A (very brief) lesson from the ‘fake news’ presidency

Trump Newspaper with mouth missing

In a time when misinformation abounds, the last four years of Trump’s presidency have taught us that we are woefully unequipped to deal with ‘fake news’. Though Biden won, we still need to answer a few questions: why were we so bad at fighting back against this, and what can we do better going forward?

Trump’s presidential term was punctuated by continual, near-pathological lying. From the fictitious Bowling Green massacre, to allegations of election fraud that are still dragging down the legitimacy of the American political structure, scarcely a week went by when Trump hadn’t said at least four or five totally unbelievable things. Biden, for all his flaws, offers a respite from this continual assault on reality, as it is unlikely we will see the dangers of the pandemic or the existence of global warming so wantonly attacked by the US’ highest office. Trump is not alone, and the threat is not gone, either. The baffling conservative U-turns over Dominic Cummings show that the UK is very much still in on the post-truth vogue, and we still face our own battles against misinformation and rogue conspiracies coming from the British right. In this moment, it may be a good time to pause and reflect on the most worrying motif of this period – why has the press, and society more broadly, been so ineffective at stopping the tide of lies?

Well, it is certainly not for lack of trying. Anyone with even a vague awareness of social media will be only too aware of the furore that erupts every time a Trump tweet contains anything even vaguely outrageous. Each slip up or ‘fake news’ allegation spawns hours upon hours of media discussion, political commentary, and mildly entertaining satirical comedy. The real issue here isn’t that we are unaware of the lies, or that we’re not talking about them enough – it lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of why any of this is happening, and how to deal with figures of authority lying.

An image of a pro-trump activist carrying a 'fake news' sign proposing links between a variety of conspiracy theories and events, such as 9/11 trutherism being linked to the Russia investigation.
Image: @dead____artist via Unsplash.com

The kneejerk reaction to people believing things like the idea that vaccines cause autism, or that the Democrats were responsible for importing immigrants from central and south America to swing elections, is to simply say that the believers in these ideas are ignorant, and provide a factual rebuttal. This is the bread and butter of shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, as there continues to be appetite for watching wealthy comedians unpick the latest controversy to hit the headlines. This reaction is understandable, and perhaps not entirely wrong, but I think there is something lost in this dismissal of these ideas and their followers, something misunderstood about what is happening when a very powerful man says some obviously incorrect things. There are so many steps you need to take between the reality of the situation, and reconciling it with these conspiracy theories, that you can’t simply chalk up these disagreements over vaccines or immigration or global warming to differing opinions, or a misunderstanding of the facts. This is about fundamentally different perceptions of the world that cannot be solved by restating facts.

This is a misstep that many progressives and left-wing folks make, trying to explain or factually rebuke Trump’s lies, which again, is an understandable and often useful course of action. However, many who have attempted to do this kind of factual performance of proving a less informed person wrong will tell you that it’s a lot like trying to carve a turkey with a paintbrush. You’ll end up very frustrated, and arguably end up making the task you were attempting even harder than it was initially. The likelihood is that you’ll fail to meaningfully change the person you’re debating’s mind, and the dynamics of the debate might just look like you’re losing, regardless of the context. Factual dismissals are not some fake news kryptonite. When we don’t account for the underlying reasons for these differing views of reality, it only serves to provide Trump supporters with ammunition and opportunities to derail the conversation and batter you with more misinformation.

When propaganda spreads, part and parcel of the idea is to have an inbuilt self-defence mechanism to factual disagreement. We can see this in the bundling together of the ‘fake news media’ theory and other accusations of things like election rigging, such as this example Trump recently retweeted.

To a Trump supporter, any and all information that runs contrary to the idea of the election being stolen conveniently comes from ‘fake news’ sources that, without specific proof, have a vested interest in supporting a corrupt system. This is a malleable theory, too – recently we have seen Trump and his allies turn against republican mainstays, Fox news, an organisation that had been held up as a beacon of reason by Trump’s white house. This flexibility makes it even harder to factually disprove these allegations, because any disproval can simply be pivoted into another conspiracy or falsehood, and you are left boxing shadows. When news outlets and public figures publish these lengthy rebuttals, they aren’t necessarily changing anyone’s mind, but could just end up preaching to the choir.

