What is fake news? Where did it come from and why is it so profitable? In this week’s episode I consider whether fake news is a new thing, or simply a newly-popular name for methods of deceit that have existed for centuries. I explore the idea that it is simply a popular recognition of an increasingly fractious relationship between the news media and the segments of the general public who interact with it. I look at the ongoing Brexit negotiations and the Trump administration before offering some reasons to try to be cheerful about all of this.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download | Embed
The entire notion of democracy presumes not just that the general public are politically engaged and motivated but also informed about what is happening in their society. In the current political-media circus that seems like an arcane notion, an old-fashioned way of thinking. On top of a pre-existing tabloid media culture the internet has given rise to identity politics and clickbait.
Before the internet, most weirdos found themselves paying lip service to general societal mores and principles in order to get along in the world. The internet has meant that all the crazies, the extremists, the whackos, freaks, kooks, fruits and nuts can find a place to call home. Everyone can find an echo chamber – small or large – to validate their feelings and reinforce their beliefs. Whether we’re talking violent nationalists, extreme feminists or flat earthers, you can find facebook groups, discussion forums and so-called ‘news’ sites with articles, videos, podcasts and so on catering to that particular segment of the political-media spectrum.
As such, the struggle for identity has become much more pronounced, and faith in the news organs of record has considerably diminished. People who grew up in the first half of the 20th century, at least in rich Western countries, generally believed in the system, in the government, in the nation-state. Economic growth and a better future seemed like a reasonable expectation. This lasted into my parents generation, who grew up in the middle of the century, though we can see some dividing lines depending on their economic opportunities and realities.
At the end of the 1970s Jean Francois Lyotard, a french philosopher, published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. The French title is much cooler – La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir. In this book he described how the grand narratives underpinning our societies – whether they be economic, political or scientific – were failing. People no longer believed en masse that the future will be richer, or that people will have greater freedom. Even the promise of science – the philosophical revolution beginning with the Renaissance and then into the Enlightenment and beyond – seems hollow. The idea that better science leads to better knowledge and thus to a better society was quite popular in the previous few centuries, but the holocaust and the world wars showed that better technology often just facilitates human cruelty on a massive scale.
Some of these are points that Lyotard makes, some come from other philosophers of the same poststructuralist or postmodern schools of thought. In essence, people stopped believing in utopia, and in some kind of dialectical process leading to utopia. The collapse of the Soviet Union a decade later led the sociologist Francis Fukuyama to declare that liberal capitalist democracy had won, that it represented the best possible system and thus that we had reached the End of History. This claim was immediately attacked by the postmodernists, who declared that it was an ‘ideological confidence trick’ – effectively that the only way for this claim to become true is if everyone believes it. The only end to ideological conflict and political struggle is a society-wide myth that binds everyone together into believing in the system.
Nearly 30 years later I think the postmodernists have been proven right, because there aren’t that many people who would defend liberal capitalist democracy at this point. There aren’t even that many people who think that the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’ accurately describe our system, let alone think it is a good thing. I know that there are those who likes to say our societies aren’t capitalist because of some nonsense about people being on welfare, but we’re exploiting natural resources and human labour to a greater extent than ever before – our societies are deeply capitalistic.
Since the financial crash of 2008 we have seen the re-emergence of hard politics on both the Left and the Right. Take the EU referendum here in the UK, which saw both socialists and nationalists combine to vote against the neoliberal capitalist pseudo-democracy that is the European Union. While the Leave campaign was run almost solely to appeal to bigots, racists, nationalist and kneejerk fools on the Right, plenty of Left wing people voted that way. I considered voting Leave precisely as a rejection of the neoliberal capitalist world order but the way the Leave campaign was run showed that a Leave result would embolden the cretinous bigots of the Right, so I voted Remain because I don’t believe a hard Right version of Brexit will be a good thing.
