Consider for a moment the oxymoronic concept of “fake news,” which we have been hearing so much about lately. This isn’t your typical disinformation or misinformation — generated by the government, or foreign adversaries, or corporations — to advance an agenda by confusing the public. It isn’t even the familiar dystopian idea of manipulated fact designed to keep people lobotomized and malleable in some post-human autocracy. Those scenarios assume at least an underlying truth against which nefarious forces can take aim.
Fake news is different. It is an assault on the very principle of truth itself: a way to upend the reference points by which mankind has long operated. You could say, without exaggeration, that fake news is actually an attempt to reverse the Enlightenment. And because a democracy relies on truth — which is why dystopian writers have always described how future oligarchs need to undermine it — fake news is an assault on democracy as well.
What is truly horrifying is that fake news is not the manipulation of an unsuspecting public. Quite the opposite. It is willful belief by the public. In effect, the American people are accessories in their own disinformation campaign.
That is our current situation, and it is no sure thing that either truth or democracy survives.
Investigations of fake news have reported that it is a commodity — primarily a way for its perpetrators, many of whom are young people overseas, to earn money by blasting out ludicrous material for which there is an audience, and in that respect it is no different from many of the so-called “alt-right,” white nationalist sites. Commodity or not, fake news has already played a role, perhaps a substantial one, in Donald Trump’s election, especially since his campaign was aided by Russian hackers and trolls disseminating falsities — everything from Hillary Clinton using a body double to Pope Francis endorsing Trump to ongoing charges of voting irregularities to Clinton heading a child-trafficking ring out of a pizzeria.
There is now a Gresham’s law in news as in money: Phony news pushes out real news.
We have been heading in this direction for a long time, not because people necessarily love the outlandishly scurrilous or because they are joyfully conspiratorial (though both of those things are probably true), but because it is to the benefit of the right wing, as I have written in earlier posts, to disrupt truth. Conservatives have a near-monopoly on that disruption. A Buzzfeed analysis of fake news found only one viral false election story from a left-wing site.
Stephen Colbert, during his famous White House Correspondents Dinner appearance, quipped that “it is a well-known fact that reality has a liberal bias.” It was a joke, but one with a very large grain of truth. The Drudge Report, Breitbart, Fox News, Alex Jones and others in the right-wing media have been peddling their own peculiar version of reality for a while now. It isn’t, I think, that any of those outlets or their correspondents necessarily believe the hogwash they deliver. (Well, maybe Alex Jones does.) They have been playing to an audience living in its own paranoid fantasy. But even that may understate their rationale. I doubt Drudge and Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon were in the fake news business to make dough from morons or to rouse right-wing rabble. They were in the fake news business to destroy real news and create a vacuum into which they and their like-minded allies could march. If you think this is a paranoid fantasy, just look at the election results. America is now controlled by white supremacists, and the results are anyone’s guess.
Still, right-wing fake news could be quarantined. No one beyond Fox News’ aging white male audience took it seriously as a provider of news. What helped break down the thin walls between the right-wing propaganda press and the purportedly real press were social media, which is how Americans — particularly young Americans — increasingly receive their news. I won’t rehash the recent debate over whether Facebook bears some responsibility for disseminating fake news. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s defense is that the social media behemoth is not a media site but a connection site, and it doesn’t monitor the items to which its users connect. This is a frail defense and a conscienceless one, like Craigslist saying that it had no responsibility for ads offering child pornography.
But here is the thing about those Facebook election stories. That Buzzfeed survey I cited found that as the campaign headed toward its climax, fake news on Facebook outperformed real news in terms of engagement. Or put starkly: Facebook was purveying more blatantly false stories to millions of users — stories that Buzzfeed also found were largely targeted at Hillary Clinton — than real news. Readers of those stories clearly wanted to think the worst of Clinton. Facebook gave them more reason to do so. Trump’s election, then, is due partly to Zuckerberg’s dereliction and to social media’s nonchalance when it comes to truth.
In this most surreal of years politically, you have to take a step back to grasp how surreal it has been journalistically too. Of course, truth, even in the mainstream media, has always been insufficiently and carelessly applied. The news media are a business, not a public service, and a large part of that business is providing what the public wants. Still, though I may be naïve in saying so, I don’t believe that most mainstream journalists have a predisposition to lie. To take the path of least resistance, perhaps. To lie, no. I am sure that in some way most of them feel they are serving the truth, not just their publication, network or website. They understand that truth is the webbing that holds everything together — our only way of making sense of things. That understanding is what separates them from Fox, Drudge, Breitbart and more straightforwardly fake news sites.
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At least that is the way it was before this year and this election. Fake news is intended to slash that webbing. It is not intended to pose an alternative truth, as if there could be such a thing, but to destroy truth altogether, to set us adrift in a world of belief without facts, a world in which there is no defense against lies. That, needless to say, is a very dangerous place.
It is, of course, no accident that the ascendancy of fake news and the ascendancy of Donald Trump coincided. They are made for each other — two nihilists in a pod. Trump’s modus operandi is to make things up, which has placed a special burden on traditional journalism. I hadn’t imagined I would ever see a headline like this one in The New York Times, much less a headline about a president-elect: TRUMP CLAIMS, WITH NO EVIDENCE, THAT “MILLIONS OF PEOPLE” VOTED ILLEGALLY.
With no evidence.
In the headline.
Basically, editors are now compelled to fact-check every Trump pronouncement — before even getting to the body of the story. The alternative is how The Wall Street Journal titled its article on Trump’s baseless charge: TRUMP TAKES AIM AT MILLIONS OF VOTES.
Notice how easily the fake slips into the factual. But can one honestly expect every editor and reporter to challenge Trump this way every day? We all realize the media will soon tire of it. The Times already has. (And keep an eye on how NBC News treats Katy Tur, far and away the best reporter on television, and see if they demote her or let her continue fact-checking Trump.) “Post-truth” is what the Oxford English Dictionary anointed as the word of the year. Welcome to post-truth America.
Like many depressed Americans, I have pretty much stopped watching or reading the news since the election. Partly, it is because I can’t face the oncoming catastrophe of a Trump presidency and the way it will undo 50 years of social progress. Part of it is because I can’t face the fact that the truth is a shambles, and with it, our democracy.
The basic principle of fake news is that when you can believe anything, you wind up believing in nothing. This is a revolution. But you can only place a portion of the blame on the fake news confabulators, on their Russian compatriots, on the “alt-right” white supremacists out to destroy multicultural America, on the traditional conservative press, which happily ballyhooed anything that attacked Democrats, true or not, and on the mainstream press, which, with its on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand coverage gave fake news a purchase rather than battle it tooth and nail. You can’t even lay the entire blame on the congenital truth-destroyer Trump.
The larger portion of the blame lies with the citizens of the nation that Donald Trump insists only he can make great again. Fake news thrives because there is a lazy, incurious, self-satisfied public that wants it to thrive; because large swaths of that public don’t want news in any traditional sense, so much as they want vindication of their preconceptions and prejudices; because in this post-modernist age, every alleged fact is supposed to be a politico-economic construct, and nothing can possibly be true; and because even rationality now is passé. Above all else, fake news is a lazy person’s news. It provides passive entertainment, demanding nothing of us. And that is a major reason we now have a fake news president.
Democracy can wither under all sorts of forces. But those forces seldom come from without. They almost always come from within. Perhaps the most powerful force is also the most subtle and seemingly innocuous, one that you would think unlikely to take down a great nation: laziness. We are a lazy people now — too lazy to hear anything we don’t want to hear, too lazy to defend the truth against those who hope to subvert it, and, finally, too lazy to protect our democracy.