[This is the first part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the second part here, the third part here, and the fourth part here.]
“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — — that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.” — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
On January 22, 2017, Kellyanne Conway, who was counselor to newly elected President Donald Trump, appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press to defend White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer’s exaggerated claims regarding the number of people who attended Trump’s inauguration. On the previous day, Spicer held his first press briefing where he was combative and confrontational. As for the number of people who attended, he stated the ceremony drew the, “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”[i] According to public transit data and photographic evidence, Spicer’s claims were proven false. When Chuck Todd of NBC asked Conway about Spicer’s false claims and the resultant loss of credibility, Conway responded, “Our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that [inaugural attendance], but the point remains that…” Todd interrupted her, “Wait a minute. Alternative Facts? … Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”[ii] In her response, Conway asserted that the crowd size could not be determined with any degree of certainty and resented Todd’s line of questioning as an attempt to make her look ridiculous.
When facts and opinions become interchangeable, then the very structure of how we understand the world is undermined.
Little did we realize that these two words, “alternative facts,” spoken by Conway would fundamentally change our epistemic awareness. Conway herself may not have been fully aware of the implications of these two fateful words, as she was busy defending a president who would go on to undermine the very foundation of knowledge claims. In her later interviews, rather than say she misspoke, Conway would defend the idea of alternative facts. In an in-depth interview with Olivia Nuzzi of Daily Intelligencer, Conway had this to say about alternative facts: “Two plus two is four. Three plus one is four. Partly cloudy, partly sunny. Glass half full, glass half empty. Those are alternative facts.”[iii] While Conway has become the face of an Orwellian administration, Scottie Nell Hughes, who is a journalist and conservative commentator, stated prior to Conway’s own mind-bending words, “Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s — on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so, one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts — they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way — it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”[iv] What is disturbing about what Conway and Hughes are saying is the conflation of facts and opinions.
Let’s examine the epistemic difference between facts and opinions. Philosophers often define a fact as an objective state or occurrence in the world (regardless of our judgments of them), while opinions are beliefs, or mental states, about the world. According to John Corvino, who is the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University: “A statement of fact is one that has objective content and is well-supported by the available evidence. A statement of opinion is one whose content is either subjective or else not well supported by the available evidence.”[v] When facts and opinions become interchangeable, then the very structure of how we understand the world is undermined. Both facts and opinions are contrasting constructs of how we understand the world and regardless of how we define them, the obfuscation of these two basic units serves only to undermine how we map and navigate the world of ideas. Coterminal with the right’s assault on facts is the systematic attack against the truth. We are living today in a “post-truth” world, which is to say we are moving towards an Orwellian reality where facts, untruths, opinions, lies, and other perversions of our democracy, have become commonplace.
Disinformation and repeated irrational affirmations have become the dominant form of public engagement.
Journalists today are under attack, as they struggle to fight against an insidious enemy whose single-minded aim is to twist and convolute our understanding of truth. Susan B. Glasser, who is a founding editor of Politico Magazine, suggests that journalism as we once knew it is becoming obsolete in a world that embraces opinions and beliefs over and above objective, verifiable truths. It is worth quoting her fears:
“I have a different and more existential fear today about the future of independent journalism and its role in our democracy. And you should, too. Because the media scandal of 2016 isn’t so much about what reporters failed to tell the American public; it’s about what they did report on, and the fact that it didn’t seem to matter. Stories that would have killed any other politician — truly worrisome revelations about everything from the federal taxes Trump dodged, to the charitable donations he lied about, the women he insulted and allegedly assaulted, and the mob ties that have long dogged him — did not stop Trump from thriving in this election year. Even fact-checking perhaps the most untruthful candidate of our lifetime didn’t work; the more news outlets did it, the less the facts resonated. Tellingly, a few days after the election, the Oxford Dictionary announced that ‘post-truth’ had been chosen as the 2016 word of the year, defining it as a condition ‘in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”[vi]
What makes Glasser’s existential fear alarming is the distinct possibility that journalism, as a noble and worthwhile profession, is caught up in an ideological battle between those who want to uphold the very structure of objective and verifiable knowledge and those who want to dismantle the epistemic foundation of our democracy. The line between journalists as bearers of truth and journalists as ideological advocates has become blurred. With CNN on the left side of the battlefield, and Fox News on the right, the war rages on, with each side using the weapons of ad-hominem attacks, deceptively misleading narratives, and appeals to our irrational nature.
