Reporting From the Necropolis: Fake News and the Marketplace
Neoliberal ideology mystifies the threat of authoritarianism; it does not combat it.
The 45th President of the United States has professed himself to be “at war” with the news media. He has undertaken a scorched earth campaign of undermining legitimacy of reporting, limiting access to organizations that cover him in a way he disfavors and, most importantly, labeling certain journalistic outlets to be “fake news.” The “fake news” shorthand originated on social media as a way to describe the widespread sharing of news stories with no factual basis, generally engineered to be clickbait or baseless confirmation of political biases. A significant portion of this “fake news,” popularized outright falsehoods about Trump’s political opponent in the 2016 election, some horrendous examples of which were adopted and shared by current and former members of Trump’s staff. One of the most infamous of such stories alleged that Hillary Clinton was participating in the operation of a child sex trafficking ring out of a downtown Washington pizza parlor. The story, which was shared by recently dismissed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, prompted a man to show up to the pizza parlor in question with a semi-automatic rifle to save children that (of course) weren’t there.
Since the inauguration, Trump, the orbital center of much of the discussion of “fake news” has co-opted the moniker as a blitzkrieg repudiation of any reporting or news organization he personally dislikes. The use of the description has since spread among his followers as a metonymic device for all “liberal” media generally, for any news media with which the Right disagrees. The consequence is that all unfavorable media or indeed all damaging facts are in essence, not simply spun, presented in a biased way, or contestable, but are unequivocally false, by virtue of the organization presenting them being conspiratorially untrustworthy. As many have already pointed out, this is not an innovative tactic, or even a novel use of it, but a repetition of an authoritarian mode of regime building to dispense with any independent press to be replaced with propaganda. The expulsion of major news organizations from a White House press briefing while certain fringe media elements, mostly associated with the far right were permitted access is a transparent example of this move. This analysis, however, fails to reach the root of the problem. It fails precisely because of a peculiar historical situation in which we find ourselves in which meaning production itself is destabilized. The metonym is effective because of this destabilization and merely castigating it by virtue of its effects does nothing to disturb its function. In fact, the neoliberal ideological resistance to the debasement of the news media mystifies and perpetuates the authoritarian utility of the fake news metonym.
Consider two examples of disappearance: the “news cycle,” and the Snapchat “story.” Information and images are proliferated in such a way that they are teleologically directed toward vanishing. There is, as Baudrillard pointed out almost thirty years ago, more and more information and less and less meaning. No particular news story manages any permanence, because disappearance is the mode of informational proliferation at this stage of our culture. Meaning is left only in traces and only in their coercive or metaphoric resonance. The “fake news” device is dangerous because the implosion that it captures is not simply false, but the erasure of meaning writ large from the sociocultural discursive space. The old distinctions between real and imaginary, between medium and message, between fact and falsity have collapsed in favor of hyperreality, simulacrum and metonym. The “dissolving, dissuasive action” of information, upon which the media qua medium — that which mediates between one reality and another — rests, exhausts communication in the act of staging it. Information is the simulation of communication, and in the mass media, it is the simulation of political engagement. The pundit delivers information, which is curated to the specific tastes of the viewer vis-à-vis network reputation or algorithm. The act of curating based on audience is already the invasion of a phantom participation of the viewer. The background of resonance renders information communicative and simultaneously exhausts both its informative and its communicative capacity.
The information delivery system, the medium, is the message (borrowing the McLuhan formula) but in such a way that the message is merely the passage from one cycle to the next, the affective residue that remains is only the preservation of the initial resonance. The “news cycle,” from which each story originates, develops, and vanishes is the same model as the Snapchat, it conveys nothing, leaves its affective trace, and vanishes. It is created to vanish, it is expected to vanish; what it achieves by vanishing is the attachment of a form of belief to the simulation itself (the accumulation of ‘followers’). The content of the conveyance does not matter, what matters is the affinity with information that results, the affect eliding into the viewer, which is what drew the viewer to the curated information to begin with. The truth that remains is the medium, the residue of the simulation of communication, the drive to self-effacement, “the simulacrum is never what hides the truth — it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.”
