Friday, 10 February 2017

F is for Fake

Propaganda relies more on reinforcement than persuasion. It doesn't change minds so much as bolster them. It works with the grain, building on existing prejudices and common cognitive biases to provide reassurance in support of already-formed beliefs. Propaganda works where there is a predisposition to believe. For example, Nazi propaganda was effective after 1939 because Germany was at war and the population subconsciously feared retribution. It gradually lost its power after 1943 as defeat became inevitable. In contrast, the propaganda of the USSR in the 70s and 80s was ineffective because the economy was visibly stagnant. The dynamic of reinforcement is key to understanding the current flap over "fake news". The consumers of the product are true believers rather than credulous dupes, but their belief is of a particular sort: they have a unifying theory of everything. In Isaiah Berlin's famous typology they are hedgehogs rather than foxes. If you think the world is explained by a busy God, a conspiracy of seven foot tall lizards or the machinations of the Jews, then you will be more likely to believe news that supports your priors and dismiss anything that conflicts.

This might suggest that fake news is limited to an obsessive minority, but the attitude of "true belief" is found across the political spectrum and not just at the extremes. Centrists who insist that the answer to every policy problem is either "competition" or "education" are also in the grip of this monist delusion. Where the centre differs from the right and the left is in not needing proactive reassurance, though this is simply a reflection of the structural reassurance of hegemony, much as the followers of a state religion tend be theological "don't knows". In other words, centrists don't seek out their fake news because it is pervasive. That said, while the bias of the mainstream media is real, it would be wrong to believe it is simply more insidious, or just more skilful, than that of the extremes. Consumers of fake news often know that what they're seeing or hearing is hyped but they enjoy it none the less because it validates their already formed beliefs, which in turn encourages the producers to push the limits of credibility further. That's why fake news is often ridiculous.

The post-2008 confusion of the political centre owes much to a crisis of confidence over policy, not least in respect of the efficacy of the panaceas of competition and education, but it has yet to undermine a worldview that holds moderation and triangulation as self-evidently good. This leads to the sight of liberals going through the electoral motions but without a programme to speak of, most obviously in Hillary Clinton's failed campaign in the US last year and currently in the boosting of Emmanuel Macron in France. Even Martin Kettle in The Guardian could not quite quell his doubts over this farcical re-run of the Blairite project: "Whether there would be a durable national embrace of what Macron stands for is far from certain. In large part that is because Macron has not said what he stands for". In a similar vein, the Liberal Democrats appear to have made unconditional EU love their sole policy, which is likely to condemn them to the political margins for a generation.

The policy void has placed a premium on attitude and behaviour, but it has also led to a sense of vulnerability in the face of external manipulation. This is evident not just in the imputed fragility of "generation snowflake" but in the assumed stupidity and credulity of the working class in the face of demagogues and the imagined power of online grooming. Everybody is about to be hoodwinked, hence the salience of fake news. This reductive attitude divides the world into those who are secure in their conventional beliefs and those who are empty vessels at risk of being filled with frothing madness. It's a pretty obvious transference of self-doubt by centrists, but it also over-states the power of manipulation. Like the hype around "filter bubbles" and unconscious bias ("check your privilege" etc.), this leads us to forget that believing bat-shit crazy nonsense and dismissing science out of hand are characteristic of a very small minority, not the majority. Just as most people do not believe the Earth is flat, so most people are not actually contemptuous of experts.

Lacking a positive vision, liberals are reduced to the conservative strategy of defending the status quo through project fear: constructing a deplorable enemy to rally support for the centre. But the consequence of the policy vacuum is that it draws the enemy centre-stage. Nigel Farage's prominence, the obsession with Donald Trump's idiot tweets and the attention garnered by a provocateur such as Milo Yiannopoulos are symptom's of the centre's malaise, not a sea-change in society. This is partly driven by structural change as traditional publishers try and adjust to new media, hence fake news is emblematic of poor quality control and so serves to reinforce the role of gatekeepers. But at heart it reflects the dependence of the media on a political centre that is failing to produce "non-fake news" of sufficient calibre. Once centrists deserted the arena of policy, it was inevitable that "squatters" would move in. Leave didn't win the EU referendum because voters believed £350m would be spent on the NHS but because voters wanted more spent on it and one side of the argument was prepared to agree. The point is not dishonesty but the inevitable attraction of the false promise when the establishment promises nothing.

