Post truth and fake news

The Canary links to a story in the Daily Express of 19 January. The Canary headline is “This story went viral, yet the German Chancellor’s office confirms The Express fabricated the whole thing”.

In effect the Express sub-editors have taken a fairly anodyne report and headed it: “UK and USA are WEAK: Angela Merkel calls for German-led EU ARMY to defend Europe.” Mrs Merkel’s speech is long and I confess I did not watch it all: amongst others, she is accepting an honorary doctorate from Leuven university. But her office apparently told The Canary that she said no such thing.

No surprise really. But two points:
1. this is not a digital, ‘new media’ phenomenon. British newspapers have been doing this for many years. The British ‘Daily Sport’, founded in 1986, carried cheap lying to an extreme. You could argue this was ‘apparent lampooning of tabloid headlines’, but one wonders how many of its tabloid market readers realised this. (Star headlines: “World War 2 Bomber Found on Moon”, 14 August 1988, and “World War 2 Bomber Found on Moon Vanishes”, 21 August 1988.)
2. ‘Post truth’ is not a new phenomenon either. Politicians and their supporters or critics have been lying for years.

So why all the fuss? Any amount of stuff is being written about ‘fake news’, including postings on this blog? ‘Post truth’ has its own Wikipedia page, and was named ‘word of the year’ in 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries. (Seems to me it is a phrase not a word, but you can’t expect Oxford Dictionaries to let that get in the way of making a headline-grabbing press release.) Oxford say: “The compound word post-truth exemplifies an expansion in the meaning of the prefix post- that has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match – the prefix in post-truth has a meaning more like ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant’. This nuance seems to have originated in the mid-20th century, in formations such as post-national (1945) and post-racial (1971).”

They fail to mention Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 essay ‘On Bullshit’, originally published in 1986, which states the problem more elegantly.

But surely none of these people actually think that deliberate misleading only came in to politics ‘in recent years’? Or are they arguing that somehow there has been a fundamental change in the nature of how we mislead each other? I don’t want to spend a week listing examples, but the Gleiwitz Incident in August 1939 springs to mind, and the 1921-26 Operation Trust. As I’ve blogged before, Frankfurt says that ““the truth values of his statements are of no central interest to [the bullshitter]… his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it… a person who lies is responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it…. [but for the bullshitter]… all these bets are off…. his eye is not on the facts at all, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.”

What I would like to see, in ten years’ time when the fuss has died down, is a serious scholarly account of the run-up to the Brexit vote and the aftermath. Why were so many experts ‘wrong’ (at least in the short term), why did 52% of us not believe them despite media bias and stern warnings from senior politicians, and why did the news fragment so much, with the Brexit supporters finding ever new stories to prove it was the right thing to do, and the ‘remoaners’ doing just the opposite? It will take ten years for the emotions to normalise, I suspect, so no point in trying to write it now!

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