We hear an awful lot these days about fake news, as if the concept only came into being when people like Donald Trump started using it. We’re told that it’s at least partly a product of the Internet, where websites like this one proliferate without restraint and make all kinds of bizarre claims about stuff people used to accept as fact.
In part, the real vs. fake debate is fuelled by a misconception about what exactly constitutes a ‘fact.’ In part, the people who give out about ‘fake news’ are hankering after a more simple age, when only two or three media organisations ruled the world of news and everyone who mattered accepted that everything they had to say was the truth.
It is no accident that ‘fake news’ is most often and most loudly condemned these days by what remains of traditional media.
In fact, since the dawn of things like Sociology back in the 19th Century, it’s become increasingly obvious that ‘facts’ are not the immutable, fixed Heavenly bodies the ever dwindling number of souls inside editorial rooms would like you to believe in. Even Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of Sociology, found it necessary to refer to ‘social facts,’ essentially phenomena inside a society whose causes might be down to any number of things.
One of Durkheim’s seminal studies involved the analysis of official French Government statistics concerning suicide rates in the 19th Century. He was able to show that the figures themselves were both misleading and incorrect because of certain unconscious assumptions made by those who had compiled them.
Much later, we’ve had works like ‘The Social Construction of Reality,’ which showed, basically, that things only really become ‘facts’ when a sufficient number of people start to accept them as true.
For a long time, most ‘civilized’ white people agreed on the ‘fact’ that non-white people were inferior, less civilized, lazy, sub-normal etc. A quick read of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica from, say, the 1920’s would probably have you gasping for the smelling salts. Most ‘facts’ were really just what are now called ‘shared meanings,’ sets of assumptions about things that most people in a given group took to be true.
One of the assumptions traditional media makes is that it’s better than it used to be at establishing what exactly constitutes a ‘fact.’ Yet, as the catastrophic failure of opinion polls to predict recent election outcomes in America and Britain shows, data is still conditioned by the prejudices of those who collect it.
Currently, traditional media assumes that most people who support things it doesn’t agree with, such as Trump and Brexit, are less educated, poorly informed, more likely to be angry etc. But one man’s ‘fake news’ is another’s shattering revelation. What we are witnessing is a large scale fragmentation of the sources through which people try to decide what is ‘fact’ or not.
Those who bother trying to stay informed about world events are now just as likely to turn to Al-Jazeera or, God forbid, Russia Today – or any of a myriad Internet news sites – as to CNN or the BBC, if only to get some kind of alternative perspective. The fake vs. real war is in part a conflict between global media tribes. It is a war that, by definition, no one can ever win outright.
But it might help us in the ever more complex task of separating ‘fact’ from ‘crap’ if Governments and NGOs abandoned decades of common practice and actually started telling the truth, because this is the flip side of the ‘fake news’ debate, the fact that traditional sources have actually been lying to us for ages.
Most official Government statistics are lies, or to put it more politely, they represent a version of reality that has been laundered, massaged and deep fried into something that makes Government policy seem more sensible.
A case in point are statistics which relate to unemployment, both before and after the economic crash. For decades, Governments such as the one in Ireland have been manipulating unemployment figures to present a grossly distorted picture of reality.
Basically, unemployed people are shunted between various forms of what are now termed job activation schemes. These schemes usually involve the payment of some very tiny wage to carry out some form of Government employment, though they sometimes amount to no more than simply reclassifying the status of the unemployed person.
Once an unemployed person enters one of these schemes, they are no longer counted on the official unemployment register. This practice has reached a new low in Ireland, where since as far back as 2012, Government Ministers have been trumpeting a largely fictitious economic recovery by pointing to ever decreasing unemployment statistics.
Currently the Irish Government, backed up by supposedly objective statisticians, will tell you the unemployment rate stands at 6%. The true figure is estimated at closer to 20%, and that doesn’t include the 500,000 or so people forced to emigrate since the death of the Celtic Tiger.
The practices in Ireland are particularly grotesque, but they’re not all that unusual. Maybe part of the allure of Donald Trump is his ability to say something outrageous, and for it to carry much the same weight as a carefully constructed official lie.
Fake news isn’t going away anytime soon, but the Establishment can’t really complain when the deplorables start using it as well.