Debates about fake news and post-truth politics seem central to the contemporary political moment. It is striking that these terms have so rapidly become part of the political vocabulary for both the left and right, yet are rarely interrogated as claims in themselves.
The New York Times, apparently Trump’s most significant media adversary, expressed concerns about fakery well before Trump was elected. In a statement reminiscent of C. P. Scott, it held that ‘facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies’. He points out that 70% of Trump’s statements fall into the categories of false, and then cites the claims of Brexiters to suggest ‘the sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics’.
In the UK, former editor of The Times, Harold Evans, told us in February, ‘In terms of truth of journalism it is a very perilous time…We have those people who don’t have the brains to distinguish facts [from fiction]. Then we have the bad performers in the press, particularly numerous in the UK … Then you have got the assault [on the media]’
There we have it. Two newspapers telling us they are concerned about truth and fakery. While they’re at it, Trump tells us that the same newspapers deal in fake news and sustain a post-truth politics.
Lined up in ironic formation on either side are the foot soldiers. Postmodern left and right wing “activists” face off to condemn anything that grates with their prejudices as fake and post-truth. Egging them on are their favoured media – the likes of The Guardian and Independent on one side and the Sun and the Mail on the other.
I’m minded of the Rabbi who on adjudicating two counter-posed views tells the first “you’re right”, and tells the second “you’re right”. They query him: “but we can’t both be right”, and he replies “you’re right”.
To untangle this a little, let’s start with some logical points. Might it not be the case that news is all fake? Might there be a possibility that what is considered fake or untruthful is merely that with which people disagree? This is, after all, the consumer society, wherein lifestyle starts and ends at individual preference. Does not the dominance of subjectivity in our hyper-real world render the concept of “fake” anathema? If the position is maintained, then it necessitates the acceptance of antonymic concepts.
To maintain that we have entered a period of “post-truth” politics or one of “fake news”, two logical relations must be demonstrated.
- “post-truth” indicates a prior period in which politics was “truthful”
- “fake news” indicates a form of news that is “real”
So the first thing anyone throwing around such terms needs to do is to explain when the “truth politics” period was and where the “real” news can be found.
The problem is perhaps that cultural shifts underpinning political discourse militate against recognising such concepts. Perhaps the meta-explanation for these problem is that we’ve arrived at a crisis of political rationality. The characteristics of this crisis seem to be:
- A lack of coherence and consistency in the application of principles, which seems to result from
- A speeding up of communication but not of thought, which we can see in particular in the uses of social media
- A disregard for or misuse of historical precursors
- Mediationscapes that create echo chambers of narcissistic self-referentiality
- The domination of “discursive conformity”
Let’s take an example. Last week Metro reported that ex-UKIP politician Janice Atkinson called for the death penalty for suicide bombers. The story perfectly fitted the liberal left view of UKIP members – so thick they want to kill dead people. People on blogs and social media rushed to ridicule and condemn without considering for a moment that perhaps the newspapers they spend so much time criticising might in this instance too be spreading fake news. The notion that a headline may be embellished with the same click-bait techniques used by the Daily Mail as much as The Canary, seems not to be considered.
But the news media fed tasty junk to a hungry audience who swallowed without chewing and belched their guttural reaction onto the internet. No, you don’t have to like Atkinson to find fault in the story any more than you need to agree with the death penalty. Yet to publicly object to it as post-truth fake news being used to manipulate public opinion against UKIP would be to step out of synch with the discourse of the left against UKIP. The actual statement can be found here.
There’s no move to condemn the Metro’s piece as fake news, because it is reassuringly aligned with prejudice. To even notice it is fake would have entailed stepping out of conformity with discursive alignment. Another recent example, no less embarrassing, was the idiotic speed with which news circulated that the right-wing Tory MP Philip Davies lost his seat in the 2017 election. Within minutes feminist activists spread the glorious news around the world. It seemed not to matter whether it was true – it wasn’t – it was a moment, a dream come true, a simulation of a better world whose veracity did not matter, as long as it provided momentary pleasure. Naturally because people said it on social media, then journalists said it in the newspapers, so then people said it with verification on social media.
Discursive conformity frequently mediates Facebook and Twitter spats. If an utterance fails to intersect with the general thrust of a discourse it is rarely reasoned with. At best responses come from a pre-packaged repertoire of unreflexive and standard phrases and slogans. Rather, given the lack of time and cognitive capacity to engage an alien perspective or counterpose data, the rapid reaction is to remove the dissenting perspective altogether. There’s little interest in truth or reality, as it is overridden by conformity.
Consider the frequency with which you read the words “blocked”, “muted” or “unfriended” on social media. They are as awfully depressing terms, especially when those who block, mute and unfriend accuse those who fail to mediate their politics of being fascist and shutting down free speech. More often than not, those blocked, muted or unfriended are dismissed as “thick”, and therefore unworthy of education and engagement. How mean and uncharitable people have become.
There is something incoherent and illogical about such attitudes. Truncated thought processes, flawed principles, rapid, responses too quick for consequentialism, immediacy and discursive conformity militate against considered analysis and understanding. Who wants to wait two weeks to hear your thoughtful analytical, evidenced-based response to the subject of the latest Twitter storm? The story has moved on, gone, you’ll miss your opportunity. Indeed which news organisations will eschew the time-honoured tradition of being first with the news to facilitate some long-winded complex analysis that fails to lend itself to click-bait?
