A week on from the earthquake of Donald Trump’s election victory attention is being drawn to the influence of “fake news” on social media amid speculation that stories such as Pope Francis endorsing the Republican candidate or opponent Hillary Clinton murdering an FBI agent might have influenced the result. Both Google and Facebook bosses have had to make public statements on how they are tackling the phenomena and play down the influence such stories might have had on the outcome of the election. Meanwhile Trump himself has been reining in on some of his pre-election pledges, notably the building of a wall along the Mexican border and his commitment to dismantle Obamacare. Judging by interviews with his supporters this apparent about-face doesn’t appear to be having much impact, as if the actual claims he was making were less important than the general sentiment behind them. “Well, as long as he’s doing something” was one reply to a reporter who asked about this softening of Trump’s resolve.
With all this going on its perhaps not surprising that Post-Truth is Oxford Dictionaries word of the year. The company note that although the term has been around close to 25 years 2016 saw a 2000% spike in its usage in the media they examined, notably around the time of the EU referendum and the build up to the US presidential election. Mainstream media and liberal commentators have predictably decried this trend with some making reference to Edward S.Herman and Noam Chomsky’s seminal text Manufacturing Consent. The citation however seems misplaced. The issue of entirely faked news stories, and politicians telling outright lies is quite distinct from the more subtle “system-supportive propaganda function” that Chomsky and Herman argued characterised Western media. It is also convenient for mainstream media outlets to dissociate themselves from this sort of activity, framing themselves as reliable and trustworthy servants of the facts; as if politics has ever been reducible to the facts! Let us then not wring our hands in despair, lamenting how so many people could be taken in by so much bullshit. Such an attitude can very quickly lead to the sort of classist dismissal of Trump or Brexit supporters that would merely confirm their suspicions about a sneering metropolitan elite.
To take up a more radical position it’s worth bearing in mind the insight of psychoanalysis that truth always in part has the structure of fiction. In the case of Trump’s aggressive claims while they may turn out to be lies and gross exaggerations they nevertheless captured a genuine sense of disenfranchisement and political abandonment felt by a large proportion of US citizens. The same can be said for the now notorious claim made by the Leave campaign during the EU referendum that Brexit could mean 350 million pounds a week wasted in EU contributions could be pumped into the NHS. The figure itself was demonstrably false, something that was proven even before the vote took place in May. But despite this and the overwhelmingly negative campaign fought by both sides the Brexiteers won the day. As with Trump’s pre-election rhetoric it is as if the veracity of such facts were secondary to the underlying sentiment which connected directly to the real anger felt by his target audience. In the UK such claims exploited fears about cuts to healthcare and resentment towards technocratic international governance which has enriched a minority while leaving the rest to fend for themselves with stagnating wages and decaying public services.
It is vital however not to see the rise of a post-truth world as a recent phenomenon driven by insurrectionary political and media forces. The noise around “fake news” deflects criticism away from more mainstream media outlets who have had an instrumental role in degrading public confidence not only in the claims of politicians but in political discourse more generally. Today’s media is undoubtedly an architect of political apathy and the rise of reactionary forces across the Western world.
To take but three examples; the mainstream media’s coverage of the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been almost universally bias. This bias however rarely reaches such blatant form as the lies put out by the likes of Breitbart News or the fake stories concocted and spread via social media. Chomsky and Herman’s analysis fits a lot better with the way in which the BBC among others constructed the narrative around Corbyn; ignoring some facts, amplifying others, going to the same sources and pundits time after time while failing to provide any semblance of balance or challenging the claims of interested parties . The end goal of this was to enforce a common-sense notion that Corbyn was both unelectable and incompetent, despite evidence to the contrary.
It’s a similar case with years of coverage of welfare in the UK which in the wake of government cuts has taken on considerable ideological significance. Tabloid stories about single mothers with numerous children living in palatial residences on vast sums of benefits are only one aspect to the attack on welfare. Just as important is the role of seemingly more positive rhetoric espousing the virtues of hard work, “working families”, striving, saving, and self reliance. Often these words come from the mouths of politicians and big business but it is the media that amplify and normalise them through their repetition without critique. We should recognise these terms for what they are, a subtle and insidious method of simultaneously dividing a people along crude binary lines (hard-working / lazy, strivers / scroungers, etc) and a way of conjuring the spectre of a parasitic class living off the efforts of others. It matters little whether such an notion conforms to a person’s experience as once such a dangerous prejudice is accepted as common sense like paranoiacs they begin to see the bloodsuckers everywhere. The entertainment industry with the likes of Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle complete the circle by holding up working class people as objects of ridicule. The cumulative effect of this has been to galvanise middle class support for attacks on welfare and Balkanise working class resistance to cuts even for the most vulnerable people.
Finally the situation around the migrant crisis and immigration in general has been perhaps the most egregious example of media incitement in recent times. Again the tabloids have led the way for years with near constant iterations of the trope that “they’re coming here to take your jobs”. As rents and house prices have soared due to underinvestment in social housing and the government ‘s determination to turn the whole of London into a foreign investment portfolio the media have exploited the public’s justified anger turning it towards foreign workers. To this already toxic mix has increasingly been added a large dose of Islamophobia and outright racism ramped up in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium. The backlash has been predictable. Faced with the most serious refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War Britain has steadfastly refused to take more than a minimum of people fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, a policy that has broad popular support and provided ideological fuel for UKIP and the Conservative Right. The ground was then already prepared when the Leave campaign unveiled its notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster which aped anti-Semitic propaganda of the 1930s. None of this however compares to the outright xenophobia and racism that has been normalised during the Trump campaign in the US. Like politicians in the UK he was however building on the work of others.
We could go further with this to ask whether stories about the private lives of the royals or celebrities are “real” stories either. Why have we had to wait for this year’s season of toxic politics before asking questions about how public discourse and news media have been so thoroughly polluted by infantilism and spin? If it is indeed the case that the West has entered a “post-truth world” then we should remember it was the mainstream media that laid its foundations. Not only that but like Victor Frankenstein they may well have lost control of their creation.