Everything that’s happened since then only reinforces my views on this. The EU continues to be corrupt and moronic – to the extent that they sided with the Spanish government after they adopted a policy of beating the crap out of Catalans voting for independence. How anyone can defend the EU at this point, I do not know. Meanwhile, the sitting government who are supposed to be in charge of Brexit only scraped through the election this year due to a series of extremely fortuitous and timely terrorist attacks that mysteriously stopped as soon as the Tories got back in. In short, this is not going well.
Indeed, the Remain campaign was tepid, weak and unconvincing. The arguments most people make for staying in the EU consists of pointing at racist bigots and Nigel Farage. I’ve yet to hear anyone, even the most passionate Remainer, make a good, informed argument for staying in the EU. So while there are a substantial number of people who do still sort of believe in the neoliberal capitalist world order, none of them seem capable of articulating why that world order is such a good thing. It is therefore no surprise that the moronic, immoral but emotionally appealing politics of the hard right have found success.
Meanwhile, across the whole of Europe we’re seeing not just the rebirth of the hard right but also of the socialist left. Ironically, the nation-state is back on the agenda, both in its left wing and right wing forms. To a certain extent the same is true in the US – with a clear line going from Ron Paul through the Tea Party to Donald Trump representing the rebirth of the hard right, and the fact that Bernie Sanders has better poll ratings that either Hitlery or the Dotard representing the rebirth of the socialist left.
However, most socialists I know aren’t massive fans of Sanders and most fascists I know think Trump is a pathetic goof. While these figures have symbolic popularity and that’s enough to win a lot of votes, there are deep divisions amongst those on the hard left and the hard right.
So what we actually have is an increasingly fragmented spectrum where each section has a strong tribal mentality that reinforces their sense of collective identity. Tribalism is absolutely key to human identity and anyone who tells you they’re an individualist is committing a massive and obvious philosophical mistake (i.e. they’re identifying themselves via a collective label while claiming to do the opposite).
Fake news, and especially clickbait fake news, plays a key role in the maintenance and enhancing of this fragmented spectrum because most people don’t want critical information and a range of arguments, they want something that reinforces their feelings and their sense of identity. The commentariat like to accuse the Left of being in a bubble and that’s why they didn’t see Trump coming, or like to accuse the Trump campaign and/or Russia and/or Putin of using fake news to get Trump elected.
But the reality, as I see it, is that everyone uses fake news to reinforce their part of the spectrum, while accusing other parts of being or using fake news because it’s an easy way to discredit those other parts in the eyes of people who already want to believe that. It’s a far cry from an informed, engaged populus voting for their interests which are then represented by public servants.
Is Fake News a new thing?
The term ‘fake news’ was popularised by Trump but it entered into the US presidential struggle via the Hitlery campaign. A great many people blame Trump’s success on the ‘rise of fake news’ as part of their efforts to make out that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is stupid. In reality there are maybe 20 major reasons and hundreds of minor reasons why Trump won. On top of that, there was plenty of fake news supporting Hillbot, it was just coming from CNN rather than Neonnettle or NaturalNews.
But herein lies a problematic distinction – CNN (and the like) very rarely publish a wholly fake, wholly made up story. Their stories regularly include factual inaccuracies, omit relevant information and put a spin on the facts that is so unreal that it could reasonably be called untrue. Fake news sites like Before Its News and Your News Wire mostly just make stuff up – often the quotes they cite were never actually said by the people they attribute them to. You frequently see this in the stories about Putin standing up against the New World Order, and especially against those ni**er-loving gay communist Jew liberals who want to replace white people with Muslims. Even leaving aside the ludicrously inaccurate spin, the basic facts of the story – that Putin supposedly said this or that – are simply untrue.
So there is a distinction between the fake news practised by CNN and the like, who at least somewhat try to cover their asses and not just make stuff up, and the purveyors of clickbait. CNN and Fox don’t tend to report that the world is going to end on Friday because there’s some FEMA drill going on, and then when the world doesn’t end just move on and pretend like they never said any of that. Their journalism involves a certain amount of self-deceit or just alienation from reality (in order to produce it or consume it) but to believe the stories on Natural News you actually have to be deranged or retarded.
