Understanding Fake News and Post-Truth
Relying on media is a half-hearted attempt at being informed
The internet is bustling with news about the news — talk about self-cannibalization.
The latest, is in the form of outrage at Sinclair Broadcast Group’s, who operate close to 200 television stations in the U.S., decision to have its news anchors record a promo about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country.”
Besides being completely hypocritical, the move (captured brilliantly in the below video) is being seen as another way in which Trump (do you notice how we never say the Trump administration and talk about Trump almost exclusively, it’s as if he’s already the only figure that matters — so much for checks and balances) is consolidating his grasp on power. He even tweeted out in support of this decision.
This most recent media fiasco gives us an opportune moment to analyse the overall fake news and post-truth trend we are witnessing. To do so, we need to take a closer look at first, the role of the president in the recent antics, and second, the role of the media itself.
From the horses mouth
To many, Trumps actions seem fair and justified. In their minds, Trump is obviously under attack, does he not have a right to lash out against those who attack him?
Well, here we need to look at the concept of freedom of speech, is the president someone who believes in this right? Does he believe in it strong enough to step away from petty arguments with an understanding that as a person in a position of tremendous power he would be criticized no matter what?
It would seem not. Trump ardently criticized and detract his predecessor and was one of the main actors behind the ‘birther’ movement. Now that he is in office though he is seeking to make libel laws stricter as to make it easier to sue the media.
But beyond Trumps self serving views on freedom of speech is the political implication of him speaking out against fellow Americans.
The political dangers of this are not hard to see. By de-legitimizing fellow citizens, Trump turns his back on the principles of democratic decorum. The idea that, although we may be political adversaries, we are both Americans who wish the best for our country, but disagree on how to get there.
This decorum was brilliantly displayed by former Presidential candidate John McCain in his handling of anti-Obama sentiment.
The emphasis here on decorum is not an elitist one, it is not because politicians should be ‘respectable’. It is simply to reinforce a self-serving idea meant to safe guard the cohesion and prosperity of a nation. Somehow though, Americans have forgotten Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech claiming that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” As such, hate crime in the US is rising, the US’s global standing is faltering, and institutions within the US are in turmoil with constant replacements and an increased lack of faith in them, from education to healthcare.
For Trump, however, everything is fair game. Whether his actions are willfully aimed at undermining democratic institutions to solidify his grasp on power, as every autocrat does, or, are spurred by his sheer lack of political experience and understanding as he tries to deflect responsibility is unclear. The cost this is having on the nation and discourse around the world though, is.
The media environment
Our second prong of analysis is the media environment itself. There seems to be a general sense of shock that this sort of coordinated effort can happen. We are continuously surprised when we are met with news that the news is false, or has misreported something, or that news agencies have a political agenda or a slant.
Of course, they do. I’m not sure where our idea (more like a delusion) of a balanced informative media comes from. We forget that the goal of a newspaper is not to tell the news, it’s to sell you newspapers. The goal of news channels is not to tell you the news, it’s to sell air time as ads or gain you as a subscriber.
It only follows then that the media environment is going to be divided per customer segments and demographics and Echo chambers will develop.
This is nothing new, it is just that we are now so starkly facing this reality that we have needed to find ways to try and explain this phenomenon through social analysis instead of the basic economic ones that have always been there. We’ve invented terms like post-truth to try and intellectualize the result of an economic phenomena as a somehow isolated social one.
People have just lost their mind, we are told, they are all being swindled and taken for fools! As if there was any other conclusion to be reached here than where we are today.
It’s also worth saying here that this argument against the private ownership of media is not an endorsement of greater government control. In that case, the government will have more power in influencing public narrative which is even worse.
In reality though, this is the sort of situation we now have as businesses parrot the presidents rhetoric to gain favor and influence his ‘pro-business’ policy decision making.
Here we find ourselves in a ‘one hand washes the other’ situation, as Trump not only stands to gain from this politically, by shielding himself from criticism; but also economically, as he has done nothing to untangle his business from his or his children's political career(s) and continues to monetize on his presidency at home and abroad.
Politics as sport
The final piece of this puzzle is us, the unwitting public. Sure, there is something to be said about the role of social media and the ‘rise of fake news’.
The increased competition in the media landscape as a result of its democratization has lead to a greater loss of integrity as news channels have started pushing out opinion pieces to save costs, reinforcing echo-chambers.
Adding Trump’s divisive rhetoric to the mix has lead to a complete failure of trust in our media institutions (warranted or otherwise) which has helped reinvigorate conspiracy theories from ant-vaxers to pizza-gate. ‘Truthers’ who believe that through their own investigation and their anti authoritarian narrative have finally uncovered the secrets obfuscated behind the ‘complexity’ of politics — it was the Illuminati (or x industry, or x family, or x race/religion) all along!
No matter how we look at it, we remain the fools in this narrative as we continue to think politics is simple enough to be understood through the media or authority figures. Our obsession with fake news is as if to suggest that we were once smarter and only now are we being duped by these systems and powers. We like to think that we are better than this, or at least we were.
Our investment in politics is similar to how we view sports. We are ever the spectators yelling at the coach or player for making a wrong move, content with picking a team and a favorite player and defending or glorifying them while deprecating the other team. We know better.
There are a few differences though, rules in sport are simple and easy to follow. We can understand why a referee's call was wrong, or why that player should have gone for a pass instead of hog the play.
On the other hand politics and institutions are complicated and most of us (myself included) have near zero knowledge of the complexities of the internal processes of law making, passing, and enforcement. We may belong to a party but don’t understand the processes of running an electoral campaign and deciding on a platform. We also look at policies through ideological lenses or ones that prioritize immediate gain with little understanding of what greater implications policies may have on the future.
All of this makes our investment in politics cursory. Voting has also gamified the process of our involvement, limiting it to voting every once in a while and then spending the time in between shit-talking the other.
This is not to say that we should gain total understanding before commenting or participating, that is idealistic and totalitarian, not to mention elitist. But to expect that we can depend on the news, be it fake, vetted, or otherwise, is a half hearted attempt at being ‘informed’.
In a way our obsession with fake news proves this. We know that so many of our fellow citizens depend on cursory information and understanding that the minor upset of an already questionable industry can have such devastating effects on the outcome.
A silver lining
I’m not sure if I believe encouraging people to read more is going to do anything. If people were interested in increasing their understanding in politics then we wouldn't be here to begin with.
What is interesting though is that this conversation has, on its own, opened doors to an increase in the quality of debate and the way we think about things. There have been many articles written on how to defeat online trolls, Vice, Forbes, the Atlantic and even this Channel 4 video have helped spread rules and ideas that were once only encountered by students of Logic.
This deeper understand will not solve the problem of fake news or our lack of involvement in politics as long as we continue to see politics itself as cursory, but it’s a start and may be enough to re-balance the narrative.