Who has the inclination to slip outside the comfort zone of discursive conformity and risk being ostracised from the social crutch that activism has become for those on the left as much as those on the right?
So to a degree fakery is reduced to subjective preference expressed in discursive alignments. But to juxtapose it to “real” news would require news to report on things that are themselves real without mediation. Moreover a simple unmediated window on reality. Yet the second claim, that we have entered post-truth politics seems not to present a “real” work on which to report.
The crisis of political rationality that underpins such contradictory relations to media is itself premised on a philosophical problem: Can the concept of post-truth be coherently criticised without a conceptualisation of truth. The postmodernism that underpins so much left discourse does not allow for such a criticism because of the inimitably contradictory assertion that the truth is there is no such thing as truth.
Beyond even more difficult epistemological questions, and eschewing a couple of thousand years of history that demonstrates truths are anathema to the strategic pursuit of political power (which does nothing to discount their existence), let us consider prior considerations of truth in the modern, democratic world.
In the 1970s Hannah Arendt developed the theory of “modern political lies”, which are ‘so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture – the making of another reality into which they will fit without seam, crack or fissure [. . .] modern political lies [. . .] offer a full-fledged substitute for’ reality’. For Arendt, the modern political lie was the cause of the disastrous invasion of Vietnam and was well illustrated in the ‘Pentagon Papers’ otherwise known as the ‘History of the US Decision-Making Process of Vietnam Policy’. Arendt argued that policy in Vietnam was set by ‘self-deceivers’ who manipulated reality to fit their theories of what was wrong and how it could be fixed.
In this sense, “facts” that could be weaved into this “factual texture” became true in virtue of their “fit”. Indeed even Arendt was prone to referring to “North” and “South” Vietnam.
The notion of a factual texture in which claims are weaved together discursively is, however, the tip of the iceberg. It is not just a discursive fabric but a material reality in which truths are constructed. To this end, Christian Aid’s analysis of Israeli actions in the Palestinian Territories is instructive. It’s not just words but a reality – in this case of “settlements” that is constructive to give truth claims their validity. Another study found the same process taking place in the US-UK invasion of Iraq. George W. Bush’s claim that the war was over on 1st May 2003 seemed absurd, but it had the effect of creating a material and legal reality that provided validity to US-UK actions in Iraq, and made reports of those actions factually correct terms of their alignment to this constructed truth. “Facts on the ground” were the bases of truth-claims.
Of course admitting that truth is created leads those with short attention spans to give up: there’s no such thing as “real” truth. Therefore “truths” become pragmatic. Something is true because it is useful and aligned to particular discourses, to particular factual textures that make up self-referential echo chambers. Nothing on the outside is true.
So we are left with two considerations. Either there is truth, but truths are historical and politically created, or there is no truth. In either case the concept of post-truth politics is redundant.
The reporting of these “truths” leads us to consider the nature of fakery. In this sense, it is not “fake news” that is the problem, but the very nature of news itself. It is not just news one doesn’t like that is “fake”, but news itself as a discursive style and time- resource- and epistemologically-limited practice is unable to get at truths. News exists on the surface, always. It, like politics, is constructed.
So there was not and is not “real” news before or beside “fake” news. Yet it is one of those curious phenomena that no matter how long one might study the social construction of news, ideology, hegemony or any array of analyses that indicate the news is anything other than an accurate portrayal or reality, people do tend to believe it if it conforms to a discursive preference.
It is therefore reasonable to suggest that The Sun or the Daily Mail provide fake news from the right-wing, just as The Guardian and The Independent provide fake news from the left wing.
It is worth recalling that, whatever the publication, it is at base a business that provides packaged news commodities to a consumer group whose choices are founded in preference, reassurance and prejudice. The intonation and slant given to any given story necessarily coheres with the expectation of the audience or consumer group’s preferred framework of understanding.
To be able single out the contemporary historical moment as somehow special requires understanding of a more innocent and truthful past that simply did not exist. To consider only that with which one disagrees to be “fake news” requires a concept of reality that fails to understand how all news media operate.
The solution is not, as canny newspapers and politicians seem to be encouraging, to reassert the reality of news or truth of politics. Is it to insist on the veracity of one solipsistic politics over another. Nor is it to give up and slip into a relativism that is immune from critique.
As the problems of politics and news are so much deeper than post-truth or fake news, so too are the solutions. Reconfiguring discursive time might help, but this is unlikely in a social media world where immediacy is the major currency.
Media scholars often refer to Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the public sphere to suggest how democratic discourse might be arranged, but more often than not its conceptualisation ends with “people communicate”. Such a formulation tends towards an argument for free speech that negates power relations, or in its “radicalised” form, forms of performance in public spheres that resist and challenge power.
The lack of reflexivity in the latter seems to militate against the purpose of the public sphere in the first place. Rather than closed discursive circles hermetically sealed by preferred media it is crucial for people to break out of their comfort zones, and be exposed to the other, however disagreeable. The key value of the public sphere is to encourage intersubjectivity, on the basis of which truth claims can be evaluated. To seek and understand the perspective of the other is a necessary start to finding a way out of this crisis of rationality.
Yet it seems truth and reality have little relevance within fully marketised media and political spheres. Each market segment will continue to feed its consumers with the information that confirms both the form and content of presumptive prejudice while also bolstering those outlets as the chosen and thus agreed reality and truth. There is little likelihood of this changing in the digital media world.