However, this sort of thing has existed since long before the internet. In its most basic form you have gossip and rumour – much of which is believed because of its controversial nature, its dramatic content, rather than because it’s plausible or there’s any evidence for it. Then you’ve got the likes of the National Inquirer and Hush Hush magazine, who happily reported on scandalous gossip as though it were fact. Sites like Neonnettle are simply the latest incarnation. The difference is that social media, and in particular the efficacy of clickbait marketing techniques, have granted the emotional, dramatic content an even greater supremacy over the factual content. It has got worse.
Some of these sites are surprisingly well organised – if you look at The Anti-Media and the Free Thought Project they are clearly run by the same people. They cross promote each others’ stuff all the time. Their branding makes them seem like alternative media, even though most of their content is just miscellaneous guff designed to make idiots nod their heads and think they’re being smart for doing so. They do no original, investigative journalism of any kind.
I cannot remember which news site it was but during the Charlottesville circus this summer I saw one of these sites posting a ‘20 photos from Charlottesville that you HAVE to SEE’ piece and then literally minutes later a piece titled ‘7 things that happened while you were distracted by Charlottesville’. This is either a form of gaslighting – of constantly changing your audience’s expectations, or just extremely cynical populism. By appealing both to the people who are obsessed with whatever the latest news fad is and to the people who always believe that the news is a deliberate distraction from something else, they’re covering the two biggest and most important bases. It’s utterly dishonest and pathetic and the sign of a media organisation that is motivated by driving as many clicks from as many idiots as possible.
Alongside the literal fake news – where the factual information is just made up – we have emotional and political fake news, that is insincere in the emotional response it is seeking to inspire in its audience. This takes the form of both self-contradiction and more straightforward manipulation via the omission of information and the presentation of simplistic narratives. Simple stories for simple people. Only I don’t think people would be half as stupid about politics if our popular media took their role seriously. If you treat people like childish fuckwits then sooner or later quite a lot of them will think, talk and behave like childish fuckwits. If news media treated them as citizens in a democracy then… you get the idea.
So we have a variety of fake news, all of which has existed to some extent for as long as human civilisation has existed. Blaming Trump on the rise of fake news is just a kneejerk response to an unexpected result, largely coming from people who had isolated themselves within one particular echo chamber. It’s a way of dealing with the shock. Like Killery’s book, the Russiagate investigations and most of the DNC’s other attempts to take revenge on the Mandarin Maestro, this is rebounding in strange directions. Many of the sites that were cited as ‘fake news’ are fake news sites. In my opinion the fact that google no longer shows results from Natural News is a good thing. But now they’ve done the same thing with Alternet, a predominantly left wing site that for the most part has good, accurate content.
And herein lies the truth about the DNC and the neoliberal media – they aren’t left wing, they are centrists. Indeed, they rigged the primary to prevent their popular left wing candidate from getting the nomination, and then the neoliberal media avoided talking about this and got behind the centrist candidate. So it isn’t that surprising to see this ‘fake news’ controversy attacking both left and right wing sites, both credible and fake news sites. In terms of the way the neoliberal establishment have weaponised the term ‘fake news’, it is a means of attacking the populist movements arising outside of that neoliberal centre ground.
State sponsored fake news – Mediapolitik on ice
Another important development in our evolving political-media landscape is state-sponsored fake news, or what I like to call mediapolitik on ice. Mass media, particular web-based media, presented a problem for nation states. The lack of societal consensus, even on absolutely critical issues, has become obvious. People are identifying less with the other people in their own countries and more with transnational ideological movements and value cultures. This not only erodes faith in the nation-state in general, but also makes it harder for national political parties to maintain their voting bases. Put simply, their voters don’t all want the same things and that’s becoming increasingly apparent. So consistency of messaging is now more of a liability than an asset.
