We Need a Left-Wing Understanding of Fake News

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 Theory And Fact
Skepticism and Conspiracy
Powerful Conspiracies & Open Secrets
A Culture of Propaganda

Competing Media Manipulations

I’ve been noticing something these past months. It partly relates to another thing I’ve noticed before. Facebook doesn’t always notify me when someone posts a comment and that is particularly true for strangers. I could set my account to private or whatever, but I don’t feel like doing so. What is different recently is the comments I’ve come across, when looking back at recent posts. It’s both what is posted and who is posting it that stands out.

There is a particular article from a particular website that keeps getting posted. The article is critical of Trump, listing some of his scandals and including some of the creepy pictures of him with his daughter. It’s the same article posted repeatedly for at least the past two months. More interesting, every Facebook account that is posting it is different. But they all show the account as being from Georgia (the country, not the state). I assume they are fake accounts.

I just delete the comments and block the accounts. It’s not of any great concern to me. If some organization or another wants to spam anti-Trump material, more power to them. It just makes me curious about who is behind it. And why are the accounts all portrayed as being from Georgia?

It reminds me of the paid trolls from the Clinton campaign. After a while, one begins to think that half the internet is being run as competing agendas of manufactured consent, political propaganda, perception management, public relations campaigns, astroturf, disinformation, controlled opposition, etc. All of it goes down to a deeper level beyond the obvious examples of fake news. This is magnified by how the media in general has simultaneously become concentrated into fewer hands and placed into an international system, which combined brings greater forces into clashing influence.

Meanwhile, the average person is drowning in a tidal wave of manipulation beyond his or her comprehension. The alternative media that could offer perspective too often gets lost in the noise.

“In the thorny search for truth…”

Fact-checking has become a big thing. Everyone is talking about fake news these days. But it’s not like it is a new thing.

The earliest newspapers in America were famous for inventing stories and printing slanderous attack pieces. Benjamin Franklin would create various pseudonyms to write under and then offer fake accounts of events and such. Franklin, as First Postmaster General, used his position to disallow his adversaries to mail their newspapers. The Federalists went so far as to get mobs to smash the printing presses used by the Anti-Federalists. The media back then fought dirty in a way we can barely imagine these days.

The modern mainstream media, however, has gotten sneakier in some ways. An example of this is how some people in the media were working directly with the DNC and Clinton campaign, such as sending them articles to edit before publishing. And it doesn’t take long to observe right-wing media to realize they are also working close with Republicans, such as all repeating talking points that were put out by right-wing think tanks. If you really want to get angry about the moral failure of journalism, read about the propaganda model which Noam Chomsky (among others) has written about.

In response, many Americans turn to fact-checking websites. One of these is Snopes. It’s been around for more than a couple of decades, debunking rumors online long before most people knew much about the existence of an internet. But what qualifications does Snopes have? Why should we trust them to tell us who to trust?

It’s not as if Snopes does investigative journalism. The couple that started the website had no education or experience that would be relevant. They simply felt that someone had to do it. The reality is that, beyond motivation to do so, their opinion is worth no more than anyone else’s. They don’t necessarily have access to any info that isn’t available to you. They do have some decent people on their staff, but some of their writers are questionable. Take this bio, for example:

“Dan Evon is a Chicago-based writer and longtime truth enthusiast. His work has appeared somewhere, and he earned a degree at the University of His Choosing. His exploration of Internet truth has been supported by grants from the Facebook Drug Task Force.”

I came across one of his Snopes articles recently: Same Paper, Different Story. The topic of the article is two different front pages and headlines for the Wall Street Journal from the same day. Evon judged to be false the claim that they were printed for two different marketing regions and target audiences. In making this conclusion, he bases his opinion on the statement of one source: “Colleen Schwartz, the Vice President of Communications at The Wall Street Journal, confirmed that these editions were printed at different times, not in different markets.” That is the equivalent of Trump’s Press Secretary denying that Trump has small hands.

The funny thing is that right-wingers predictably claim Snopes has a liberal bias. Any person or organization that is part of the reality-based community, to the right-wing mind, has a liberal bias. It’s hard to see how relying on a WSJ representative as your sole source indicates a liberal bias. Besides, the founder and operator of Snopes was formerly registered as a Republican and now registered as an independent, not exactly a part of a liberal media conspiracy. But we don’t need to speculate about biases, in such cases. The writer, Dan Evon, was just being intellectually lazy because it would have been a lot of work to actually confirm or disconfirm the claims being made.

So, this particular article is completely worthless, even if the explanation is true. The point is that, going by the article itself, you can’t know what is true. There simply is no useful evidence offered. Anyone could look up what was stated by a representative of Wall Street Journal. That is the opposite of helpful info, without the context of info from other sources. The explanation is plausible, which is the most that can be said about it. But Snopes ranks claims according to their truth value, not their plausibility.

That said, Snopes is considered reliable according to other fact-checking websites. It’s important, though, to remember fact-checking organizations are part of the media. They aren’t final arbiters of truth, standing above all biases and errors. Reading a Snopes article doesn’t relieve you of responsibility for determining the truth for yourself, if you seriously consider it important enough to know about. Never rely on a single source, not even a single fact-checker, especially not a single fact-checker relying on a single source.

David Emery, from About.com, has praised Snopes for their quality. But he has also wisely pointed out that,

“In the thorny search for truth, there’s no substitute for doing one’s own research and applying one’s own considered judgment before thinking oneself informed.”

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Snopes Exposed? Snopes Got “Snoped”? Not So Much

Examining the credibility of a popular hoax slayer

No, not Snopes!

Failed Daily Caller ‘Writer’ Throws Temper Tantrum, Exposed as Liar After Being Debunked by snopes.com

Is Snopes.com run by “very Democratic” proprietors? Did they lie to discredit a State Farm insurance agent who attacked Obama?

George Soros owns snopes.com