Be Fooled No More!

Contemporary politics has been rocked by the advent of ‘fake news’ and the relentless circulation of ‘alternative facts’. One cannot help but mention Donald J. Trump, loved and worshiped by some, yet hated and scorned by others; his election made liberal use of the penchant to believe whatever was said authoritatively, regardless of the truth, with little attempt by voters to discern the veracity of any piece of information they were fed. This perception of Trump by his votaries, as the final authority on fact, was only buttressed by the vitriolic backlash of the mainstream liberal media, who became so blatantly skewed in their representation of Trump and (more importantly) of his supposedly racist and supremacist popular supporters that it only served to ossify their obduracy. I do not claim that Trump falsified and sensationalized a narrative and imposed it singlehandedly on his unthinking entourage; rather, while the statistics presented seem no doubt cherry-picked and exaggerated for demagogic effect, the issues focused on by Trump no doubt resonated deeply with the ordinary people of America. The perception that the course America seemed to have chosen under Obama would lead to a marginalization of the lower-income and working class, intimately held by these ordinary people, augured a future fraught with uncertainty rather than hope, difficulty rather than improvement. It is fruitless to argue for the right of refugees or non-citizens to participate in the fruit of the American spirit, for reality has revealed America’s waning hegemony and flagging self-confidence; no longer is there that overweening belief in the American ability to assimilate and accommodate all cultures. The limits of its power and wealth are apparent, and the travails of a proportion of its people chafe against the relative success of their richer peers, the latter of which are somehow outraged at the decision of the less well-off. Polls (especially Pew Research) are agreed in that a majority of non-college educated whites (about two-thirds) supported Trump against Clinton, shedding light on the demographic that perhaps feels they have most to lose from a continuation of stagnating real wages and liberal immigration policies. While I shall not comment on President Trump’s ability to address these woes, it is no doubt that he has instilled unwavering confidence in his supporters that he does so possess the skill, finesse and (most of all) strength to dig them out of their rut. The protectionism he espouses is of a particularly virulent kind, because coupled with flagging American self-confidence, there is the idea that they are playing a zero-sum game. The more refugees that enter, the more jobs outsourced overseas, the more America loses, or more particularly, the more the less-educated and less-skilled lose.

False facts promulgated in a situation such as was briefly sketched attain a power of their own. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idea of ‘naïve empiricism’ is all too applicable: as humans, we try to find facts that accord with our discernment of the situation (something that is all too easy), rather than discern conclusions from all the facts before us. The anger and sullen hatred is already there, built up from the frustration of decades and the overwhelming feeling that one’s way of life, one’s culture, is at stake. All that was required was someone to provide the facts the sullen and frustrated wanted, in the way they wanted, and in Trump was that requirement fulfilled. Trump’s electoral victory proved to be a great boost to his credibility, and a detriment to his enemies, comprising the entire liberal establishment and some moderate conservatives. Now the pretense to factual commentary by both the Liberal and Conservative media are distrusted by those of opposing political affiliation, and never before has there been a greater need for discernment and discrimination with regards to what information is authoritative.

The question remains: what is information’s role in the modern age, and what can be done to mitigate the pernicious impact of fake news? To answer the former question, we would do well to look to history.

There exists a colossal amount of information circulating on the internet, of which much is mere chaff, with only a negligibly small proportion being of any use. Human history tells us that information is power, and that governments of all kinds have manipulated the contemporary narrative to serve their ends, whether just or unjust. Their objective was, and always will be, victory, for the victor has the final say on which history is true and which narrative should be expunged – at least up until this relatively new age of the internet. Information about the populace revealed to governments how to utilize their resources, how best to weed out dissenters and which conspiratorial factions were weak enough to be targeted, while information about their sovereign bonded the people to the government under whose dominion they lived, and by whose protection they flourished. The primitive technology of bygone ages made the indoctrination of the peoples closest to the sovereign’s center of power far easier than today; ‘accurate’ information could be fed them, and ‘false’ or ‘heretical’ notions suppressed. Yet it was by far the norm that men lived many months travel from the capital of power, and information being transported by means such as horseback meant that most of the population of a sovereign’s dominion was governed only tenuously. Most people never saw their leader or monarch and lived far removed from the epicenter of state power; for it was deemed far too laborious and expensive to exert executive power in such remote areas of the kingdom. Periodically, pretenders to the throne arose from disparate lands, as in China, where the mandate of heaven of the despotic emperors was challenged in never-ending succession by the feudal warlords of the different, far-flung provinces. Then came the printing presses, invented by the German Johannes Gutenberg in approximately 1440 (it is no wonder that a preeminent resource of old books and ancient volumes can be found at, where ‘Project Gutenberg’ collects those intellectual works whose copyright has expired – inspired by the great inventor himself), revolutionizing the way information was presented and circulated. With information came power, and this power took the form of the mass political mobilization of the people, through propaganda and the like. New improvements in information and communication technology only improved the ability to mobilize and propagandize; in Nazi Germany, Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels made liberal use of the radio to broadcast his brilliant speeches and blazing rhetoric, buoying his people with thoughts of victory even in the midst of what was ultimately a doomed effort (see his 1943 speech, ‘Rise Up and Let The Storm Break Loose!’).