The centrist choice of the right for the role of "deplorable"- the left being marginalised as irrelevant or incompetent (see the collected works of John Harris) - is clearly a projection of unspoken desires: toying with nationalism entails an illicit thrill greater than toying with nationalisation. This is a miscalculation of epic proportions, not because real Fascists will seize power (not even in France), but because it normalises racial and sectarian discrimination as a lesser evil through such formulations as "legitimate concerns". This ultimately coarsens political discourse and corrodes liberal norms. The problem with demanding a "debate about immigration" is that we've been talking about the issue for decades without any satisfactory conclusion. That's because there isn't one. Xenophobes will never be reconciled while "controls" will crumble in the face of economic imperatives. Centrist politicians who suggest there might be some happy medium are being dishonest. This will eventually lead to intellectual exhaustion and the acceptance of dysfunction, like the government's admission this week that it has no housing policy to speak of.

In the current environment - liberal self-doubt, centrist accommodation of right-wing agenda and a media fascinated by conservative outrage - it should come as no surprise that the alt-right have bubbled to the surface of public consciousness. They should not be mis-characterised as a political movement, any more than the victory of Trump should be seen as a popular uprising rather than what it is: a coup by a criminal gang that has ridden a populist wave. The alt-right is not the traditional Fascist right. They are dilettantes rather than social revolutionaries, amateur reactionaries rather than violent community activists. As Walter didn't quite say in The Big Lebowski, "I mean, say what you want about Nazis, Dude, but they always punch back". Just as fake news reflects the vacuity of the centre, the alt-right points to the essential fakery of the "nationalist revival" and its inherent instability, which can be seen in the evident tensions within the Front National between its Fascist core and its metrosexual marketing department.

Watching the Channel 4 News report on the UK alt-right on Wednesday evening I was struck by how middle-class this new generation of white supremacists and crypto-Fascists is. These people have always been around but used to be quarantined in the Young Conservatives or the more outrĂ© university clubs. The Internet has provided them with a forum independent of institutional restraints and crucially it has allowed them to organise without the need to join traditional right-wing groups like the BNP. They don't have to suffer the embarrassment of going on marches with skinheads and can indulge their fantasies about eugenics for the lower orders without the risk of encountering them "in real life". Their emphasis on IQ (The Bell Curve featured) and racial and cultural purity (as did Mein Kampf) was as sociologically telling as the insistence that they were actually libertarians (the equality of now) defending Western civilisation (the hierarchy of then). These bedroom Nazis are ridiculous. A twenty-something Paleo-conservative trying to hide their alt-right activities from liberal parents sounds like a pitch for a sitcom. The alt-right may well turn out to be the biggest fake news of the decade.


  1. believing bat-shit crazy nonsense and dismissing science out of hand are characteristic of a very small minority, not the majority. Just as most people do not believe the Earth is flat, so most people are not actually contemptuous of experts

    Are there any figures on this?

    1. Ipsos/MORI do a regular poll on trust in professionals. Doctors, teachers, judges and scientists usually come top. Scientists are probably a good proxy for experts in general.

  2. I think you're right that the real story is the vacuous nature and lack of purpose of the 'centrists' and political establishment, rather than the rabidness of the right.

    As far as the prominence of right-wing opinions and political parties is concerned, a lot is due to the failings of the 'centre' as well as the rise of social media, the indulgence of the mainstream media, and some of the socio-economic changes that have affected certain groups. I also think that many of the right-wing stances that are adopted by the public were either present in the population for decades, but not articulated through 'mainstream' politics, or are simply confused attempts to grapple with issues that have often produced some kind of bizarre 'socialism of fools'. In some senses attitudes have become more liberal, in attitudes to race, homosexuality and relations between the sexes, but these have been combined in many cases with an increased nationalism, conformist cultural collectivism and suspicion of others.

    As far as Macron is concerned, in many ways he is simply a feature of the bankruptcy of liberalism as it manifests itself in a presidential system. As with the cult of Obama that showed itself prominently during the recent 'interregnum' in the US, what liberals really want to play is 'good king, bad king'. The aim is to find an acceptable manager for the country who can say the right sort of vague platitudes, govern according to the established wisdom of the elites, and yet retain a respectable distance from discredited mainstream politics. That is Macron's (only?) strength. Like Trump, he comes from outside established politics, and indeed has never been elected to office before.

