Everyone seems to be talking about fake news these days. Enabled by social media, its originators deal in hoaxes and disinformation. The objectives vary, with some wishing merely to sow confusion, others attempting to influence behavior. The intention is always, however, to mislead.
Fake news is old. Benjamin Franklin created a fictional story about Indian tribes sending scalps of colonists as a gift to George III in order to drum up hostility against the British. But it seems particularly prevalent in recent decades. Take, for example, Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” and Barack Obama’s “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” Donald Trump creates a great deal of fake news as demonstrated by statements such as “one of the biggest Electoral College landslides in history.” These are all essentially lies. They become news because they emanate from presidents’ lips.
Fortunately, fake news is easy to refute. It is demonstrably false. This may not prevent it from shaping public attitudes unfortunately, but a concerted effort can correct it. This is the goal of fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, whose rectifications are picked up in the mainstream media. The scourge is also, of course, combatted by diverse politics sustained by a truly free press, competitive parties, and separated government powers.
The whole brouhaha over fake news got me thinking about this remarkable moment in American history. I find it particularly interesting people suggest George Orwell’s 1984 is a parable for today. The novel tells the story of “Big Brother,” who subjects the fictional country of Oceania to constant state surveillance and total thought control. Trump’s opponents presumably believe he heads a massive government effort to peak into everyone’s homes and monopolize the dissemination of information. He might be aggressively deploying Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, but Obama did, too — to the tune of 340,000 deportations annually. The former president established a huge regulatory apparatus — built from existing agencies like the IRS, Department of Education, and Environmental Protection Agency and new ones such as the Federal Insurance Office and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — to scrutinize and threaten businesses, schools, churches, and nonprofits. Obama renewed the Patriot Act and reauthorized mass surveillance by the NSA. His administration’s restrictions led many to believe it was the most antagonistic to the press in history. Much of the 1984 analogy is based on the media’s belief Trump wants to muzzle them, when, at least to this point, he is Obama-lite and is really just skillfully discrediting them in front of a receptive audience.
It is when we move away from simple assertions of fact to questions regarding necessarily more ambiguous interpretations of the world that open and free societies like the United States face greater challenges, That’s why I think another of Orwell’s novels provides a better allegory of what America might be morphing into.
Animal Farm describes how a pig called Napoleon controls the flow of information and manipulates perceptions to brainwash the animals who live there. The approach is subtler than Big Brother. Napoleon doesn’t create fake news but rather spins the interpretation of obvious facts in contorted ways. The other animals are free to see everything and indeed speak their minds but are slowly convinced their view of the world is inaccurate and immoral. In a crusade for an absolute truth, Napoleon doesn’t present “alternative facts” but, through his zeal and skill, creates a whole new universal understanding of reality. After a few years, his vision prevails. He owns the truth and, unable to oppose him any longer, all the other animals see things his way.
Many in positions of power in America today seem to want you to believe all the facts of our complicated world fit snugly into their view of it. They aspire to govern like Napoleon, knowing that the American people and Constitution prevent them from becoming Big Brother.
Perhaps Trump is among their number but, if so, he’s not alone. Numerous leaders in the media, Hollywood, and academia view the quite unpopular and sometimes reviled new president as an opportunity to establish their vision of the world — a rigidly multicultural society run by a technocratic class that emphasizes equality over liberty — as the “truth.” They portray his administration as a purveyor of racism and misogyny, a barbarian nationalism, and “robber baron” capitalism, an interpretation that stretches tremendously but does not irrefutably contradict the facts.
A section of the cultural elite is manipulating information, shaping social norms, and exerting subtle pressures to mold public attitudes. In fact, compared to his enemies, Trump comes off as an amateur, impetuously tweeting out fibs and challenging trivial facts, dealing in bits of fake news. Is it him that’s in control?
Andy Taylor is professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.