There was a time when CNN covered several newsworthy topics, both domestic and foreign, but today the programming is exclusively related to the Trump administration. While it is admirable that CNN stands as a noble force to counteract the Orwellian message of the Trump White House, it is quickly becoming an echo chamber where truths and untruths are intertwined strands, dialectically moving forward, with each strand cancelling the other ad nauseam. There is an oceanic gulf that separates CNN from Fox News, with each side looking at the other through the prism of partisanship, condescension, ideological persuasion, and political messaging. The viewers of both networks are not only consumers of a distorted reality, but they are also participants in a self-referencing loop that both affirms and amplifies their beliefs about the world. This binary split between an Orwellian-leaning cable news network and an ideologically opposed dissenting voice is rapidly deconstructing a world that once exhibited nuance and intellectual substance. If this is not sufficiently Orwellian, then perhaps one of Trump’s repeated phrases might serve as more compelling evidence.
Those on the right are too busy celebrating their temporary political dominance that they can’t understand the Orwellian world they are creating.
In an October 7, 2017 interview on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), Trump told host Mike Huckabee, “I think one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with is ‘fake.’”[vii] What Trump was suggesting is that he coined the phrase, “fake news,” which is false. The phrase has been in usage since the late nineteenth century. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers three examples to illustrate the context of how ‘fake news’ was used:
“Secretary Brunnell Declares Fake News About His People is Being Telegraphed Over the Country.
— Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (Cincinnati, OH), 7 June 1890
“Fake News. The Following is handed to us for Publication: Sunday’s Enterprise says that I and a companion were run over by the Neptune and thrown into the water. As can be proved by more than one, we did not so much as get our feet wet, nor were we helped into the Neptune. Clarence Collins.”
— The Kearney Daily Hub (Kearney, NE), 7 July 1890
“The public taste is not really vitiated and it does not in its desire for ‘news’ absolutely crave for distortions of facts and enlargements of incidents; and it certainly has no genuine appetite for ‘fake news’ and ‘special fiend’ decoctions such as were served up by a local syndicate a year or two ago.”
— Paul Hirst, The Times (London, UK), 2 May 1891[viii]
If the term has been around for over a century, the idea behind ‘fake news’ is thousands of years old. In ancient Egyptian history, Ramesses the Great used propaganda and outright lies to portray the Battle of Qadesh as a stunning victory for Egypt. Documents detailing a peace treaty between the Egyptians and the Hittites reveal the battle was a stalemate.
One of the unintended consequences of the digital revolution is the end of truth. Truth is dead and buried six feet under.
During the fifteenth century, a manufactured story (fake news) spread throughout the city of Trent (today, the city is part of Italy). The story claimed that Jews murdered a Christian infant. This hateful misinformation resulted in all the Jews in the city being arrested and tortured. Fifteen Jews would be burned at the stake.[ix] During the colonial period of the United States, Benjamin Franklin spread fake news about Native Americans cooperating with King George III in order to engender support for the American Revolution.[x] In the nineteenth century, yellow journalism was essentially the equivalent of our current fake news. It arose as a result of competition for readership in what became known as the circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal. In 1938, mass hysteria was the unintended outcome of a radio drama series known as The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The episode, The War of the Worlds, directed and narrated by Orson Welles, created fear and panic. The episode was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds (published in 1898). Although the program clearly informed the audience the show was a dramatization, panic broke out in certain parts of the country.[xi]
The fake news of today is radically different from any type of propaganda that came before. For thousands of years, people have lied to each other for political, psychological, sociological, or ideological purposes. In this regard, fake news has not changed, however, once the human impulse towards hyperbole and prevarication has been transferred to the digital sphere, the epistemic contours of reality have become bent and distorted. Trump may not have coined the term, fake news, but he certainly imprinted the idea on our collective consciousness. In fact, what Trump succeeded in doing by repeating the phrase ad nauseam is that he established a kind of meta-consciousness where reality wraps around itself. In other words, many of the statements Trump has made since becoming President are either false or misleading, and yet he lashes out at media outlets who keep him accountable. Consider that in 2017 Trump made 1,999 claims that turned out to be factually inaccurate or misleading. In 2018, the number of questionable claims made by Trump jumped to 5,689.[xii] What is more disturbing is that truth in politics is no longer the arbiter of valid and credible statements.