    It is a big mistake for 'centrists' to indulge in this kind of politics because the populists can usually outdo them on this particular battlefield. However, when they've effectively given up trying to reform institutions or engage with genuine issues of power and accountability, then it is probably the only move they have left.

  3. This is one of your best, and very enjoyable. I hope to see you yourself appear as a version of the Walter character in the sitcom you describe. Might I summarise your argument as: these social dynamics emerge around the vacuity of today's liberal policies, and although it has not yet risen to consciousness yet, the liberals know it, hence the transference.
    But we have yet to hear you move beyond diagnosis to recommended treatment and make an argument about how, maybe, we get to 'nationalisation' over 'nationalism'. Coming from a post-keynesian political economy background, this reader can supply that bit of the story for himself, but wants to know what your suggestions for a positive programme of reform would be built on. (e.g. labour movement internationalism to restore the wage share domestically? internet gift economy? functional finance state investment targeted at future energy and transport?).

    1. Getting from nationalism to nationalisation is not as big a step as it might seem. I don't buy the idea that there has been an increase in nationalism as classically understood. For example, what has happened in France is that a traditional Chauvinistic faction has been detached from the centre-right by the FN, a development that reflects both the latter's opportunism and the former's dissatisfaction with Sarkozy's "Americanism". This has been amplified by Islamophobia, but that bigotry should not be confused with national consciousness.

      Many of the supposed symptoms of a nationalist revival look suspiciously social democratic. This is obvious in Scotland, but I'd also suggest that for US voters "America first" should be understood as a defensive rather than an offensive play, more concerned with ensuring American workers get a "fair deal", which is in the tradition of FDR. Trump's rhetoric might be arrogant (and Bannon is clearly more of a Lindbergh kinda guy), but this is not fundamentally different to Obama talking about the US as "the indispensable nation".

      The political centre has been hopeless at responding to this social democratic turn after 2008, either caricaturing it as the defence of "white privilege" (thereby continuing the trope of abused power originally deployed against trade unions) or lurching into the blood and soil nonsense of Blue Labour. At heart this is because the centre-left stopped believing in a progressive working class in the 70s/80s while the centre-right never stopped believing that progress was exclusively bourgeois.

      While there aren't many who would characterise June 23rd last year as a progressive moment, it was undoubtedly a radical one and shows that there is an appetite for profound change. What the left needs to do is come up with a policy programme that wrongfoots the right and directly addresses popular concerns, such as the NHS and housing, but in an imaginative way. I'm not going to detail specific policies now (I'd struggle to stop once started), but I may put together a separate blog post on the subject. Stay tuned.

  4. Herbie Kills Children15 February 2017 at 18:49

    I think fake news is a bit of distraction from the fundamental point, which to me is the reproduction of the system via hard and soft brainwashing. People are conditioned from birth and at every point during their life not to question anything around them, which means people are more prone to believe anything the mainstream media says and also makes people prone to finding anything that is different to be inhuman and wrong and therefore in need of being wiped off the fact of the Earth.

    Not all this brainwashing is deliberate, the system does just reproduce itself and its ideologies, and as you say the news not only conditions people, people also condition the news.

    The number one certainly from liberal to far right is to never question the underlying values of Western society; this simply is not up for discussion. Almost every Western political movement starts from the idea that Western values are not to be questioned, so for Marxism society just needs to develop beyond what capitalism has given us. That is why Marxists regard attacks on consumerism as somewhat reactionary. For the right the danger is that the outsiders will dilute and distort these wonderful Western values and therefore outsiders are a threat to purity. Liberals of course believe the West should actively go round the world crushing any society that does not conform to the basic tenets of liberal values. To them transporting US values to every corner of the globe is the task of progressives. There isn’t really a movement, outside Islamic radicals, that says, hang on minute, spreading US values throughout the world would be a fucking disaster! This is where I sympathise with Islamissts!

    The irony of fake news is that those who will be most concerned by it are those very people who are the most thoroughly brainwashed, because they will believe there is real, balanced and unfiltered news battling with the fake stuff. Those who get a fake news app are the ones who are most blind and ignorant to the distorted bias and fake news that pours into their brains every time they watch Sky, the BBC or read the tabloid trash.