The subtitle of HBO’s documentary After Truth is “Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News”. It’s a worthy topic, but this was not a worthy take on it. Many well known examples of fake news were covered and that was fine as far as it went. Right-wingers complain that it was biased, even that it was fake news. I’m a little more sympathetic to the selection of news stories used because it is simply a fact that the political right has gone crazy in recent decades. Nothing detailed in After Truth was entirely false, something even many critics of the documentary admitted. The focus simply was narrow and intentionally so to hew closely to the ‘mainstream’ narrative.
That isn’t to say the corporate media giants don’t push their own fake news, but I’d simply point that just because the corporate media is to the left of far right extremist bullshit does not mean they are left-wing propaganda. The likes of CNN and MSNBC, NYT and WaPo regularly defend the interests of corporations, beat the war drums for the military empire, and openly attack anyone who is even moderately progressive. If that is left-wing propaganda, God help us! I might be fine with calling all of the corporate media fake news, if not in the way that most reactionary right-wingers would be comfortable to admitting.
In being superficial, the documentary was deceptive more by omission. Historical context, as always, is needed. First off, some of the leading lights of the American founding generation were masters at fake news. Benjamin Franklin stands out and he was devious, a role model for propagandists ever since. Fake news is not a new phenomenon. More recently, there is the FBI and CIA pushing propaganda campaigns over the past century, such as simultaneously promoting conspiracies to muddy the water and attacking alternative views as “conspiracy theory” — as shown in publicly released government documents (see last linked post below).
Left-wingers have analyzed fake news for a long time. Fake news isn’t a false accusation because the news media does lie, distort, and propagandize. Other corporations and private interests sometimes even pay news outlets to produce series of stories with a particular spin. The main political parties have operatives in the corporate media that they use to attack opponents, control public perception, and win elections. Intelligence agencies around the world have a long history of using news media, as with entertainment media, to propagandize.
None of that is mentioned in After Truth, not even in passing. There is a good reason so many Americans are paranoid, a good reason so few Americans trust the government and media. There has been generations of betrayal by those in positions of authority, power, and influence. It’s not only that some right-wing fringe has fallen into the Dark Triad for the shadow of this moral failure and corrupt complicity has fallen upon the entire ruling elite and their minions. The reason conspiracy theories proliferate is because conspiracies dominate and everyone knows this is true, even if in our discomfort we pretend otherwise.
Here is the thing about conspiracy theories. They typically have a kernel of truth. That is what makes them compelling. This is true even of the most crazy of stories spun in the paranoid mind. In After Truth, Pizzagate is prominent and the conspiracy behind it was all about pedophiles ruling the world. But the fact of the matter is that the past decades have shown how widespread is pedophilia among the those who hold power over us, from Catholic priests to the major figures connected to Jeffrey Epstein, or go back to the pedophile ring covered up by British politicians and police over a period of decades. Rather than a kernel of truth, that is a several hundred ton boulder of truth with an avalanche following behind it.
There is another kind of truth that gets lost in all of the arguments and counter-arguments. It’s not simply about objectively provable facts. What conspiracy theory touches upon is the entire system of lies and deceit in how it affects us psychologically and sociologically. This is the deeper truth that conspiracy theories touch upon. Consider a different case from the documentary, the Jade Helm 15 training exercise the military conducted in some Texas small towns.
From a purely factual perspective, the conspiracy theories about Jade Helm 15 were pure lunacy and some of them really far out there. One amusing angle had to do with closed Walmarts, about which there was much wild-eyed and fearful conjecture. The military was using them to stockpile weapons for Chinese troops who would disarm Americans. Maybe they were guerrilla-warfare staging areas, processing facilities, and FEMA camps. Or what about the tunnel systems connecting the empty Walmart buildings for covert movements of who knows what. Why doesn’t the Soros-owned Zionist media ever tell you about the tunnels?