The alternative media is a great microcosm of this development, as it has been aided by the likes of Russia Today and PressTV, who have greater resources and thus a greater ability to promote certain ideas than any youtuber or blogger could ever hope to attain. To be clear, Russia Today still does some good reporting whereas PressTV has mostly been a shithouse fake news service for its entire existence. Nonetheless, RT’s coverage of, for example, the refugee ‘crisis’ in Europe has clearly been designed to sow discord and tension, and contribute to this fractious, fragmented spectrum. They often report on random low-level crimes simply because they were perpetrated by refugees or immigrants. They never report on equivalent crimes committed by the indigenous people of European countries.
This contributed massively to the alt media adopting this same worldview, whereby the Muslim hordes are invading and its those commie gay Jewish liberals who are letting them in to destroy our societies. No doubt, this contributed to Trump’s success as his campaign capitalised on paranoid bigotry and generalised hatred of the perceived ‘Left’. Indeed, the alt media had no consensus until RT and others created one for them. For years there was no unifying belief or issue, and now the only underlying myth is one that advances the security state and the agenda of a rival superpower.
So while I find most of Russiagate to be baseless nonsense there is a real phenomenon here that is important. No one can argue that the Russian state isn’t trying to influence the political-media landscapes in Western nations, they clearly are and have had some moderate success in doing so. This has primarily been in the realm of online so-called alternative media but it has also forced the mainstream media to absorb and incorporate many of the themes and ideas of the online media. One of the clearest examples of all this is when Fox News broadcast an interview in early 2015 where the guest claimed that the British city of Birmingham is entirely Muslim and is a police no-go area. This is fake news, the basic factual information isn’t true, but because it re-affirmed and justified a lot of pre-existing fears and prejudices, a lot of people believed it. When the broadcast and Fox were criticised – quite rightly – this had little effect because the audience who believed it simply saw this as the denialism of the liberal media.
So at that point we had Russia Today, Infowars, Natural News and Fox all promoting the same basic story – an untrue story – for somewhat differing reasons and motives but all having the same effect and result. The irony is that in the short term they might be succeeding in what they’re trying to do but in the long term they are contributing to the general state of hyperreality which is eroding faith in any kind of political or media authority. They’re digging their own graves.
President Sunny Delight is a great example of this, because he swept through the election by saying a whole load of self-contradictory crap that played on people’s fears but was not based either in reality or in the world of practical policy. As such, Trump is a total lame duck. By contributing to the fragmenting of consensus and exploiting a general state of dissensus he has left himself with no power base and as such, can’t do an awful lot. This has led to the Russiagate investigation which, one way or another, will probably end with Trump being removed from office and quite possibly thrown in jail. He won votes with authoritarian rhetoric but he has no authority, and his entire presidency is contributing to the loss of faith in public institutions.
Back in Britain
Philip Hammond – There are no unemployed people
Here in the UK we have a similar situation – a Tory party that came to power promising to sort out the economy and reduce the deficit, but who have doubled the national debt in just a few years in order to give tax cuts to the corporations who fund their party. They also likely broke the law in the 2015 and 2017 elections, but nothing is being done about that. Despite Theresa May being a hopeless, feckless, charmless bitch they remain relatively high in the polls, mostly due to hatred of the opposition, the genuinely left-wing Corbyn-led Labour party. But the Tories have no idea what they’re doing with Brexit, and are terrified of calling another general election. Their current leader is proving inept, but they don’t have any obvious alternative except for Boris Johnson. They’ve made this pact with the Irish Taliban, but once they’d got their bribe they basically fucked off and left the government to it. They have no more faith in May and the Tory government than anyone else, despite technically being in some kind of coalition with them.
However there are some differences. Here the fake news is largely supportive of the establishment, such as when they report on Corbyn’s negotiations with the IRA while failing to mention the Tory government at the time was also negotiating with the IRA. Or when pretty much the entire media spectrum fails to ask why that string of terrorist attacks stopped once the Tories got re-elected. Nonetheless there have been plenty of fake pro-Corbyn stories that conveniently ignored genuine criticisms and problems. Most of these came from the online alternative media, like The Canary, which is a left-wing clickbait site.
