‘Fake News’, ‘Post-Truth’ and All the Rest

by Andrew Stuttaford

Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill wades into the controversy over ‘fake news’, a controversy that, tellingly, does not revolve around the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, but rather involves claims that made-up news on social media may have swung things Donald Trump’s way.

O’Neill quotes Angela Merkel:

Angela Merkel bemoaned the ‘fake sites, bots, trolls’ which ‘manipulate’ public opinion and make politics and democracy harder.

That Merkel had the chutzpah to say something like that is a reminder of how well she plays the post-democratic game.

And here’s a reminder (via Politico from January)  how news works in the country over which Merkel has presided for so long (my emphasis added):

Germany’s police and politicians have faced increasing anger in the wake of the New Year’s sex attack spree in Cologne, but much of the public’s ire has been directed at a group more comfortable asking questions than answering them: the news media. After largely ignoring the story for several days after the attacks, much of the national media appeared reluctant to explore possible links between the attacks and the recent influx of refugees. Some commentators went so far as to suggest it was unlikely asylum seekers were even involved….

More thoughtful observers see a problem deeper than political bias behind the coverage of Cologne and the broader refugee crisis: a press corps that has shifted from dispassionate observer to political actor. Instead of just reporting and analyzing events, some influential journalists, especially those who work for the public broadcasting networks, consider it their professional duty to serve as a counterweight to the populist rhetoric fueling the country’s right-wing revival, critics say.

Hold that thought, and then go back to O’Neill, who quotes Obama:

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’.

To be clear, I have no doubt that social media has proved a useful conduit for disinformation, and, for that matter, that some of that disinformation has been generated by—to use  the euphemism—‘state  actors’, but they have, in a sense, been pushing at an open door. Reading O’Neill makes it clear who opened it:

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.

That goes too far. There’s always been a strong market for rumor, conspiracy theories and myth, a market that is clearly now being given a boost by technology. That market predated the “abandonment of objectivity” and it would undoubtedly outlast its return.  What’s different now (and this is part of what O’Neill is getting at) is the absence of individuals with the credibility to push back.

That’s not to say there won’t be an attempt at to turn the tide.

O’Neill:

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.

To which the obvious retort is to ask who can be trusted to do that?

After all:

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 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…

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.

Food for thought, I reckon. 

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