Fake news and post-truth: the handmaidens of Western relativism
It isn’t Macedonian teens who killed truth and objectivity.
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.
Then came the paternalistic solutions. We need new ‘gatekeepers’, columnists claim: professionals who have the resources and brains to work out what’s true and what’s a lie and ensure that people see more of the former. Obama and others suggest Facebook must get better at curating news, sorting truth from falsehood on behalf of its suggestible users. The suggestion is that the internet, having thrown open the world of reportage and commentary to everyone, having enabled anyone with a computer or phone to say their piece, has disoriented truth and democracy and now must be tamed, or at least better managed.
This echoes the elite fears that greeted the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Then, the religious authorities – the gatekeepers of their day – worried that all sorts of heresy might now find its way into the public’s minds and hearts, unfiltered by their wise, godly counsel. Today’s aspiring gatekeepers panic that fake news will get into and warp the minds of the little people in this era when knowledge filtering has been stripped back even further, so that increasingly the citizen stands alone before the claims and counter-claims of those who publish. And apparently this fake news often contains heresies of its own. In his interview with the New Yorker, Obama strikingly bemoaned the ‘fake news’ of climate-change scepticism, where ‘an explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll’. This cuts to the 15th-century-echoing fear that motors the panic over fake news: the belief that it will allow not only outright lies, but new heresies, new blasphemies, different ways of thinking, to make an appeal to people’s beliefs and convictions. The call to filter social media is a paternalistic call to protect the public from bad or mad or dangerous thoughts, in a similar way that early clampdowns on the printing press were designed to keep ‘evil’ from the swarm.
What this censorious, anti-demos view overlooks is the positive side to today’s unprecedented throwing-open of debate and news and politics: the fact that it implicitly calls on the citizen to use his own mental and moral muscles, to confront the numerous different versions of the world offered to him and decide which one sounds most right. Surely the internet’s downside of fake news is more than outweighed by its invitation to us to negotiate the rapids of public debate for ourselves and make up our own minds? ‘Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is a consequence of man-made behaviour, because that’s what 99 per cent of scientists tell us’, said Obama in his handwringing over fake news. No. The ideal thing in a democracy isn’t that we believe something because scientists, or politicians, or priests, have told us it’s true; it’s that we believe something because we have considered it, thought about it, weighed it up against other things, and then deployed our own judgement. Believing something because others tell you it’s true isn’t democracy – it’s oligarchy.
Even the extent to which fake news is a bad thing – and of course it can be – its rise is not a result of wicked foreign poking into Western politics and debate. Rather, it speaks to the hollowing-out of the whole idea of truth in the West, to the march of the relativistic notion that objectivity is not only difficult but undesirable. The image of the old gatekeepers of knowledge, or just news, being elbowed aside either by new technologies or by interfering Easterners is wrong; it is more accurate to say that these gatekeepers gave up, and abandoned their posts, on the basis that it is arrogant to assume that any one way of seeing or reporting the world is better than another.
For the past two decades, Western news reporting has openly called into question its own definitiveness. It has thrown open news items to ceaseless commenting below the line, on the basis that ‘news coverage is a partnership’, as the BBC’s Richard Sandbrook said in 2005. It celebrated ‘citizen journalism’ as a realer, less top-down form of newsgathering. And it has jettisoned the very thing that distinguished it from other, more opinionated views on world events: its objectivity. From the rise of the ‘journalism of attachment’ in the 1990s, in which journalists eschewed the apparently cold, forensic habit of objectivity and took sides with the most victimised groups in certain conflicts and situations, to the media’s embrace of ‘data journalism’ in the 2000s, where churning through thousands of leaked documents took the place of discovering stories and faithfully reporting them, Western journalism has redefined its mission from one of objectively discovering truth to simply offering its increasingly technical or emotional take on what might, or might not, have happened.
Journalists have explicitly disavowed objectivity, and with it their ‘gatekeeping’ role. It is time to ‘toss out objectivity as a goal’, said Harvard journalism expert Dan Gilmor in 2005. By 2010, even Time magazine, self-styled epitome of the Western journalistic style, was celebrating ‘The End of “Objectivity”’. The ‘new-media openness [has] upended the old media’s poker-faced stoicism – and it’s about time’, it said. The Western media started to replace the ideal of objectivity with values such as fairness, transparency and balance. And as one European observer pointed out, these are very different to objectivity: where objectivity points to ‘the active quest for truth’, these newer, more technical values reduce the news media to just another voice ‘among the many voices in a pluralistic world’. When someone like Amanpour says Western journalism and democracy are in ‘mortal peril’, largely thanks to ‘foreign powers like Russia paying to churn out… false news’, she overlooks journalism’s weakening of its own ideals and authority, including by her and others in the 1990s when they ditched objectivity in preference for taking sides in conflicts like the one in Bosnia. She conspiratorially displaces on to Russia a crisis of objectivity that has its origins in the newsrooms and academies and political chambers of the West.
The abandonment of objectivity in journalism did not happen in a vacuum. It sprung from, and in turn intensified, a rejection of reason in the West, a disavowal of the idea of truth, and its replacement either by the far more technical ambition of being ‘evidence-based’ or by highly emotional responses to world events. Indeed, the greatest irony in the fake-news panic, and in the whole post-Brexit, post-Trump talk of a new ‘post-truth’ era, is that it was the very guardians of Western culture and knowledge, the very establishment now horrified by how the little people think and vote, who made us ‘post-truth’; who oversaw the turn against Enlightenment in the academy, the calling into question of ‘male’ science, the throttling of the idea of any one, clear morality to which people might subscribe, and the rubbishing of the entire project of objectivity, even of ‘news’ as we understood it. When Obama says we live in an era where ‘everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made’, he isn’t wrong. Only that refusal to distinguish, to judge, to elevate truer things over questionable things, is not down to Facebook or Macedonians or allegedly dumb Trump voters – it is an accomplishment of the very post-Enlightenment, self-doubting, technocratic elites Obama is part of.
And what happens when you give up your conviction that truth can be discovered, and instead promote the idea that all ways of looking at the world, and interpreting the world, and feeling the world, have validity? You disorientate public discussion. You slay your own cultural authority. You create a situation where people doubt you, often with good reason, and go looking for other sources of information. You create the space for other claims of truth, some of them good and exciting, some of them mad and fake. Don’t blame Russia, or us, for the crisis of journalism and democracy or for our so-called ‘post-truth’ times. You did this. You, the gatekeepers. We’ll be our own gatekeepers now, thanks.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.