It ain’t necessarily so

Who fears ‘fake news’ - and what is their own relation to the truth? Paul Demarty pulls apart the current hysteria

Apple’s Tim Cook: fake news is ‘killing people’s minds’

Modern society loves nothing like a good moral panic, and the latest concerns so-called “fake news”.

Indeed, nothing seems to strike so directly at the core of bourgeois civic mindedness; for, if any old nonsense is to be believed, how on earth shall society be competently governed? The recent election of a howling charlatan to the most exalted office in the United States (and, therefore, the world) has been blamed, widely, on the credulity of (some of) the masses in the face of any old rubbish; so, retrospectively, is the Brexit vote, and other blemishes on the record of the establishment’s success in the direction of getting what it wants.

So what is fake news? Many definitions are possible, and - regrettably - necessary.

Mostly harmless

We should begin at one of the many beginnings of this story, with the social media explosion of the mid-aughts. Though there had been things that recognisably fit the definition of a social network beforehand, they were all too niche: Usenet newsgroups, back in the early days, was impenetrable to all but the earliest internet adopters; Geocities and the like required a great deal of effort to build your site; so, even, did Myspace, if you wanted a good one (which is to say, a garish blinking horror with autoplaying music videos and the like).

The first of the aforementioned - Usenet - gave rise to an interesting founding myth, that of the ‘Eternal September’.1 In the old days, before even the web, the internet was not available outside of government and academia. Every September, a new cohort of freshmen would arrive at their universities - some of them would be in the computer science and engineering departments, and would be granted access to the nascent internet. They would wash up on Usenet immediately, without the faintest idea of the prevailing customs or manners; a few months later, however, the newcomers would be integrated and socialised well enough, and would become good Usenet citizens. Spring became summer, and then September would arrive again ... In 1993, internet access became available to the general consumer, the stream of new Usenet users became permanent - and so did September. (To this day, some Usenet veterans date their emails to, say, September 8,567th 1993.)

Of course, those people had no idea. The paltry thousands who ‘ruined’ Usenet are a truly pitiful thing compared to the 1.8 billion active users of Facebook today (four times as many people as those who had any access to the internet at all at the turn of the millennium). The question, for many people today, is how to exploit this for financial gain; just as hucksters sold their dubious miracle cures in advertorials in the early days of the press, so do grifters eagerly (and understandably) turn their attention to the web, and the ease with which a few advertisements delivered to a user can be converted into pennies; the more users, the more pennies, until they are dollars - and many dollars at that, given the low effort.

The standard technique (although, of necessity, the techniques change, as the marks get wise to them) is to use a clickbait headline of the typical kind - ‘You’ll Never Guess What J-Lo Does With This Irish Stoat’. You click on it, and discover that J-Lo has inherited a fortune from her dad’s Irish stoat breeding operation. Just fancy that, you think; and you like it and share it. All your friends see it, and some of them take the bait as well. If you really squint, you might find a disclaimer saying that the site is “satire”, although it is not obviously humorous. In fact, all the content is either assembled by a human in a hurry out of pre-defined parts, or ‘programmatically generated’: that is to say, the output of a computer program, which is randomly selecting celebrities, species of rodent, etc; either the human or the computer then proceeds to spam the universe until something goes viral in a modest way.

This was what, until a few short months ago, was called ‘fake news’. It is fake in the most direct way. It does not have to be believed to be successful; merely viewed. Snopes.com, the web’s most masochistically diligent debunker of modern urban legends, compiled, and periodically updates, a list of such operations.2

This sort of thing is essentially harmless. If - in the old days - you bought a lifetime supply of Doc Smock’s Incredible Hair Restoring Tonic, you were out of pocket for some amount of money; the worst you risk when sharing the J-Lo/stoat farm story is ridicule at the hands of a better informed internet friend. The money is rather fraudulently taxed from the entirely farcical internet advertising industry.

