The past months since the US election night can be described in several ways, largely owing to the powerful sentiments Donald Trump’s election awakened in the different ideological camps. I have not followed closely what the different sentiments have been on the right of American politics, even though I have been intrigued by the so-called alt-right movement. In general, I have had a keener interest for what is transpiring on the left of politics. I will disclose this from the outset that my commentaries are left leaning and influenced by sub-Saharan African postcolonial perspectives. I disclose this, so that I may approach the matter of “fake news” without inundating my article with a defensive style of writing.
I have found it very difficult to swallow the term “fake news” for a few reasons, some of which I will share below. My reluctance to accept such a term could be presented in a question: who determines what news is real and what news is fake? In their defense for this term, adherents have argued, in various forms, that real news is factual or has a form of facticity. It is qualitatively or obtrusively reasonable given the evidence. Fake news, judged on these criteria, is largely fabricated with the intension to mislead. The assumptions here are thus as follows: that real news assumes a certain objectivity in the reporting of events – or to put it concretely, that real news reports facts. Fake news, on the other hand, disseminates “propagandized commentary,” which varyingly selects anecdotes and then overplays them as evidence for its reporting. This is quite a startling assumption as it completely ignores how it is that so-called “real news” passes for real news.
One example of such a process, which seems obvious to me, is in how a news article, for instance, emerges on the site of a prominent media outlet. Even when such an article is clearly without concrete evidence, which is often denoted by a disclaimer towards its end, it is often quoted in headlines across other media houses, thereby generating a self-enforcing echo-chamber of commentary built around an article without a basis. We have seen ample examples of this process, most prominently with the BuzzFeed scandal.
Additionally, there are other ways in which media constructs news. For example, during the Democratic Party’s primaries, there was no doubt as to who the preferred candidate was for the dominant center-left media in the US. Additionally, one could not help but notice the extent to which the Bernie Sander’s campaign and the message they were running on was maligned as “populist” – essentially out of touch with reality (or the factual world), and grounded solely by its ability to raise emotions in people. Jill Stein, on the other hand, was almost always brought on televised shows for the sole purpose, it seemed, of deriding her: presenting her as a completely unreasonable and almost deranged person. It was not until Hillary Clinton became the nominee and was facing a kind of rebellion on the leftwing of the Democratic Party that she began to adopt certain policy positions of the Sanders’ campaigns in her attempts to court the Sanders and broader left wing of the party. In that process, we saw how “fake, unreasonable things” gradually became “real, reasonable things” in the face of popular pressures. That is, how things become normalized through their adoption or incorporation into a social convention. This process continues to unfold as the Democratic Party goes through its election process for a new chairperson, in which one can see how a prevailing convention struggles under pressures from alternative points of view, or alternative perspectives.
Another illustration could be the Syrian conflict. Once more, liberal center-left media outlets have sustained the narrative which describes the Syrian conflict as a civil war between noble democratizing and modernizing forces on the one hand, and brutal authoritarian forces backed by sinister Russia, on the other. Indeed, the then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, towards the end of 2015 came up with a number of about 70,000 moderate democratizers on the ground in Syria, ready to receive Western support to fight against Assad’s dictatorship. He was taken much to task on the number he presented, but an additional complexity was in how moderates (or democratizing forces) could be told apart from the radical forces of the Al Qaeda and ISIS stripe. Why, for that matter, a Syrian intervention required simultaneous military efforts of pushing out Assad while also fighting ISIS when doubts persisted over who would occupy the resulting vacuum, especially with evolving outcomes in Libya still at the forefront of our minds?
My point is not to declare which narrative is accurate, but rather that the narrative that came to dominate liberal center-left media presented a very fluid and dynamic situation as if it were a concrete one: in which facts pointed unambiguously and conclusively in support of the narrative they were pushing. I can say quite emphatically that this was a fabricated certainty which oversimplified a very complex conflict, and which may very well have ramped up public support for a potentially disastrous military intervention in an already turbulent part of the world. With these things considered, could one not fit the tag “fake news” to the narrative that was pushed as “the only truth” about the Syrian conflict? And yet, it passed and continues to pass for real news. Once more, who is deciding that this narrative should fall under the tag of real news?
