is the dominant information source of the late capitalist, neoliberal era. Its rise was not inevitable, but rather the result of an unwillingness or inability to put checks in place while it was in the process of becoming a monopoly. The word ‘advent’, which is used so often when talking about digital networks, has quasi-magical, divine connotations. But the ‘advent’ of Facebook (or Google for that matter) has mundane political roots in extreme laissez faire economics espoused as much by Democrats as by Republican thinkers and lawmakers.
So please don’t come crying to us, the public, nor chastise us when we share increasingly shrill and disjointed pieces of commentary or analysis – or just our god-given cat pictures! – in an attempt to make sense of this freshly dissembled world.
We have come to an end not of truth, but of the political consensus that made it possible to run an almost entirely privatised media as a de facto public institution; a guarantor – however partial, flawed and beholden to the powers that ensured its continuing prosperity – that politicians in some of our democracies would be more hesitant to falsify reality than they might otherwise. Even as we knew the limits of that protection, and how it didn’t apply to facts such as the case for waging a war, we knew we could count on at least some journalists to use their training and that apparatus to uncover some urgent, necessary truth. We also always knew, even as we screamed ‘but Rupert Murdoch!’, that we would miss mainstream journalism once it was gone, unless a truly democratic alternative emerged in its stead.
This post-truth era – if that’s what you insist on calling it – is not the product of technological change, but of a political project and of the accelerating crisis it has engendered. There are forces that no longer depend upon the old arrangements in order to seize power, nor in order to exercise it. In fact these forces profit directly from the fracturing of our social lives and of our communities.
The organised working class never needed to be told what the truth of its condition was – namely, that other people got rich from the product of its labour. But for today’s impoverished, precarious worker-consumer, the experience of exploitation itself is often difficult to define, and even more difficult to communicate to others. It is no coincidence that this subject is also Facebook’s model user, nor surprising that it should be the target of lectures on foolish credulity by the very same people who oversaw the transformation of politics into an extreme form of retail marketing.
The reason why this is a problem more for Democrats than for Republicans is that for at least two decades the chief rhetorical pose of American liberals has consisted in establishing a sort of factual supremacy. It’s as if Gore’s Inconvenient Truth had become the blueprint not just of the Democrats’ communications strategy – think of the didacticism of Robert Reich – but of a whole philosophy for relating to the world and other people. This was best exemplified recently by journalist Kurt Eichenwald’s boastful admission to have nearly assaulted a reader who voted for Jill Stein: for this was tantamount to confessing that he had made a bad use of the facts that Eichenwald and others had entrusted him with.
Gore’s other enduring claim to fame is that he was one of the earliest cheerleaders of the ‘information superhighway’. And it’s on this same highway that evidence-based liberals are finding that you don’t control the truth by amassing the largest collection of facts.
What now, then? The task of sewing the social fabric back together belongs – once more – to activists and organisers. Collective lived experience of oppression is the truth that ordinary people can lay claim to, while solidarity is the thread that unites disparate forms of oppression into a single cause. We might as well call it antifascism, given the forces that are rising not just in America but in the rest of the world as well. It’s not the worst set of ideas onto which to build not just a new idea of society, but a better way of telling our stories.
Image: ‘Stop the presses’ / flickr