The conspiratorial mind

Our second definition is the one around which the bourgeois panic-mongers currently orbit (we can put it no more decisively than that), which is the proliferation of what amount to conspiracy theories at a far greater rate than was previously possible.

These conspiracy theories are rather more trivial and throwaway than the more august examples of the genre. The literature on John F Kennedy’s assassination is vast; there is even an Oliver Stone movie. The 9/11 truthers are thorough, though guilty of the usual cherry-picking and every logical fallacy yet named (and some, no doubt, that will be named after them). The fake-news conspiracy theory is different, in that it is utterly disposable. One example, of countless: when Hillary Clinton collapsed with pneumonia in the late stages of the election campaign, numerous viral stories went around claiming that things were far more grim even than that, but the powers-that-be didn’t want you to know about that!

The sword of the junk-conspiracist is circumstance; his shield is innuendo. His lies do not concern themselves with decades, but weeks; not with the movement of history, but the churn of the news cycle. The point is to disorient people now; in a week or two, both the lie and the germ of truth that begat it will be forgotten. What is left behind? In the eyes of Democrats, ‘moderate’ Republicans and their Wall Street/Silicon Valley chevaliers, just enough residual distrust to throw the White House to the most enthusiastic propagator of this sort of tall tale.

Is this true? It is both hard to dismiss entirely, and hard to credit as the prime cause of Clinton’s defeat and similar events. There is certainly evidence that some of the most outlandish claims about senior Democrats had their believers; a survey of Republican voters in Florida last autumn revealed that four in 10 of those polled believed that Clinton was a demon3 - an idea propounded by veteran rightwing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. (She smells of sulphur, apparently; and if you watch Obama in a group shot, flies land on him, but not others.) Even more widely spread was so-called ‘Pizzagate’, in which it was serially alleged that a liberal paedophile ring was abusing child sex slaves through a series of pizza restaurants in Washington DC - Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, was a supporter of this particular yarn.

The news is fake

The main reason it is hard to credit, of course, will be screaming in the face of sympathetic readers of this paper already. For that sort of slimy innuendo, the relentless hammering away at the most bizarre accusation - does it not sound awfully familiar?

Indeed it does. For our third definition of ‘fake news’ is: news.

The typical news cycle in America - before the recent ‘surprises’, at any rate - have the following pattern. Rightwing cable news types get a bee in their bonnet - say, about the Benghazi attacks. They refuse to drop it; every time an official is on any show, they are asked only about Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi. Eventually, more ‘respectable’ outlets like CNN or the New York Times are sucked in; of course, nobody actually believes the Fox News stuff, but is the president handling it properly? Is Senator So-And-So, or Secretary Whoever? Now the thing has reached critical mass, and spreads to Congress investigations and so on.

The same sort of thing is true in Britain, of course; just substitute the Daily Mail for Fox and the BBC for the New York Times. This behaviour is all the more virulent when the target is not an establishment figure - see, for instance, the entirely confected anti-Semitism ‘scandal’ in the Labour Party.

This whole practice is steeped in lies. There is nothing faker than this. Rightwing media outlets thereby act as a check on politicians, on behalf of their owners and advertisers; since nobody is guilty of the ridiculous nonsense propagated thus about them, everyone can be equally plausibly cast into the defensive on some pseudo-scandal or other. The respectable press like to think themselves above such public lynchings, but in reality, as soon as they talk about it, they are forced back on the question of whether the victim is managing the thing well. Politics is thus sneakily reduced to a matter of individual managerial competence, which is to say, about lying more convincingly than one’s opponent; and, likewise, the truth of the accusations ceases to matter, since one must equally as well ‘manage’ true accusations as false ones; it thereby ceases to be interrogated.

Republic of liars

The media - that vast, corrupt, mendacity-industrial complex - does not stand freely above or beside society, but in fact is merely one of the forms in which dishonesty is systematic.