Beyond this – why do people believe these things in the first place? Usually, figures that spread ideas like climate denial do not hold these ideas in isolation, but use them as post-hoc justifications for advancing policy. When Trump says climate change was manufactured by the Chinese, he and his followers are not necessarily interested in the truth in that statement alone, evidenced by the fact his tune has changed significantly on the matter over time. Rather they use the pretence of truth to justify political actions, and the chaotic space created by the ensuing debunking of the falsehood to create a false idea of an idea being ‘debated’. This pseudo-debate can then be exploited to erode the sanctity of ideas that were previously accepted as fact. Though the side-effect of this manipulation of truth is that many people end up believing that climate change is a hoax, it’d be wrong to assume that the figures spreading these conspiracy theories fully believe what they’re selling.

This tactic is not unique to Trump – the idea of causing chaos by asserting something that is essentially wrong but inflammatory enough to cause concern and bolster support for the falsehood-spreader is a common tactic of tabloid news outlets, anti-LGBTQ groups and anti-immigration activists. The idea that people will latch on to the loudest, simplest information blared at them that feels right, regardless of its truth is one exploited by any semi-competent propagandist. This logic is fundamental to how propaganda works, such as the NHS funding myth that carried the Brexit campaign, which prized initial impact over detail or truth.

When Ronald Regan said ‘If you’re explaining, you’re losing’, he was right. Often, looking like you’re winning, whilst your opponent scrambles to explain why you’re wrong, is just as good as actually being right.

Though Biden won, it might be worth looking back and realising that we spent four years explaining, whilst Trump’s fake news machine continued to operate. As the unmitigated failure of the Lincoln Project proved, the democrats did not win the election because ‘sensible conservatives’ could be convinced to switch their vote en masse when they suddenly realised how many lies the Republicans had been telling. We didn’t necessarily beat the fake news machine at its own game, and to assume so would be to leave the door open for the same wave of falsehoods in 2024.

What we can learn from has been what’s happened to Trump in the last couple of weeks. His campaign has slowly begun to dip beneath the waves of an increasingly undeniable defeat, that cannot be fixed by multi-million-dollar recounts. The propaganda machine has kept turning, but rather than disputing individual claims the media has decided that Trump has lost. They have stopped giving as much bandwidth to each press conference in which a senior republican very earnestly promises that some evidence will turn up soon, and instead viewed it more through a lens of Trump refusing to concede. The pretence that Trump’s claims need explaining or arguing against is gone, and so has his power.

We have stopped fixating on the lie, and instead have realised why the lie is being said – that Trump doesn’t want to concede, that he is incapable of admitting he lost. And as we have done this, the propaganda has started to falter – the bluster ceases to propel the man forward, and we pay less and less attention to what is being said, but why, and what is trying to be achieved through it?

If we stop playing the game, painstakingly repeating the specifically wrong but often undeniably impactful things Trump and others like him say before offering a well-researched, truth-based but less instinctively compelling rebuttal, things might get better. We do not have to explain Trump’s lies back to himself when truth, quite clearly, was never the point. Instead, we could get to the core of what’s trying to be done – rather than combing the minutia of Trump’s climate conspiracies, maybe it’d be better to point out that climate change denial exists because it was funded by petrochemical companies who wanted to protect their profit margins. It’s true that when a climate denier gets up on stage and misquotes data, or when a far-right figure sneaks an antisemitic slur into common discourse, there is little else to do than to try to refute them, but that isn’t the only way.

The reality is, the stage should never have been there for the taking; the thinly-veiled fascist shouldn’t be able to whisper sweet far-right nothings to the audience on Question Time, because the ‘ideas’ they want to ‘debate’ are simply not debatable topics. Climate Change is real, Trump lost the election, and Trans people are valid and deserve dignity, respect, and human rights. The point is, and always has been, power, influence and action, and if progressives want to win, we need to be a little smarter about how we approach the lies our opponents spread.

Outlandish bigotry and right-populist blustering has learnt to manipulate discussion to it’s advantage, even when it is obviously wrong. The sooner we turn our analysis inwards, and rethink how we engage with those we disagree with, the sooner we can start eroding the grasp this creeping reactionary backlash has on our politics.

Harry Higginson

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