Internet-savvy 16-year-old boys in Macedonia are undermining Western journalism and democracy. Have you ever encountered a faker news story than that? This is the great irony of the fake-news panic that has swept the Western media in recent days, with observers now claiming that the promotion of made-up news on Facebook may have swung the election for Donald Trump and done GBH to the Western ideals of objectivity and reason: it is underpinned by illusions of its own; by a refusal to grapple with hard truths about the West’s own jettisoning of those values; and by an urge to invent bogeymen that is every bit as dislocated from reality as are those myth-peddling kids in the East.
Still reeling from the failure of their idol Hillary Clinton to get to the White House, mainstream observers and politicians this week came up with another thing to blame: BS news. They claim the spread of stories like ‘The pope loves Trump’ and ‘Hillary is a paedophile’, many of which originate on phoney-news websites in Eastern Europe and get loads of likes among Westerners on Facebook, is a threat to truth and to the very practice of democracy. Angela Merkel bemoaned the ‘fake sites, bots, trolls’ which ‘manipulate’ public opinion and make politics and democracy harder. President Obama slammed this ‘active misinformation’, arguing that ‘if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made’, then we ‘lose so much of what we’ve gained in terms of democratic freedoms’.
Liberal columnists, wounded that so much of the public ignored their overtures first on Brexit and then on Trump, claim good, decent, supposedly ‘elitist’ journalism must now assert itself. Our role in ‘seeking the truth’ must be ‘harnessed with steely determination’, says one. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour says the ‘tsunami of fake-news sites’ is an affront to journalism and the thing that journalism helps to facilitate: democracy. We must now fight ‘hard for the truth’ in this world where ‘the Oxford English Dictionary just announced that its word of 2016 [is] “post-truth”’, she says. Numerous hacks have been despatched to Macedonia and Russia to confront the fresh-faced youths who run these fake-news sites for cash. ‘How teens in the Balkans are duping Trump supporters’, says one headline. ‘Russian propaganda effort helped spread “fake news” during election’, says another. The image we’re left with is of dastardly Easterners suckering stupid Westerners and undermining the democratic tradition, and now pain-faced, well-minded columnists must stand up to this foreign threat to reason.
It’s the fakest news story of the week. It might not be as utterly invented as the one about Hillary’s people abusing children in a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC. But it involves a profounder avoidance of truth, a deeper unwillingness to face up to facts. In particular the fact that the rise of fake news, ‘alternative news’ and conspiracy theories speaks not to the wicked interventions of myth-spreaders from without, but to the corrosion of reason within, right here in the West. It speaks to the declining moral and cultural authority of our own political and media class. It is the Western world’s own abandonment of objectivity, and loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its populace, that has nurtured something of a free-for-all on the facts and news front. Those Macedonian kids aren’t denting democracy or damaging objectivity – they’re merely milking a Western crisis of objectivity that began long before they were born.
The first striking thing about the fake-news panic is its naked paternalism. The suggestion is that voters, especially those of a ‘low-information’, redneck variety, were hoodwinked into voting Trump by outlandish stories about how evil Hillary is. Fake news whacks people who ‘could not… recognise [or] fact-check’, says Amanpour. It’s a ‘post-truth era’ where you can ‘play [people] like a fiddle’, says a liberal writer in the US. A Guardian columnist says people ‘easily believe’ lies that play to their prejudices and then ‘pass them on thoughtlessly’. We’re given the impression that masses of people are incapable of deciphering fact from fiction. They cast their votes on the basis of a daft pizza-paedo link they saw on Facebook. With a loud sneer, observers write off the general public’s capacity for reason and willingness to engage seriously with democratic decisions. Ironically, this demeaning of the demos, this calling into question of the very idea that underpins modern politics – that the public is reasoned and must be allowed to steer the fate of their nation – does far greater damage to the value and standing of democracy than any spotty Macedonian with a laptop could ever do.