Finally, during Obama’s presidency, we saw a sharp increase in covert military operations, especially in the form of Special Forces interventions and drone airstrikes. Additionally, following some legal amendments, the president of the United States and the executive branch were allowed a wide range of powers in the interest of national security; a possible institutional momentum carried over from the Bush administration – but which Obama did not resist. Also, the past eight years saw an expansion of the surveillance apparatus of the US government. Furthermore, new legal provisions were ratified under which whistleblowers (in national security speak, read: domestic terrorists) could be detained in the interest of national security. This is the so-called suspension of habeas corpus against which there has been some fierce remonstration from some journalists, private citizens, and activist groups. Finally, there was a reformulation of the burden of proof away from the accuser to the innocent during counterterrorism operations, in which after an operation such as a drone strike, the onus was on the affected to prove that the people injured or killed were not terrorists. I understand this involved a redefinition of an age category which included previously excluded male terrorist combatant suspects.
Now, these were astonishing changes which, as bare facts, demonstrate at least positive enhancements of government power as well as encroachments on different aspects of human rights. Yet somehow, they rarely were considered serious enough to warrant alarm. Rather, they were construed as occasional concerns that came with the terrain of US national security within the mundane operational controversies of intelligence gathering and counterterrorism efforts. To juxtapose, I would invite the reader to imagine if they had been brought about by the incumbent President in his usual brash, bombast and blatant style. There would be an enormous outcry, I know for sure, at least on the liberal left. In fact, some of the anxiety we are seeing is precisely as a realization that these same expansive powers are now firmly in the hands of an administration headed by a president so obviously without composure, sophistication and eloquence to command our confidence so firmly that it would conceal from our sensitives their undemocratic and totalitarian appearance. It is as if some of the resistance we are witnessing is not on a matter of principle, but rather on a question of who welds such power.
Arbitrary distinctions, therefore, between what is fake as opposed to what is real seem to also provide the socio-psychological function of instituting a moral political economy in American politics. This is because, as seen in the last case, a dominant convention can adeptly rationalize violence, providing it with a sanity that lays a basis for people to find moral comfort, despite its evidence. I suspect it is out of this type of effect that we have the dissonance of strong liberals in the United States also being at worst fierce supporters and at best passive consenters, of the covert militarism abroad.
To close, the argument I am making here is a simple one, which is this: the world in which we live is socially constructed. This means that things are often arbitrarily demarcated into real or fake, normal and abnormal, sacred and profane, and so on, through the filter of dominant social and political conventions. (I said often and NOT always.) And it is often these dominant convents which construct the narrative that accompanies what we might consider bare, concrete and impartial facts. Facts on their own are without opinions, but what facts come to imply is very often a social and political process of narrative formulation flowing in the direction of a dominant convention. The styles of enjoining “facts” to construct stories can quite reasonably be called “fake news,” if the assumption is that “real news” is only about reporting facts (which is something nobody does).
Rather, facts which are also very often incomplete are loaded with interpretations within dominant conventions or worldviews, which culminate over time into a sort of normalized fakeness under modes of analyses and interpretations which seem inherently right. It is for this reason that I recommend for people to always remain intellectually suspicious, always applying scrutiny to what passes for facticity. Failure to do this institutes a version of real news which not only shuts off the most outrageous and vile of its alternatives, but also the ones which, within a rational reading of available facts, seeks to propose an alternative perspective. Additionally, this type of intellectual skepticism could help pave the way for deeper conversations about the moral questions which are covered over by the inevitability of certain violent outcomes, especially on the topics of domestic surveillance as well as militarism and endless wars overseas.
It is crucial that we enable a democratic public sphere in which dialogical truth can emerge rather than one in which top-down proclamations of what is true and what is false are made often by the most vested and interested of parties. Failing which, the most vile and extremely militant elements attempting to challenge a hegemonized public sphere will find the oxygen to propagate themselves. The public itself will be stripped of its ability to discern – and ultimately driven into world which is truly post-truth. What we need is more communicative (dialogical) democracy and fewer proclamations by self-appointed authorities on what is true versus what is false.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.