This is the reactionary right-wing fantasies that fill the vacuum of the ignorance created by our society, by the failed (or, depending on the purpose, successful) education system, corporate media, and all the rest. It’s also been a failure of the political left that has the knowledge and analysis to explain what has gone so wrong in our society, but has failed to communicate this to those who most need it. Instead of seeking to inform those who have been intentionally deceived, the righteous left has instead too often attacked and mocked them.
What happened to the strong political left that spoke to the working class? Earlier last century, a leftist understanding of social and economic problems was much more widespread among the masses, even in the Deep South. The loss of that kind of understanding has left a vacuum that has often been filled by the worst kind of conspiracy theory. In the past, leftist critique and conspiracy theory went hand in hand, as it was understood that corrupted power regularly conspired. Respectable leftists used to take it as their purpose and responsibility to explain those very much real conspiracies.
Think about the military exercise and Walmarts. It intuitively captures an important truth, that the neocon war machine and the neoliberal corporatocracy are two sides of the same threat to a free society, that they are joined through deep state and inverted totalitarianism, and that this threat is not only statist but global. We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the conspiracy mentality as dark and demented fantasizing. The underlying intuition needs to be respected, acknowledged, and affirmed. Ridiculing people does not help, especially as the corporate media really is gaslighting them and gaslighting us all. What we need more than ever is a meaningful left-wing response, in offering the insight and meaning that people so crave after a lifetime of being deceived and disinformed.
As a society, we have yet to seriously talk about fake news and where it comes from. Until we do, the likes of Alex Jones and Donald Trump will take advantage of this failure and they will use it to push dangerous agendas. We on the political left need to find a way to be heard more widely, to speak in a simple and compelling way. We need new narratives that capture the imagination and make sense of what everyone intuitively senses as true.
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Related to fake news, see my previous posts on conspiracy theory and propaganda:
Conspiracy: Experience and Reality
Conspiracy Theory And Fact
Skepticism and Conspiracy
Powerful Conspiracies & Open Secrets
A Culture of Propaganda
6 thoughts on “We Need a Left-Wing Understanding of Fake News”
I’m up for narratives that release the imagination rather than capture it. Of course, some of us would just as soon we dispense with narratives altogether lest we become trapped in one again. That’s a view I don’t share, though. Narratives are narratives. Whether we choose to become trapped in one or not is our choice.
The desire to escape all narratives is yet another narrative. That has been my sense of things. I’ve mentioned Robert Anton Wilson’s view that we don’t escape reality tunnels. But we can learn to jump from one to another. To do that, we’d first have to acknowledge our narrative-mediated reality. The person denying narratives is the one most trapped.
Or, at least, recognize our metaphors as metaphors?
Narrative, metaphors, metonymy, etc. It’s all of one piece, one could argue. That said, there is evidence that another factor is involved.
The Piraha are famous for having a language that lacks Chomskyan recursion but they also lack any mythology and storytelling tradition. It also lacks abstract generalizations and universalisms.
Their culture is also radically different and maybe that has something to do with their language.
The problem on the so-called “Left” is with its own language. As I said, I’ll spare you the novel. Instead, I’ll just point to this: https://youtu.be/vuEQixrBKCc (Why not?)
If nothing else, Trump’s election alone should prove that euphemisms will never cut it with what is actually a comparatively sophisticated public.
Political language is a whole other subject. The language of many indigenous people wouldn’t even include political rhetoric. Nor might politics as a category even be comprehensible.
It’s maybe like how there was no word for ‘religion’ prior to the Axial Age because there was no such thing. It wasn’t only a creation of a word but the invention of a conceptual experience and a social reality. Even now, cultures like the Piraha still lack religion and appear impervious to religious conversion, however long their language survives intact.
The other side of the equation is how common words can lose meaning — such as freedom, liberty, and democracy. These are words have long etymological histories and deep cultural roots. But it’s hard to use them now. This came up in a discussion at the Facebook group for Julian Jaynes: