There are two related topics making the rounds on social media: fake news and ‘post-truth,’ Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. In fake news Clinton supporters have found another scapegoat – in addition to self-hating women, racists, misogynists, white supremacists, stupidity, Islamophobes, etc – for their emotionally devastating loss to orangutan-elect Donald Trump, and the dictionary’s validation of a post-truth era adds a veneer of substance to their accusations. Whining about the insufferable Clinton camp aside, there is an unquestioned assumption underneath the entire conversation – fake news necessitates the present existence of ‘real’ news, and post-truth (as defined) implies the present existence of objective facts. As understood, neither of those exist.
What is fake news?
Fake news is news which is not grounded, broadly speaking, in facts about the world. The statistics listed in a fake news story are completely at odds with research; quotes are the words of the author; the events described never transpired; the publisher misrepresents themselves and their motives; and there is usually an intent to mislead. This click-bait Washington Post article briefly touches on this, but I link it more for its hilarious (and oblivious) admission that these “fake and misleading stories that are indistinguishable from real news.”Also seen as fake news are, as Dr. Zimdars says, stories with “a kernel of truth to them, relying on an actual event or a real quote from a public official, but the way the story is contextualized (or not at all contextualized) tends to be misrepresentative of what actually happened.”
Real news, therefore, must represent what actually happened, and news sites or articles that misrepresent the objective ‘actually happened’ are the fake news everyone is worried about. There are consequences to the preponderence of fake news, especially since it has the ability to spread faster than legitimate news, and this make-believe can affect the public perception in such a way as to influence election results – such as Trump defeating a bland, gluten-free, neoliberal cracker. This entire interview with Dr. Zimdars, which I quoted above, covers this topic with, based on the headline, the purpose of demonstrating the threat fake news poses to democracy. Woe to the post-truth society in which feels replace reals.
…but how do we know what actually happened?
An unfathomable number of things occur in the world on any given day – things as mundane as the bombing of civilians in the Middle East or as exciting as an earthquake in New Zealand. Or my writing a blog post that would make Father McKenzie proud. None of these events occur in isolation either, and every event has an effect on future events, and was therefore influenced by previous events; however, it is literally impossible for an individual to have even a small fraction of this information. This is what we rely on the news for – to find the important, most influential happenings and deliver them to us, mediating our relationship with the excessively expansive real world. We get angry if this reporting lacks objectivity and is slanted, for political or financial reasons, because it is our only link to what’s actually happening ‘out there.’ Sure, we have our own experiences, but note how radically knowledge of systematic police discrimination influences a minority’s impression of a traffic stop. We use the news to understand the world and, in virtue of this, understand ourselves.
But in what sense can this give us an objective vision of reality? Ignore partisanship and financial motivation, hell, ignore the State’s influence – the media, because of its nature as media, chooses for us what gets presented, how it is presented, and how it is contextualized (matched up with pre-existing social narratives). Western society is liberal society (both political liberals/conservatives share the foundation of liberal values – ie individual freedom) and we will therefore receive liberalism’s version of reality. This is necessary. It has to be contextualized in relation to the social narratives already present because the role of media prevents it from doing anything else. These narratives are not limited to stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – our social mythology – either: much like a Hollywood movie, there is a structure to how a story is told, ie make sure to find eyewitness, an expert, and ask certain scripted questions. Note the role of cell phone video these days; the news plays this footage to give a certain raw, realness to the situation. Play the video and cut back to the anchors who give appropriate expressions of amazement.
It gets better, of course. The above limitations are the necessities of story telling; any story will have that sort of baggage attached to it. Yet there are direct influences from the profit motive of media organizations, where the above choices – important story, how to tell, etc – are defined by ratings and advertising dollars. Do not forget that NPR receives a large amount of funding from wealthy individuals, foundations, and corporations, and therefore never airs views hostile to liberalism. Segue into political motivations of the same media organizations, motivations which in turn are subject to ratings and financing. A conservative news station may push a conservative agenda due to the views of the owner, and a journalist has to toe that line for job security; however, funding alone is enough to create political partisanship in news reporting. The State makes sure to push its agenda as well, though in the United States this is very much in line with what the bourgeoise media would push to begin with – still, look at the DNC’s manipulation this past election cycle.
Forgive me if it’s a tad difficult to tell the difference between fake and real news.