Back in the days of the Soviet Union, there were two official newspapers: Pravda (“The Truth”) and Izvestiya (“The News”). A friend of mine who grew up in Russia during those times told me of the cynical saying, “Pravda nye Izvestiya, Izvestiya nye Pravda” …in English: “The Truth is not The News, and The News is not The Truth.”
We chuckled about it because we were both sitting in the good old US of A, where the news really is the truth. My god, what naiveté! The current conventional wisdom may have Vladimir Putin winning at cyber-warfare and fake news, but it’s a fact that misinformation has roamed the West since long before our great-grandparents were there to take it in.
American political campaign smears have been de rigueur since George Washington retired. The election of 1800 featured a memorable lie that labeled John Adams “hermaphroditic”—and that was just a beginning. Going back even further, Napoleon is often credited with this sad insight: “History is a lie agreed upon.”
…and so are current events, it would seem. Consider that you and I have been reading fake news since we were children, off the covers of the National Enquirer and other tabloids in the checkout line at the supermarket. If fake news was a drug, those rags would be the entry-level item.
It's going to be an interesting four years pic.twitter.com/zXodbr4ybd
— Eliot Nelson (@eliotnelson) January 2, 2017
Moving on to the harder stuff of conspiracy theory required a bit more effort when I was young. The 1967 Arab-Israeli war was still in America’s memory when the 1973 war found me meeting weekly with a group that knew a global catastrophe / financial collapse was coming. War would trigger it …or something else. The End Is Near!—that much was certain.
I couldn’t remain a believer in their social apocalypse—you need a true obsession to keep that up in the face of daily reality. But I learned that I didn’t have the survival skills to head for the hills, nor the resources needed to stock up before society fell apart.
I should have become a supplier of survival goods. I’d be rich now.
Several disturbing aspects of this decade’s fake news trend are coming to the White House on January 20th:
- Trump’s personal history as a birther, and his tight friendship with the owner of the National Enquirer, a publication he often quoted on the campaign trail.
- Top security advisor Michael Flynn most recently pushed the story about Hillary’s “Pizzagate” child slavery ring (and before that, numerous other non-truths mocked in the intelligence community as “Flynn Facts”).
- Chief White House strategist Bannon, a committed Alt-Righter, transformed Breitbart News—already the political equivalent of a supermarket tabloid— into “Trump Pravda,” according to a former staffer.
- Both Flynn and Bannon talk directly into Trump’s ear daily, and their positions don’t require approval from anyone. No Senate confirmation hearings.
- Trump’s unwillingness to acknowledge real news such as losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million and digital proof that Russia actively worked toward his election victory. See Michael Flynn, above, carrying a significant axe to grind with the intelligence community.
- Trump’s obsession with claiming credit for anything, at its worst after the Orlando nightclub bombing: “I was right!”
The Donald’s most recent fake news fantasy was that he had special information regarding the Russian computer hacks—and he’d release it on “Tuesday or Wednesday” of the first week in January. I imagined that he would tweet that Putin had assured him over the phone that the Russians did not hack us.
Trump’s Russia stance is easily explained, if only backed by indirect evidence. He has two reasons to disbelieve any Russian wrongdoing:
- He has extensive investments in Russia that Putin could take away with a wave of his hand. All we need to prove this is a look at his tax returns.
- He knows and believes that Russia worked to get him elected. If he knew the opposite, you’d see a stream of Twitter trash talk about Putin.
Was I right about Trump’s “special knowledge”? No—reality was even more pathetic.
Trump tweeted attitude from WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange: that a freaking 14-year old could have hacked John Podesta’s email, apparently trusting foreigners bent on harming the U.S. government over people dedicated to protecting it: our own intelligence community. Perhaps Mr. “I know a lot about hacking” Trump will meet me halfway. We can postulate a 14-year old, 400-pound hacker sitting on a bed …in Mr. Putin’s basement. Probably chained to the bed frame.
Trump also assured us that no computer is safe. While that is true enough, his solution is quaintly clueless: send everything important by courier. Check out this CNN excerpt explaining that Osama Bin Laden’s location was discovered by—wait for it—tracking his courier.
