On both sides of the Atlantic, and perhaps elsewhere, there are currently several forms of panic among the political and media elite of all persuasions. The mainstream left, right and centre politicians are now loosing their grip on political power after they had previously lost their credibility. And that’s not all. They and their various media institutions/supporters have been loosing control of the flow of information. One of the forms this panic has taken is a developing concern with what some politicians and media gurus have recently classified as fake news and others have christened post truth. The latter amazingly presupposes that there was once a pre-condition of truth within the main news media.
The medium they accuse of dispensing all this so-called fake news and post truth information is the Internet. It is clear that the Internet and the availability of facebook, twitter, instagram and low cost blog-space has opened up the flow of information, to and from the masses. In the opinion of middle and upper ‘establishment’ figures this uncontrolled flow just will not do. For the first time in history ordinary people can report what has happened, express opinions, make up stuff, poke fun, vilify, criticise and transmit this mixed bag of information to a wider audience than, immediate friends, family and workmates. You can almost see the elite thinking – how dare they!
This new grassroots dissemination of fact, fiction and opinion (the main three components of information or what often passes as news) can potentially reach a national and international audience. The problem for the elite is that the Internet currently bypasses the monopoly of pro-establishment, gatherers, creators, mediators, gatekeepers, disseminators and witholders of the worlds news. It is this which scares the Clintons, Obamas and May’s etc., of this world. For the previous monopoly of information gathering, editing and dissemination by the establishment served a very definate purpose. It was, and is, to control (by witholding, restricting, distorting or amplifying) the quality, quantity and direction of the flow of information to the general public in a way suitable to their needs.
Capitalism and information control.
If we consider the generally accepted definition of fake as the deliberate intention to create a misleading appearance or a fraudulent misrepresentation or even a simulated pretence, then fake news (along with forged documents) has a long and dishonourable history, particularly, but not exclusively, among those who could write. For this reason fake news is nothing new and has been a powerful tool of the capitalist and pro-capitalist elite since universal literacy became a requirement for the capitalist mode of production. The creation and control of newspapers, as a means to gather, select, edit, modify, disseminate or withold fact, fiction and opinion, was deemed an early necessity by the capitalist class and their Citizen Kane type supporters.
Tight control of the flow of information was deemed so important that large quantities of capital were sunk into the mechanics of mass produced printing and distribution. Later capital flowed into the even more advanced technology of electronic sound and visual mass media. This ensured that the ideas which suited the dominant classes, the bourgeoisie and petite-bourgeoisie were the ideas which dominated the whole of society. In this process, fact and opinion became the warp to the weft of elite and government driven propaganda in the fabric of mainstream media production. It constantly needed to be unpicked to disentangle fact from fiction, prejudice from description and bias from neutrality – and it still does. Only (to continue the metaphor) the fabric of information production is now being woven on a much more diverse set of looms.
For decades, the political class and the elites in control of modern state institutions have routinely blocked damaging information from dissemination by ‘gagging’ orders, ‘secrecy’ laws and by threats of punishment for publication of classified information. They have also put out misinformation, disinformation, distorted or doctored information and manufactured downright fabrications (eg the Zinoviev letter etc.) to discredit some and distract others from pursuing a more accurate understanding of the alienating world we live in. Do we know what the real involvement of all governments and war industries is in the genocidal horrors being currently visited upon the citizens of Syria and Yemen? Some insiders most probably do but are keeping quiet either by choice, censorship or fear of reprisals.
The comments made by governments and media on these two contemporary tragedies (not to mention the many others) mean that news reporting is often far less than truthful and when not tapping phones or bribing informants, is frequently guilty of weaving a web of fake news and propaganda. At a more national and mundane level how often are unemployment statistics massaged or poisonious industrial emmissions understated? What are ‘plausible denial’ statements and ‘dodgy dossiers’ if they are not the establishments routine output of fake news or ‘post truth’ information? The mainstream press and media, apart from occasionally breaking ranks with the rich and powerful, have more often than not colluded with the opinions, narratives, distortions and ommisions of information which dominate the official news outlets.
Alternative information outlets.
Any alternative to this pro-establishment controlled information flow, such as the Internet, is now seen as out of control and increasingly dangerous. After all, didn’t it help to spark off the Arab Spring? And doesn’t it produce visual evidence of government inspired war crimes? This potential for subverting the prefered establishment narrative is what really lies behind the current hyperbole concerning the so-called fake news and suggestions to curb it. Yet this alternative outlet for a counter narrative and alternative vision of what humanity can become is increasingly important, given the evolving five-fold crisis of the capitalist mode of production.
It is not so much the obvious cranky, off the wall, ‘post truth’ hysterical stuff which disturbs them for they, along with most people, will ignore or see through this material or only be fooled once by a hoax before they fine-tune their crap detectors. Actually it is the alternative, critical and we’ll researched information outlets, which really rocks their boat. It is these sources of serious alternative facts and views which are actually in their sights for possible eradication. The treatment of whistle blowers such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and the enabling outlets such as Wikileaks (provided by Julian Assange et al) shows how much they abhor the internets non-fake revelations and much-too-close-for-comfort approximations to truth telling.
Of course in the gathering, archiving, editing and disseminating information there is always selection regarding what is gathered, where it is gathered and how it is gathered, before selection also takes place in what is stored, how it is edited and how and where information (fact, fiction and opinion) is disseminated. Since all these processes are the product of human activity there can be no true objectivity even with regard to facts, for selection there (as with fiction and opinion) is a subjective matter. This selectivity always needs to be born in mind. Subjectivity can also be exagerated to an extremely high degree by those with an axe to grind, a prejudice (for or against something) to support or an income stream to protect.
This too needs to be constantly born in mind. It is therefore wise to double – check as many things as possible before bestowing validity on an opinion which purports to be based upon facts. Such scepticism should apply to everyone, left, right or centre in politics, religion or economics. If opinion is being expressed seriously it should be backed up with openly available and reliable evidence unless this evidence is already reliably and widely known. If it is not backed up in this way then it is probably no more trustworthy than pulp fiction. The complementary intellectual warning to the economic cliché ‘buyer beware‘ should always be ‘reader (or listener) beware’.
Particular care should be exercised in cases where character assassination is being undertaken for partisan or personal reasons. Here too in matters of importance it is wise to check what someone has actually said or written not what someone says he or she has said or written. Taking words or part sentences out of context or distorting what is meant is often resorted to in order to discredit a person, an opinion or an idea. This caution of necessity applies to articles, book reviews or even such resources as enteries in Wikipedia, all of which are particularly subject to editorial distortion and input manipulation from those with access, together with an elite or sectarian cause to serve.
R. Ratcliffe (December 2016)