Fake news and the post-truth age

There is a moral panic about fake news, and it is one the Left should object to at every opportunity.

Political commentators and analysts see fake news, or a ‘post-facts’ politics, as a danger to democracy: politicians make false promises or meme-creators invent stories, these are believed, and victory for an ignoble cause is secured. As I have outlined in a bit more detail elsewhere, a key variant of this position is that social media creates echo chambers that serve to polarize the populace and make sensible solutions to political problems impossible.

The source of this moral panic is usually presented as technological: Twitter, Facebook, and others allow people to share false claims and mistruths without vetting, and these mistruths multiply and diffuse through social networks at an incredible speed. We just reinforce our prejudices, and repost what we agree with. We don’t particularly check sources or facts. We are subject to confirmation bias, instantly agreeing with polls, stories and sources that support the position we already held. No-one ever changes their views, or even wants a good faith discussion. Fake news is spread either innocently or deliberately — and, most importantly, quickly. Those on the Left and the Right both bemoan the damage done to political discourse by new attention- and solidarity-destroying social media technologies.

But the real source of this moral panic is straightforwardly political.

Anyone who complains about fake news long enough or hard enough really fears the masses. This moral panic is the moan of protest against the ignorant hoards who are not qualified, not reflective enough, not deliberative enough, and ultimately not smart enough to serve a voice in the conversation or at the ballot box. In short, it’s a version of ‘people are idiots’. People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis; you can’t trust people.

There is a more specific historical cause that explains why the fake news moral panic started in 2016 and developed as it has. This is ultimately the fear of popular engagement in politics after such a long hiatus in the years of neoliberal dominance. The contrast with the 90s and 2000s is stark. Whereas previously the equivalent moral panic was over apathy it is now over ignorance. We thus see epistocrats and gnosocrats solemnly conclude that tests of political knowledge or involvement for voting sadly must be introduced to save democracy from itself (with seemingly little awareness of the echoes of a venerable line of establishment anti-suffrage arguments). The Left and Right neoliberal governing parties of the 1990s and 2000s — Blair, Clinton, Merkel, and the rest — had no need for popular engagement, as their modes of winning power (cartel parties) and governing (technocratic solutions to political problems) were ever more divorced from movement building or mass participation.

As Wolfgang Streeck details in his essay ‘The Return of the Repressed’ in the latest New Left Review, 2016 saw a particular watershed in the prominence of ideas of fake news and new sorts of political lies. With Brexit and Trump, we saw the OED nominate ‘post-truth’ as the Word of the Year and the Society for German language declaring ‘post-factual’ [‘postfaktisch’] to be the German Word of the Year. Streeck points out a peculiarity here: after a long dominance of ideas of competing ‘narratives’ in literary theory and political analysis, there was a ‘sudden rediscovery of objective truth for the purpose of insulting non-academic fellow-citizens’ (NLR, Mar-Apr 2017, p. 9). Streeck is right: it is the return of the repressed (in this case the citizenry to the political stage) that explains the new-found need for obligatory fact-checking.

It is also necessary to criticise another premise of this argument. This is the more or less implicit idea that journalism previously represented some neutral, reliable account of the world and impartial facts. Although the class interest of the British press is becoming clearer in some respects — such as the now complete interconnection of the Conservative party and its press through figures such as Gove, Osborne, Finkelstein, and Johnson — it has always existed. Social media offers us more sources of news, and those who worry about fake news tend to think that we’re too ignorant to separate false from true from the simple common sense of the ruling class. Lies and distortions have always been a part of politics, a part of what Gramsci understood as the ‘organization of culture’ by competing class interests.

One of the reasons why the British Left got it so wrong on Brexit — failing to see that Brexit is progressive, full stop — is that its view of the electorate is often a very unflattering one. This ‘grey fascist island’ is filled with Lionel Asbos flying their St George’s flags, hating foreigners. Owen Jones wrote so convincingly in Chavs about how class has become an aesthetic judgement; but all too many on the Left thought it was enough to stop using the word ‘chav’ but still keep looking down on working class people for being insufficiently cosmopolitan.

The starting point of any Leftist politics is the individual political subject as rational. From this we can build classes and solidarity, but any talk of socialism without a faith in people as they are and could be is empty and useless. (This, incidentally is why environmentalism is almost always of the Right — it seeks to conserve the environment while seeing people as stupid, selfish, ignorant.) We have to defend people’s ability to judge and to know, and reject those who more or less directly use ‘fake news’ as yet another reason to mock and deride our collective ability to engage in democratic politics and take control of our lives.