Long before the result of the Italian referendum was known yesterday, Australian news media had prepared its response. Don’t bother looking. It’s the same they used for Brexit, Trump, Hanson 2.0. It’s what they’d have used for the rise of the hard right in Hungary, if they’d bothered. It’s the same they’ve got on standby for the victories of Le Pen, Alternative for Germany and Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. It’s incredulity tinged with moments of moral outrage, which is no kind of analysis at all. I now prefer to call this “fake news”. As fake as the “fake news” newly and conveniently constructed by the fakers as an enemy.
When a Western nation votes in a way we consider illiberal, this is the way it goes now. A few bold Australian commentators will say, “People who can vote are awful bigots, and we need to call them out!”. Their milder colleagues will look perplexed and ask, “How could this possibly happen?”. I caught this latter tone yesterday on ABC News 24 when a sober foreign policy analyst called Western politics “unpredictable” and the anchor agreed, that, yes, we really don’t know what is going to happen next. It’s all a bit unstable. Perhaps it’s something to do with fake information on Facebook? Not for the first time this year, I charged my TV with delivery of “fake news”.
You say you don’t know what is going to happen next. When right-wing populist vampires are busy sucking the blood of the European underclass and have secured the US presidency for the king of the undead. Here’s a hint: barbarism. That’s what is going to happen. Still, the truly fake newsmakers tell me that there is no pattern, that it’s all very “unpredictable”.
Across the West, we see real wages decrease, social services evaporate and towns and industry shut. And the bolder fake newsmakers tell me they can’t see a connection. Right-wing populism and the threat or experience of poverty? When have these two things ever been found rising together in history before? I can’t think of a single example! Let’s blame the Russians and the racists.
This is not analysis. It’s not news. The Western world is on fire, as it has been before, and terrible systemic racism is about to take the place of the kind you can just “call out” in your crowd-pleasing column. It’s very nice for news outlets and their employees to receive praise for calling people who will never read them bigots. It’s tragic for us readers, who are getting nothing but a fake.
[News, news everywhere, but not a word of it is real]
At best, the fake newsmakers admit that they just don’t get it. Columnist and economist Paul Krugman dried his “I’ll never be Secretary of the Treasury” tears for long enough on November 8 to tweet, “Certainly I misjudged the country.” Really, mate? You think it’s possible that a privileged east coast liberal long committed to the wellbeing of Wall Street may have overlooked the shit in which middle America lives, the shit Hillary Clinton did not once promise to scrub? When she said in February, as a challenge to Bernie Sanders, "If we broke up the big banks tomorrow ... would that end racism?" she made her position very clear. The only problem with America was that white people were racist, and the reason they were racist had nothing to do with the fierce competition the fiercely competitive market she, and Krugman, had fiercely helped build. They are racist because they are bad.
Why fix poverty when we can fix people’s attitudes? These deplorable attitudes. I try to imagine how this sounds to a white American voter who endures or (quite reasonably) fears poverty. I imagine it would make them roll the dice in favour of the guy who keeps promising to bring the jobs back. And with Sanders gone, that guy was Trump -- an openly racist man who actually seduced Hispanic voters away from Clinton.
So, first Krugman conceded that he just didn’t get it. Then, he went on to write this fake news in TheNew York Times, which has the haughty tone of someone who feels that he does get it, and he just doesn’t like what he sees. This column by an influential writer typifies so many. He recommends to his distressed fellows a program of exercise, improving literature and just believing in the anti-racist goodness at the heart of America. Never once conceding that such leisurely reflection is the privilege of his class.
Just believing that voters’ dire economic circumstance, or reasonable fear of same, has no terrible link to racism does not make it so. Just writing that people are bigots -- as they do ad infinitum in The Guardian, TheSydney Morning Herald and much of the Western world’s press -- will not shame them into tolerant views. Just electing to say that things are very confusing right now, probably the result of the kind of bad information that appears on sites other than The Guardian, does not make your unforgivably blithe coverage better.
One thing you can do to hold on to what’s left of your legitimacy -- your obscene refusal to see what others had predicted and what history has already produced -- is to call all other news fake.
In a piece now justifiably decried for its sloppiness, fake news perpetrator The Washington Post went fake-news crazy last week. This was the fakest take on fake news in fake memory, and the claim that “the Russians did it” turned out to be as unsubstantiated as all those claims that other news outlets make that the Russians leaked the Podesta emails, too. It is widely known that the password of John Podesta, who once left his smartphone in a cab, was “password”. But, you know, the Russians hacked him, even though not one US security agency has confirmed this was the case, just like the Russians made the fake news.
The Post took its cue about fakery from a group now known to be itself fake. It’s good that a few outlets, like The New Yorker, challenged this out-and-out bullshit. But it’s not good that many other sites ran with the headlines like Gizmodo’s, “Research confirms that Russia played a major role in spreading fake news”. The US site eventually amended “confirms” to “suggests”, leaving the original fake intact for us Australians, but while it was editing, legislation was passed in the US to target Russian propaganda that had not meaningfully existed. It’s not just fake news anymore. It’s real law.
[Usury suspects: media gumshoes have fingered five main culprits for Trump’s win]
Of course, under Trump, we likely have no need to worry about hostility toward Russia. But this lack of hostility doesn’t make its opposite desirable. Nonetheless, those more legitimate fake newsmakers won’t let their irrational fear of Putin go, even if, as it did turn out, he has no special interest in the dissemination of the “real” fake news.
You really think it’s fake news on Facebook that is changing the votes of the world? You don’t think it’s voters’ experience of that world? You don’t think that if they had a choice other than that between hideous isolationists, and centrists who call everyone who doesn’t vote for them a bigot, they’d make it? In Greece, where there is a strong fascist movement, they did have another choice. The socialist party Syriza had no mainstream media support. They won two elections anyhow.
Media say the fault is with Russia. Media say the fault is with bigots. Media say the fault is with improper media, or “fake news”.
You build a fake when your own authenticity is failing. As everyone who has ever seen The Matrix knows.
As you may have noted, in the first moments of that film, Morpheus is reading a book. It’s the book the Wachowski siblings used as the basis of their screenplay, Simulacra and Simulation. It was huge when I was at university, and I always liked it. I kept a copy, which I picked up this week when I was shouting at the telly for its fucking fake news, and I saw this great and very famous bit on Disneyland, “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real”.
How do you make your territory seem legitimate? Point to another world that obviously isn’t. Make America seem real by building a fake version of its main streets. Make news seem real by building a dreadful copy.
“It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality, but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real.” That did my head in in 1990. It read like thrilling science fiction. Now, it’s a perfectly real account of a real that no longer exists.