Capitalism is unique among class societies in this regard, merely in that there is a lie embedded directly in the basic social relations governing it - the famous fetish character of the commodity, whereby the objects around us take on a phantasmatic appearance of life, thanks to the gruelling repetition of commodity production and circulation. It is not only Hillary Clinton who is a demon, but every machine tool and every can of Coke.

Such misrecognition has never been sufficient to prop up bourgeois rule, however; indeed, the belief that things have their monetary value as an objective property comes with the danger that one might be being paid below its ‘fair price’, which leads in the case of that ‘special’ commodity, labour-power, to the formation of trade unions and other defensive associations. The rising consciousness of the working class places ever more urgent demands upon the bourgeois regime of lies, especially under conditions of universal suffrage.

Bourgeois lies thus come increasingly to resemble the lies that propped up the ruling class’s predecessors - a process more advanced nowhere than the United States, where the franchise has covered wide plebeian masses more or less since the revolution. Religious hogwash, exaltation of the state (support our troops!), you name it: all our old friends are here. Fake news, on this view, has its particular modern forms and foibles, but is really as old as the phenomenon of exploitation, and the need for the exploited to consent.

The point, in the first instance, is that there is a reality - a bespokeness, let us say - to all ‘fake news’. It fills the cracks and crevices in a broken reality. It does so more or less convincingly.

Yet we are faced with a most vociferous split in the liars’ camp; and a split precisely on the matter of lying. How do we account for this? After all, just as all other faithfully repeated lies have their ‘truth’ to them, the idea that the ‘fake news’ outlets are uniquely misleading must have its own social root.

That is the second point: to wit, the trouble with lies is that they (by definition) do not adequately describe reality. Lies rot; they work brilliantly once, but over time, cynicism grows. The decline of social formations, additionally, increases the distance between its former fundamental laws and its current reality, and therefore between its legitimating ideologies and its actual practice. As society by its automatic motion refutes the just-so stories peddled about it, the need for alternative explanations grows more acute. The Trump camp’s wildest accusations about Clinton and the Democrats stick not because they appear very much to be true, but because the utterances of the latter are so often obviously false.

By the same token, the Trumpite brand of mendacious garbage has a limit on its plausibility. (Who knows what the next leg-down into irrationality will be?) The solutions peddled by the ‘fake news’ scaremongers are wholly deficient, however. Tim Cook, billionaire CEO of Apple - whose previous billionaire CEO was described as possessing a “reality distortion field”, so great was his propensity for turning marketing hokum into consumer-tech gold - is very worried about fake news. He wants a “public information campaign” about it. The state and the corporate elite hectoring people about what to believe - what could go wrong?

One could make a serious attempt to instil critical media literacy in schools, but what would be the point? You only need media literacy if the idea is that you will exercise meaningful control over society. That is the last thing Tim Cook wants, or Hillary Clinton: a society whose vast membership is genuinely not gullible, and will genuinely hold them to account for their ruthless exploitation and moral compromises.

That the Trumpite fantasy of national rebirth, or its Brexiteer cousin, should have commanded such wide support in recent electoral tests is hardly good news for friends of historical progress. Yet we must understand the appeal of the just-so stories inherent to these phenomena. It is no nihilistic outburst on the part of such voters to reject the complacent dishonesty of those who exploit, patronise and despise them; it is rather the scaremongers who are guilty of nihilism. For them, it is not lies that induce worry, but the success of the wrong liars. A greater contempt for truth is unimaginable.

paul.demarty@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

1. It is somewhat difficult to explain the Usenet experience. Users of Google Groups, Yahoo Groups and similar email list systems can think of it essentially as a non-proprietary predecessor to those - a social network that you used via email, rather than websites and web-connected mobile applications, as you would with modern equivalents.

2. www.snopes.com/2016/01/14/fake-news-sites.

3. www.publicpolicypolling.com/pdf/2015/PPP_Release_FL_104161.pdf. Perhaps the more eye-catching result in that poll, of course, was that 2% of Clinton supporters interviewed also believed that she was a demon - presumably the pollsters stumbled over a coven of liberal Satanists in the Everglades.