Today most of the population of the developed world has in their hands a device of astounding power and ingenuity. Persons spend a large proportion of their life on ubiquitous smartphones and laptops, trawling the internet for the means to entertain themselves, to educate themselves or to express themselves. Large amounts of information are shared online daily because of the ease with which such pieces can be read and posted – and the bulk of these with hardly any quality control at all. The internet, though in 2017 no longer the bastion of unlimited liberty, still serves as the conduit through which most communication takes place.

It is thus inevitable that, with near-unlimited freedom of expression, the internet has become bloated with false information and unsubstantiated assertions. It serves more as a means for people of like minds and opinions to fraternize, rather than as a place conducive to logical and reasonable discourse. The internet, like the communication devices of the past, can serve as a means of mobilization, but its accessibility has multiplied the ends for which such mobilization takes place. From the Arab Spring to contemporary civil unrest in the United States, to the promulgation of radical Islamic belief, the internet is an invaluable tool.

When one takes a look at CNN’s front page (020217), one sees the prominent headline story: ‘Trump had heated exchange with Australian PM, talked 'tough hombres' with Mexican leader’. At the same time, one patronizes Donald Trump’s mouthpiece, Breitbart, to see: ‘Sheriff Trump Throwdown: Threatens to Cancel U.C. Berkeley Federal Funds After Riots Shut Down Milo Event’. The difference in tone is immediately evident, and it is easy to see how persons of different political perspective might react; the liberal, whilst consuming his daily dosage of CNN headline news, might become angered at the apparent incapacity of Trump in dealing with diplomatic situations. The conservative Trump supporter, scrutinizing the most recent Breitbart article, might applaud Trump for his show of strength, whilst becoming simultaneously indignant at the supposed violence perpetrated by liberals. Reading both articles, however, one sees no dearth of factual information. The opinions reported are easily distinguished from the factual situation, although one might note that CNN tends to be skimpy on facts that cast Trump in a good light, while Breitbart unapologetically reports facts that make Trump’s reaction totally reasonable (a perceptive person might err on the side of suspicion; Trump being such a divisive figure should cast doubts upon any pretensions to such reasonableness). I would tend to be skeptical of both interpretations.

Keeping a balanced view through all the tumult is by no means easy. Facts can either be true or false, and what one believes is one’s own choice. Ultimately, the interpretation of the facts is what fuels unremitting hatred for the opposing side. In all things, separate reported fact from reported opinion, and minimize the tendency to reflexive feeling – perhaps then we might all come closer to what might be the truth. I am under no illusions, however, that this will be achieved by any sizeable proportion of the population.

On the 2nd of February 2017, liberal agitators (calling themselves ‘anti-fascist activists’) rioted in protest of a scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, controversial Breitbart editor, which was planned to take place at the University of California Berkeley. Much of Yiannopoulos’ career revolves around the use of the internet as a loudspeaker for his ideas, carefully tailored to inflame the passions of those opposed to his ideology; yet despite this, there is no question that what Yiannopoulos does is simply to present his ideas in a coherent manner. No doubt the same can be said of conservatives with respect to liberal speakers; though I am uncertain as to the extent of the reaction. Such is the consequence of the glut of false information in the contemporary age: no person is willing to engage in reasoned debate, for each believes the other to be malevolently manipulating facts – a charge that is for the most part quite probable. Debate being precluded, the only way to reconcile opposition is thus through violence.

Frederick Yorck



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