Contrary to the neoliberal criticism, the Trump proposition, which discredits the medium itself, is brutally rational. The insight of the metonym that destabilizes the relationships of information and objective fact is a recognition of the process undertaken by the news cycle, by the medium. It is because of this rationality that a simple criticism of the metonym as an authoritarian tactic will not suffice to subdue its functionality. The ideology of the nobility of the mass media, the Fourth Estate, cannot foundationally critique a deracination of the exhaustion of meaning in simulation. Criticizing the tactic at the level of the informational is speaking at a logical level one removed from where the metonym operates. For those that find purchase in the “fake news” epithet as it is used to describe entire networks, newspapers, or other outlets, the factuality of the information provided is not at issue. What is at issue is a confirmation of the latent allegiances produced by the exhaustion of meaning in the simulation of a communicative dimension through a barrage of information. The disturbance is an unconscious one. It cannot be stabilized by appealing to conscious desires for accuracy. Accuracy must first be tethered to some form of meaning production.
Authoritarianism and rationality are not divergent operations. The rational appeals of neoliberal ideology merely fail to advance the critique at the same level as the authoritarian threat. The authoritarian metonym offers meaning sua sponte. It supports the position of cognitive dissonance by bypassing information and accuracy altogether. A critique that could effectively oppose the metonym discrediting the medium would have to be staged at the same fundamental level. That is to say, Trump himself must be discredited, destabilized, not according to his accuracy but according to his function producing meaning. It does not matter if the information he supplies is factual, not in any sense that would diminish the effectiveness of his erosion of media. What matters is the image of Trump, Trump as totem, as fetish. His authority is derived from his virtual presence; he is most effectively discredited when he is made to appear contrary to what he asserts himself to be. It is for this reason that he is so fixated on parodic representations of himself, because he cannot separate the function from the form. His instincts here are correct, for in him the two categories have collapsed. Trump will continue to survive criticism based on truth and falsity, accuracy and inaccuracy. His downfall will be predicated on the public disintegration of his projected image, which has nothing to do with information, policy, or ideology. It is linked instead to such unquantifiable notions as nostalgia, meritocracy, and consumerist fetishism. In short, the only effectively available response to the collapse of meaning that Trump embodies is in class-consciousness.
The liberal theogony of the marketplace of ideas, or of the competition among truths, has failed. It has failed because the marketplace became a network of marketplaces, segregated according to predetermined affinity, and then ultimately became a necropolis. The ideas are gone, and only their memorials remain, tombstones of commoditized truth the ghosts of which now scarcely even haunt the graves. Neoliberal ideologues that are aghast at the persistence of a Trump presidency, still waiting for Clinton to jump from behind the hidden camera, have failed to grasp the exhaustion of meaning in this society where representations no longer correspond to things, but to a hall of mirrors. This is the abstraction into emptiness, the entropy that functions at the heart of capitalist domination. It was the inevitable result. The way out, if there is one, cannot possibly be mere contradiction of the disappearing information exchanges. The problem is material, and until the material contradictions are understood, ideology will only serve to mystify the support structures for authoritarianism in the desert that is late capitalism.
This is not to say that the function of the medium to supply information is of no value, of course. Though the vanishing passage of the “news cycle” cannot be reversed, that does not mean that media silence would be preferable, or that the “fake news” metonym has some factual content beyond mere destabilization. Rather, that the “fake news” metonym cannot be engaged by mere media. Demonstrating, by means of a proliferation of information, that Trump’s claims are inaccurate will not alter the division of media into curated affinity groups. Nor will it recover the relationship between the signifier and signified. Trump represents an insurgency against the collapse of a stable core of meaning in the discursive fabric of the West. That collapse is inextricably bound to the interlocking mythologies of capitalism as a form of life. Trump is supported by reflection upon an irrecoverable past and a myopia that fails to recognize the oligarchical allegiances that made his candidacy a reality. Liberalism, which accepts the basic premises that make oligarchy possible, cannot possibly contract its way out of meaninglessness.