There is actual wisdom in this trust-no-computer foolishness. Dick Cheney made certain that his secrets would remain secret, by using the phone for crucial communications during his time in office—and by not repeating Nixon’s conceit of recording everything. It worked: Cheney’s Vice Presidential papers are every bit as boring as he promised.
And now, on to what we can read and hear:
In an age where people watch and listen far more than they read, conservative talk radio has adopted the role of audio tabloid. Rush Limbaugh didn’t invent opinion—or pure bullshit—masquerading as news, but he did establish it as a daily routine. And in the process, he saved radio as a broadcasting medium …or so goes the legend. Fox News took it to the next level, making fake news viable on TV with its utility phrase “Some people say…”
Indeed! “Some people say,” over and over again, that Fox is Fair and Balanced. Don’t you believe it.
To quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan, more or less: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Unfortunately, the Mainstream Media (a.k.a. the MSM) has entitled Trump to his own facts for far too long. You’d think catching him would be easy: during an interview, just keep rejecting his lie until he admits it. But you’ve watched it not work that way at all. Trump just keeps repeating the lie until the interviewer is forced to move on or spend valuable air time trading “Yes it is / No it isn’t” back and forth.
Trump doesn’t even need to give press conferences now; he just tweets something and the New York Times puts it on the front page. News organizations ought to simply ignore his tweets, but you know that’ll never happen. His own campaign reflected that it was like owning the Times without the overhead. Sheesh.
Trump supporters and Fox News (increasingly redundant) have taken it all a step further: media stars of the Right have begun labeling any news they don’t like as “Left Wing Fake News,” both turning around the label and diluting it. Americans are losing the ability to believe that the other news channel ever tells the truth. Of course not; what they say disagrees with the obvious truth that I hear on my news channel. This applies no matter if you get your news from MSNBC or FOX.
But I’m recalling a sentiment that presidential candidate Barack Obama put forth during his famous speech on race in March 2008: we must acknowledge that even a bigot has the right to his point of view. How do we get to there, and is that even possible? Currently, we’re headed in the opposite direction.
“Fake news was a term specifically about people who purposely fabricated stories for clicks and revenue,” says David Mikkelson, of snopes.com. That describes Putin’s hacking methodology fairly well, with only the motivation differing. Whether Putin pays his people by the word or by the click, planting fabricated stories is his observable method.
Trumpland has simplified that approach: fake news is now anything that disagrees with The Donald. Provable, documented, so what? Attack the source. The end result is that no one trusts any information source. People simply choose one that agrees with their politics, and that’s their truth.
Do we even want the truth? John Ziegler, a conservative radio host, says, “A good fairy tale beats a harsh truth every time.”
We’ve come to love fake news, especially when we know that it’s fake, especially when it’s funny. The Onion has traded in made-up stories since its inception in 1988. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report set a comedy standard that their follow-ups—Trevor Noah on The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert himself on The Late Show have not yet managed to replicate.
A funny thing happened to Stewart’s and Colbert’s shows: at some point they stopped making up stuff and began making fun of the real news. Because the real news sounded too fantastic to be true.
So how do you tell what’s true and what isn’t? We’d better figure that out. Just last month, Pakistan’s misreading of fake news led to a threat of nuclear war—delivered via Twitter. The half-dozen times that I’ve read about foreign governments believing fake news in the past were funny. This time? Uh, not so much.
And what happens with one of Trump’s naked-id tweets is misinterpreted? His lack of a filter, when everyone is listening and desperately trying to impose maturity on his 140-character tantrums, looks like a threat that we cannot avoid.
If only we—our media and its readers—would consider Trump’s tweets to be fake news until proven otherwise. Instead even the Times puts them on the front page. Face it, America: your President-Elect is a Bullshit Artist. We don’t need Vladimir Putin to take us down when we are doing it to ourselves so efficiently.
The Donald is an equal opportunity liar; he’ll conflate or totally make up the biggest thing, or the smallest. He probably lies to his doctor about the size of his turds. (“They’re the greatest! The best!”) He has elevated bullshitting to an art form. And a daily habit.
We need to work on some daily habits of our own. You can’t avoid fake news, but you can learn to put it into perspective. Here’s Rachel Maddow doing exactly that with the anti-Hillary drum that the Enquirer beat for months last year. If Rachel can face the coming reality with that much humor and aplomb, we can manage some too.