Obviously Corbyn can’t be any worse than this shower of shit and he is the most left-wing candidate for Prime Minister in my lifetime so in spite of my reservations I did vote for him in the end. I almost didn’t vote at all, which is quite unlike me, so even I sometimes get confused by the quagmire that is our fragmented, identity-driven political-media spectrum.
Meanwhile, it is the supposedly ‘left wing, politically correct BBC’, the state broadcaster, who are most responsible for this. Between 2010 and the EU referendum in 2016 the most frequent guest on Question Time was Nigel Farage, who sat there complaining about how left wing and politically correct the BBC are, not once contradicted by the presenter. They gave him the biggest platform of any media outlet, and since the referendum have made a point of selecting the most simple-minded bigots they can find. Week after week they feature members of the public sitting there, frothing at the mouth and repeating ‘out means out’. They claim that ‘the country voted, now get on with it’ as though this isn’t a much more complex issue than a simple binary referendum.
Indeed, I’ve been having fun with anyone who says these things to me in person by asking them if they’d be in favour of another referendum. Almost always you see the fear in their eyes, because deep down they know this is going badly and that a lot o f people have changed their minds because they see the shit about to hit the fan. They find any number of excuses and paranoid accusations to try to deflect any such idea, or even the idea of a referendum on the final deal. Their bravado in claiming that the majority believe the same as them evaporates at the slightest confrontation.
To be clear, I am not saying we should have another referendum, I just think it’s fun to wind up simple-minded people who claim that the country voted for a hard Brexit. These idiots are voting against their own interests, because a hard Brexit would cause a major recession and thus make them poorer. But because of decades of fake news about immigrants they’re so divorced from reality that they can’t understand anything more complicated than them getting exactly what they want.
The good news is that a lot of people voted for Brexit not because they’re bigoted or especially stupid, and that the Tory party themselves are split on what kind of deal they want. There is no majority opinion on this subject – the public are divided between those who want Brexit at all costs, those who want some kind of sensible departure, those who think it’s a bad idea but accept it is the future, and those who are still trying to get another referendum out of a government that has no interest in democracy. Even within those four categories there are sub-factions and shades of difference, so if nothing else it will be fascinating to see what happens. A hard brexit means the Tories losing the subsequent election, but they might be so divorced from reality that they, like Trump, will be the architects of their own downfall.
So we have a government that is detached from reality, trying to negotiate the most important political development in this country’s recent history, without a clear mandate or any kind of plan. The main reason they’re still in power is that the opposition is so fragmented – Corbyn himself is popular but half of his shadow cabinet are well-meaning incompetents and the Labour party is still at least half full of neoliberals. UKIP are basically dead, which is ironic given that they should be at the forefront of the one issue they’ve been campaigning on for all these years. But it turns out Farage doesn’t give a toss and he’s going to enjoy the EU gravy train for another year or two while trying to create a position from himself in the US news media market. He abandoned that sinking ship almost as quickly as Pigfucker. The Liberal Democrats and the Greens basically have no power because neither of them can decide what they stand for, and most of the other minor parties don’t even take their seats in the House of Commons.
I’m not saying this is a good situation, but there are good elements to it. For one thing, the lack of consensus means that there are opportunities for more unusual candidates to get elected. For another, it’s fun watching both liberals and conservatives who took their power for granted facing attacks from all kinds of angles without any obvious way of fighting back. It used to be that if you stayed on message and played to your base then you were usually alright. But now you can’t say anything without pissing off a substantial number of people even on your own side, and I like watching self-proclaimed authorities squirming around like the jellyfish that they are.
Also, while this postmodern condition has been the status quo for several decades now, and shows no signs of getting less stupid and crazy as time goes on, it cannot last forever. Despite both domestic and foreign government attempts to take advantage of this strangely fractious situation in the medium and longer term they are only contributing to it, and therefore contributing to their own inevitable downfall. Whether something better rises in their place, only time will tell.