Thursday, 27 September 2018

Truth or Dare? Why fake news might be the end product of democratic society.

Now available on "Musings", my article in full on "Fake News" from Open Thoughts.

As I scroll through my Twitter feed, I truly despair. In a week when Jeremy Corbyn has apparently won the Nobel Peace Prize it would seem soundbite-friendly fake news has finally triumphed over informed and verifiable information. We are hurtling towards a Brexit it seems none of us really wants, a manipulated result of "fake news" generated and sustained by bots filling echo chambers we cannot escape from. If this isn't some dystopian parody of "Brave New World" I don't know what is. We have a President of the Free World who self selects his truths and our media is fighting for its right to free speech. It's a long way from our imagined past, and I am reminded of a favourite history quote- 
"Fact is sacred, opinion is free."    C.P. Scott
Yet this assumes a fact is an objective thing, verifiable and incontrovertible. This is in fact rarely the case. As E.H.Carr eloquently explains in "What is History?" certain raw data such as dates of famous battles are difficult to dispute, but the vast majority of "factual" data with which historians grapple  is less certain. Some need justification, as Pirandello wrote, 
"A fact is like a sack, it won't stand up until you put something in it."
Facts are also subject to observation, interpretation and not least, manipulation and they are no more reliable than statistics. Facts rarely speak for themselves and are open to selection and arrangement to suit the purposes of historian, writer and commentator. 

The nineteenth century was perhaps the great age of "facts", with historians attempting to chronicle the events of the past in total denial that by selecting events and themes, imposing their own education and philosophy on their work and neglecting vast areas of the past they were in fact being entirely subjective. Men like Macaulay and Trevelyan made sweeping generalisations to facilitate their seemingly impossible task of chronicling History to portray the bigger picture. As an historian myself I abhorred the obvious neglect of the less important individual, of social and economic trends and the use of the past to justify the present but undoubtedly without their brave attempts to achieve so much we would have been deprived of the fascinating stories which contributed so much to the understanding and appreciation of our shared past. Inadvertently perhaps, these men were using past "facts" for a political purpose - the justification of British world supremacy and the growth of our Empire. Nothing new, this was the use of facts for a purpose, for propaganda.

Photo by Jingda Chen on Unsplash
For many though propaganda is a dirty word, which smacks of war-time desperation and government control. Used for the public good in times of dire need it was accepted as a necessary tool. But in the twentieth century it gained a new, more respectable name - Public Relations. "PR" as it became known, was both a product of the growth in democracy, and a direct result of the need to control it. 

At the dawn of the twentieth century the developed world had an emergent consumer society, with money in their pockets and opinions on everything. Then followed the First World War 1914-1918 which had a far reaching impact on the ordinary man - and woman in the street. This growing social and political involvement alarmed many, but one man saw an opportunity. Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud lived in New York. Now known as the father of PR and master of propaganda he initially harnessed the power of persuasion in business. Then he went further and in his book  "Propaganda" (1928) he incorporated the literature from social science and psychological manipulation into an examination of the techniques of public communication, using the ideas of his uncle Freud.
"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society."       Edward Bernays
Far from seeing propaganda as a unique tool for social persuasion - crowd control - during times of national crisis, Bernays believed you could (and should) manipulate society to precipitate cohesion, avoid anti-social behaviour and direct individuals in desired behaviours. In business this was marketing, using basic factual information (initially) to drive demand. This worked extremely well in the car industry in early 20th Century America, but marketing products to an emerging consumer society was not always so straitforward. Selling cigarettes to women is famously one of Bernay's biggest PR successes, and represented a crucial diversion from fact to persuasion with little basis in truth. Cigarettes were branded as feminist "Torches of Freedom", neatly falling inline with  the campaign for female emancipation the wake of the First World War and uniting the themes of democracy and PR.


But Bernays went much further, and his work for the United Fruit Company connected with the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government in 1954. Bernays early manipulation of politics paved the way for modern electoral campaigning, arguably culminating in recent years with the election of Donald Trump in America, and the result of the Brexit vote here in the UK. (Boris's Brexit bus was straight out of the Bernays' school of PR.) Just as  Bernays believed that public opinion should be directed and controlled, modern political parties fundamentally campaign along the same lines. Information is sourced, selected and manipulated and "facts" are as rare as hen's teeth. However, although "Fake News" is not new, the supremacy of social media has certainly made it more blatant. The exaggerations, misinformation and sheer untruths clicked and shared today work faster than Bernays could ever dream of, "free speech" permits free lies, truth comes at a cost. Obtaining "truth" today, costs time, education and resilience.

What the present political climate makes abundantly clear however is that we are still a society of individuals, with overlapping, similar yet fundamentally different needs, desires and aspirations. Obtaining political consensus today is far more of a challenge than it ever was in the past and is illustrated well by the Trump/Clinton Presidential campaign in America. Two candidates attempting to bring millions of people together in support of extremely vague political aims, people from such different states as California and the Carolinas, Kentucky and New York. The bigger picture is at the heart of American politics, a truth appreciated by the Trump campaign in an ironic denial of the needs of the very voters they relied on to make the White House. 

Uniting ever larger groups of voters with access to partial information via social media is a futuristic challenge of gargantuan proportions. Making sense of millions of voices with their valid, "free" opinions requires some level of distillation and control. Bernay's techniques might controversially be the only way of political progress in a democracy, and who dares most wins. But victory doesn't come without a cost. Like Trump, Brexit is the end product of mass democracy and how government and society attempt to define and control mass involvement in politics. It is a clear warning of how focussing on the desired bigger picture can disenfranchise swathes of individuals in the process. We should heed this warning, otherwise democracy will be a victim of its own success.


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