Following the unexpected victories of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump in the US election, media commentators have been scrambling for an explanation. The search for an explanation stems from both the unexpectedness of the results and the fact that it took place despite the overwhelming majority of major media publications recommending against it.
A prevailing explanation across many parts of the media and political spectrum is that the results were largely driven by the phenomena of ‘fake news’. Some major examples include one of the central claims of the Brexit Leave Campaign – that €350 million is sent to the European Union every week (which, as The Guardian has written, does not stand up to the facts. The New York Times has written about “Fake News Sausage Factories” based in Eastern European countries churning out deliberately fake pro-Trump news stories with the purpose of influencing the US election.
I do not seek to dispute the veracity of the investigative journalism in the above articles or deny that there are partisans who are self-consciously propagating factually incorrect stories. What I am interested in however is the notion that ‘post-truth’ is a relatively new concept and the implicit assumption of many articles decrying fake news – and, indeed, of most mainstream media publications – that, had those fake stories not existed and people were instead exposed to ‘real news’, they would not have voted either for Brexit or for Trump.
To appreciate why this is a poor prism through which to understand the changes that have taken place in the media landscape over the last few years, it is worth asking not why people find ‘fake news’ believable, but rather why the value of ‘objective facts’ – and, by extension, fact-checking – has plummeted in public discourse.
The focus on fake news perhaps reached its zenith with the Oxford English Dictionary announcing ‘post-truth’ as its 2016 Word of the Year – which it defines as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
However, the real question is why Oxford English Dictionary might have waited until 2016 to declare it the word of the year, when the process of ‘objective facts’ being subsumed into ‘emotion and personal belief’ has been gathering momentum for decades.
Take, for example, the phenomena of human-induced climate change. This is a process which has been established to a high degree of certainty since the early 1990s. It has been the overwhelming consensus of national scientific organisations and reflected in each of the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change reports. The scientific nature of the issue was also expressed in economic terms in the landmark 2006 Stern Review, which found that “the benefits of strong and early action far outweigh the economic costs of not acting.” If there is any public policy issue that has significant expert consensus (and would therefore meet the articulated standard of ‘objective fact’), it is Anthropogenic Climate Change.
Despite this, significant sections of the media and political class have never truly accepted its veracity. From right-leaning media organisations who reject it outright to organisations such as the ABC and BBC who have in effect downplayed the issue through the promotion of ‘false balance’ in its reporting.
Climate change ‘critiques’ sometimes take the form of disproportionate coverage of a tiny minority of scientist ‘climate skeptics’ (usually from outside the field of climate science). More often however, climate science is rejected on the basis that the scientists are biased by their desire to implement communism or, more typically, through a vague religious devotion to environmentalism or groupthink. While this line of attack appears in all the usual suspect right wing media outlets, it is perhaps noteworthy that it also came from Bret Stephens from the New York Times – a reporter and newspaper which sees itself as a vanguard against the ‘war on truth’ just earlier this year, in his article warning against “overweening scientism” in the climate change debate.
Given the extent to which major media publications across the political spectrum have promoted the idea that public science institutions (originally established to provide objective policy guidance on issues requiring scientific-expertise) are either incompetent or motivated by political bias, it should not come as a shock that populist political leaders extend that critique to other institutions with ease.
That task has undoubtedly been made easier by the fact that many prestigious economic institutions have allowed themselves to be drawn into politics. The US Federal Reserve, through its former chairman Alan Greenspan promoted a vision of economic management that had significant consequences in terms of defining the policy options of governments (through, for example, a deference to market-based solutions to public policy issues). Following the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), he was forced to admit that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was at the forefront of the post-GFC push to implement austerity policies in countries such as Greece to boost “market confidence.” In 2013, the IMF admitted these policies had not worked and instead resulted in a “deeper than expected” recession.
In an era where scientific institutions have been discredited for political ends and economic institutions, through their political ends, have discredited themselves, is it any surprise that significant sections of the public identify with the now-famous observation that “people have had enough of experts”?
The dilution and politicisation of objectivity explains why ‘fake news’ as a phenomena is not going anywhere and why many of the proposed antidotes are likely to fail. The interest in Facebook fake news filters or greater proliferation of ‘fact-check’ articles, for example, assumes that there is an organisation or set of statistics that somehow floats above the political partisan debate – but the media have, over the past few decades, methodically dismantled any such possibility.
In light of the above, it seems that the only difference between the ‘fake news’ of the past few years and the fake news of the past few decades is that traditional media organizations have lost their gatekeeper status and monopoly on its dissemination. The major media publications may not like the fact that Trump denies ‘objective facts’ but he is only taking advantage of a phenomena that they have created.