Well that didn’t take long. A term used to describe the barrage of misinformation that flashes before the eyes of millions of Americans and takes root in their consciousness, whether they know it or not, has already been both completely over used and now flipped around to label any sources whatsoever that one chooses to call as such. RIP “fake-news” – we hardly knew ye.
It was a bad term from the start. There already exist other, more adequate expressions that properly define the various kinds of reports that have been placed under the “fake-news” banner. Some of these concepts include propaganda, partisan hackery, sloppy reporting and outright lies.
And now any time a media outlet gets a story wrong they are branded as “fake news!” and rendered more and more illegitimate. It has come to the point that most people no longer trust any of the institutions that were once relied upon to give us information. The trust has been slowly eroding over time, but the slide we have encountered over the last year is alarming. And I don’t think it’s totally warranted on the scale we are seeing today?
Think of how dangerous it is to believe nothing and to trust nothing. When we outsource our opinions only to entities that reinforce our biases and do not apply the slightest bit of critical thinking to reports we read, see or hear, we stop questioning the things we should be questioning. We throw up our hands in defeat and let those in power run roughshod over us. This is the sort of climate that gives rise to an autocrat.
It hasn’t always been this way in America. This mass dissociation from rationality that is now pervasive across the political spectrum, that permeates our collective unconscious, is relatively new both in America and throughout Western societies. We have mostly been able to trust our institutions, with only few faltering bumps along the way.
But this kind of mental numbness is the status quo under authoritarian regimes and has been the case in Russia for half a century, despite their brief flirtation with actual democracy. And now the internet has brought it to our shores just as it has been creeping across Europe in recent years.
In “Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible” Peter Pomerantsev writes about The Surreal Heart of The New Russia; indeed, that’s the subtitle of the book. Pomerantsev examines the role of television, government, and spirituality in keeping the Russian people both on the edge of panic and in a state of total numbed compliance not just since the Putin’s authoritarian rise to power, but throughout modern times as well. He asserts that it was all possible because the Russian people are accustomed to living in a society where institutions of power are constantly lying and the people, in order to survive, are constantly pretending to believe the lies.
Asked how one lives in a state of constant contradictory duality, the reply of today’s Russian is swift and cynical. Says one,
“Over the last twenty years we’ve lived through a communism we didn’t believe in, democracy and defaults and mafia state and oligarchy, and we’ve realized that they are all illusions, that everything is PR.”
Everything is spectacle in order to distract from what is really going on. And those who can see through the veil don’t dare voice objection out of fear of reprisal; classic pluralistic ignorance. It’s a tale as old as The Wizard of Oz and The Emperor’s New Clothes.
The delegitimization of news media is straight out of the authoritarian playbook. While we don’t have state controlled media of the sort in Russia, it’s not too difficult to imagine an “official” U.S. political news media source in a de facto sense. And we are already primed to be quite susceptible to the same intellectual malaise that occurs in nation states without a free press.
Consider Pomerantsev’s assessment of Ostankino, which is the Moscow epicenter of Russian broadcasting:
“… the lies are told so often that after a while you find yourself nodding because it’s hard to get your head around the idea that they are lying quite so much and quite so brazenly—and at some level you feel that if Ostankino can lie so much and get away with it, doesn’t that mean they have real power to define what is true and what isn’t?”
“The Kremlin has mastered the art of fusing reality TV and authoritarianism to keep the great 140-million-strong population entertained, distracted, consistently exposed to geopolitical nightmares, which if repeated enough times become infectious.”
Now some may argue, from a John Carpenter’s “They Live” standpoint, that the media is already serving to distract and entertain us. The difference between us and Russia is that editorial decisions come down from one source in the latter, and many different sources in the former. Also, we have, for now, constitutionally-protected press and free speech rights that don’t exist in Russia. But we do have a President-Elect who has alluded to curtailing those rights on more than one occasion, and has severely eroded Presidential norms when it comes to fair access to executive decision-making.
So it’s time we put “fake news” to rest and just call lies lies, misleading headlines misleading, and agitprop agitprop. There is truth out there. And there are ways of seeing it despite however bent the presentation may be.