The end of truth is the result of a digital revolution that celebrates information at the expense of substantive knowledge.
The digital age has given rise to post-truth politics, where facts and reason are no longer looked upon with respect and reverence; rather ignorance, irrationality, and falsehoods have been elevated to center stage. If in the past, a public figure made a factually erroneous statement, the traditional media would quickly reveal the lie. This time-honored tension between public figures and the media has now collapsed. Truth itself is no longer looked upon as our guide. Disinformation and repeated irrational affirmations have become the dominant form of public engagement. Those on the right are too busy celebrating their temporary political dominance that they can’t understand the Orwellian world they are creating. Those on the left are so busy reacting to this implausible reality that they don’t seem to have a unifying voice to counteract it. One of the unintended consequences of the digital revolution is the end of truth. Truth is dead and buried six feet under. The cause of its death is our collective ignorance, along with our inability to recognize and distinguish truth from falsehood. The end of truth is the result of a digital revolution that celebrates information at the expense of substantive knowledge.
[This is the first part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the second part here, the third part here, and the fourth part here.]
[i] Cillizza, M. (2017). Sean Spicer Held a Press Conference. He didn’t take questions or Tell the Whole Truth. The Washington Post.
[ii] Blake, A. (2017). Kellyanne Conway says Donald Trump’s Team has ‘Alternative Facts,’ which Pretty Much Says it all. The Washington Post.
[iii] Nuzzi, O. (2020). Kellyanne Conway is the Real First Lady of Trump’s America. Daily Intelligencer.
[iv] Kahn, J. (2018). Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong about the Struggle for Racial Justice. New York. Columbia University Press.
[v] Corvino, J. (2015). The Fact/Opinion Distinction. Philosophers’ Magazine. https://www.philosophersmag.com.
[vi] Glasser, S. (2016). Covering Politics in a “Post-Truth” America. Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/essay/covering-politics-in-a-post-truth-america/.
[vii] (2017). Donald Trump Takes Credit for ‘fake news,’ but dictionary disputes. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-09/donald-trump-takes-credit-for-coining-fake-news/9029062.
[viii] (2020). The Real Story of “Fake News.” Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-real-story-of-fake-news.
[ix] Soll, J. (2016). The Long and Brutal History of Fake News. Politico Magazine. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/fake-news-history-long-violent-214535.
[xi] (2020). Welles Scares Nation. History.com. Welles was only 23 years old when his Mercury Theater Company decided to adapt H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds for national radio. The episode aired on October 30, 1938 at 8 p.m. eastern time. Welles introduced the evening’s program, followed by an announcer reading a weather report. For dramatic effects and misdirection, the radio show took the listeners to the Meridian Room at the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra was playing. The music was suddenly interrupted with a report that explosions on Mars were detected. Another interruption informed the listeners were told that a large meteor had crashed into a farmer’s field in Groves Mills, New Jersey. The announcer, speaking in a startled voice, declared, “something is wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me…I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it…it…ladies and gentlemen, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.” The dramatization was realistic enough that many people believed Martians were invading earth. The Federal Communications Commission investigated and found no laws were broken. This broadcast helped launch Orson Welles’ career. He would go on to write, direct, produce, and star in Citizen Kane, considered the greatest American film ever made.
[xii] Mindock, C. (2019). Trump has Made Over 15,000 False or Misleading Statements Since Becoming President, Report Says. Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-lies-fake-news-false-claims-total-impeachment-2020-a9248946.html.
Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash