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Hyperreality, fake news and the lost power of linking

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Painting of Trump - fake news

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, fake news has been in the ‘real’ news.

Detractors claim Facebook negligently allowed baseless attacks, masquerading as real news, to damage Hillary Clinton’s reputation and seal victory for her rival. A senior writer at the Washington Post even argues that Facebook should employ an editor to stop the fake news virus spreading any further.

A journalist calling for more journalism appears self-serving; it also ignores the practical and ethical questions that flow from employing editors at Facebook. How, for example, would a journalist act as the moral arbiter for hundreds of millions of users exchanging billions of separate pieces of information mostly for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with current affairs?

Facebook users have different political and religious persuasions, languages and cultures. Even ostensibly similar users have competing world views that are hard to define or even understand. So how would employing editors to judge their output not end up threatening free speech? And how do you determine what is fake and what is not, anyway?

Trumping fake news

A list of fake news sites produced to help students stay aware of distorting ‘news’ is illuminating, but not as you might expect. Reportedly the work of a media lecturer, the list included the well-established, much-respected British news magazine, Private Eye because it’s satirical. Satire often manufactures ridiculous stories to highlight stupidity or hypocrisy. That doesn’t mean it should be lumped in with fake news sites. It does, though, demonstrate how blurred the boundaries are. Indeed, one self-confessed fake news author claimed in an interview that his sole reason for cranking out hundreds of fictitious memes was to highlight ‘alt-right’ supremacists’ use of false information.

Fake news is not one-sided, either. Following Trump’s election victory in early November, one piece of fakery appeared in my own news feed repeatedly. It reported Trump telling People Magazine in 1998 that if he ever sought the presidential nomination it would be with the Republicans, because their supporters were gullible and easy to manipulate.

Picture and text reporting Trump: If I were to run, Id run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters

Thousands of people exchanged the meme without questioning its authenticity, no doubt because it matched their impression of Trump. In fact, it’s a delicious (or perhaps unpalatable) irony that it was precisely because people thought Trump was preying on the gullible that they believed a fake news story about him.

Confirming bias

In this sense, fake news stories are confirmation-bias memes. They work because they tell us something we already believe in – and we are all, therefore, vulnerable to them. That leads to an uncomfortable – if obvious – conclusion about fake news: it’s not that different from real news – and not just because it looks like real news. Firstly, fake news and real news can help to support or propagate a particular world view: The Daily Mail, Fox News, The Guardian, even The New York Times, have determined editorial perspectives that are there to support their readers’ view of the world. Yep, there’s a difference: these news providers mostly report on ‘facts’, i.e. things that verifiably happened, rather than stuff that’s just made up. But the lens they apply to these facts is one designed to a serve a world-view, nonetheless.

Secondly, both real and fake news expect us to trust that what they are saying is real. In a news meme, whether the news is real or not, it’s often disconnected from the sources that establish its veracity in the first place. Indeed, news inherently has this problem anyway, even when it’s presented on news sites or newspapers or on news TV channels, let alone when it’s on social media. It is, after all the point of news. You read or hear that something has happened to be informed; you don’t then expect to have to go and make sure that it did actually happen.

Jean Baudrillard: Simulacra and fake news

Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher and cultural theorist. In Simulacra and Simulation,  published in 1981, Baudrillard explores a phenomenon he calls hyperreality. This is the idea that in a world where everything is experienced through media, our impression of ‘reality’ is in fact completely removed from the actual real. Instead what represents truth isn’t truth at all, because it is so disconnected from any empirical thing in the first place. At first that idea seems ridiculous – not least because it’s so disturbing: One of the most popular references to Baudrillard’s idea is the film The Matrix (where a copy of Simulacra and Simulation is used as a prop). In the film, the world that appears real soon turns out to be a simulation. A character quotes the book, calling it ‘the desert of the real’.

Despite its disturbing qualities – and whether you accept Baudrillard’s claim that the real isn’t real at all – it’s easy to accept his observation. In a mediated world, in which everything is represented or reproduced rather than actually experienced, it won’t take long for notions of veracity to become questionable. Indeed, questioning reality is now an actual ‘thing’ in itself.

Baudrillard developed his theories for Simulacra and Simulation in the 1970s and 1980s, before the Internet dominated news reporting and the media. Nonetheless, it makes his argument that much easier to support. Now, with a bit of tweaking, we can use an off-the-shelf WordPress theme to make a website look, ostensibly, as authentically newsy as the New York Times.

Beyond this, Twitter and Facebook offer ready-made templates for news production and dissemination that make it laughably easy to pretend to be real news producers. In the case of Facebook the platform is reported to be engineered to favour self-referencing: Uploading a video to the platform appears to elicit more engagement than linking to it on YouTube, owned by Facebook’s rival, Google.

Fighting fake news

If news was on shaky ground already, the internet then is helping to reduce that ground to sand. What the hell can we do?

Firstly, journalists need to work harder. Journalism, after all, purports to report significant, real events to audiences who aren’t there to witness them. Given that there is always going to be a gap between real experiences and an audience’s experience, it’s vital that journalists work to address that gap. Otherwise, the dislocation of reports from the facts on which they are based can be exploited to create fakery. Worse still – and more alarmingly – it also makes it much easier for people to pretend that real news is a lie when it’s not – particularly if it doesn’t suit how they feel or think. That, I think, is a bigger potential problem than the fake news itself.

The most obvious tool at an online journalist’s disposal to deal with this is the link: linking to reports, linking to source material, linking to the people in the report. But that shouldn’t be the end of it, either. Journalists need to find other ways to take people directly to where they found out the facts. I’d venture that also means adopting exacting standards of transparency in how reporting is carried out. And backing it up constantly. Indeed, linking is part of the approach used by Wikipedia to help establish ‘truth’ – and now suggested by some for Facebook.

Secondly, the Internet we’re creating increasingly looks like a trap for anyone who isn’t equipped to determine what’s ‘real’ and what’s not. If we allow companies and individuals to develop self-referring ‘realities’ that don’t rely on any objective truth, then all sorts of scary worlds can and will develop. The internet was designed with linking in mind – in fact the world-wide web was proposed as a linking system for scientists. But somehow that hasn’t prevented the web turning into a place where referencing is viewed as a self-serving process rather than one of common interest. That matters because it’s where we are ‘living’ our lives: it’s where our views are shaped and experiences defined. In other words, getting this new world sorted is a big, serious problem. And that isn’t for journalists to solve, love them as I do – or even for Facebook. It’s a dirty-great, society-wide humdinger of a thing. A problem that belongs to us all.

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Nigel Farage is Trumping the British media with his career options

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Have you noticed how many jobs Nigel Farage is about to take or has just decided not to take?

First Nigel scotched claims he was about to appear on the TV show, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, because he wasn’t a ‘blithering idiot’…

 

headline: Nigel Farage refusing £750k to go on I'm a Celebrity because he 'is not a blithering idiot'

Article: Daily Telegraph. 18 October, 2016

 

Then he said he was considering a role in Donald Trump’s White House…

farage-says-he-would-like-role-in-trumps-administration

Article: Independent, 8 November, 2016

 

Not long after, though, Nigel was considered vital to the UK’s relationship with the US. This led to the suggestion that Nigel should join Britain’s ruling Conservative party.

headline: nigel-farage-refuses-to-rule-out-return-to-the-conservatives

Article: Daily Express, 15 November, 2016

 

Weirdly that morphed into the idea that Nigel should be a Lord. A government minister even called him LORD NIGEL. Not, ‘lordy, Nigel what the hell are you up to?’ Just plain old Lord Nigel.

Headline: Lord Farage? Theresa May declines to rule out peerage for Ukip leader

Article: Guardian, 16 November, 2016

 

And then we heard that good old Nigel wanted to bring it all back and become an MP in Blighty. Yep, by now people were actually running out of photos of Nigel Farage grinning.

Headline: Nigel Farage admits desire to stand again if South Thanet by-election triggered

Article: Kent News, 21 November 2016

 

But that didn’t last long, because then the Donald tweeted that maybe Lord Nigel could be the UK’s ambassador to the US… I’m yet to establish if the ‘many people’ were, in fact, just Nigel.

 

When that didn’t work out – Prime Minister Theresa May, the spoil sport, said no way – Nigel was thought to be considering living in the US again. Apparently there he’d be, er, freer. You know, because of Trump.

headline-nigel-farage-planning-to-move-to-us

Article: Politico, 24 November

 

Then he said that actually that wasn’t happening at all…

news headline: Nigel Farage denies reports he is moving to America

 

 

 

 

Article: Independent, 24 November

 

And that’s got us to today…

Since speculation of his foray into reality TV, Nigel Farage has had the kind of month most job seekers would kill for. But he hasn’t taken a job yet. Officially, he’s just looking after the only role he is doing: leader of the UK Independence Party, while a permanent replacement is found. In case anyone doesn’t know, they’re the third or fourth force in British politics, well behind the ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labour party.

So what is Nigel Farage doing? Well, he’s exploiting a weakness in the way we report and respond to politics. Frankly at the moment that is the only thing Nigel is doing. He’s feeding speculation about what he might do just to keep his name in the news. Each time a suggestion is made, he scotches it – but the briefings are coming from somewhere. Sometimes it’s ‘sources close to Nigel’. Sometimes he just suggests he might do something himself. That way he can keep the rumour mill going and appear to be the most important person in British politics. Which he really isn’t.

In a sense it doesn’t matter what Nigel Farage’s going to do or not do next. It just matters that his name is in our heads, continuously. Where did this strategy come from? Well as Cas Muude,  who knows much more about the activities of populist right-wing politicians than I do, pointed out he’s learned this from the master. Donald Trump.

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It’s time to talk about leadership

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a woman and a man dancing wearing bright blue in a brightly lit studio
Photo: BBC

It’s time we started facing up to the fact that leadership now is too big a job for politicians on their own

We’re all in charge but we don’t know what we’re doing

When I was very young I told a teacher at my school that I could tap dance. Either my teacher was taken in by my fantasy or could spot a liar – because very quickly I found myself in front of the class awkwardly shuffling on the spot, pretending to tap dance when I very obviously couldn’t.

This early brush with dance-floor humiliation might explain why I’m a terrible dancer and a newly converted fan of Ed Balls. The former Labour politician is becoming a ‘national treasure’ – as each week he survives the Strictly Come Dancing judges’ opprobrium to stay in the show. With gusto and self-deprecation, he is styling out his hopelessness for the millions of us who can’t dance. As a consequence, thousands of people are voting for him, like they’ve never voted for a Brownite politician before.

Things aren’t going so well, though, for Ed Balls’ former colleagues on both sides of the House of Commons – who themselves appear to be attempting to style out their difficulties, sadly with less aplomb.

Both the government and the opposition have struggled to come up with coherent plans for Britain’s departure from the European Union. Frequent pronouncements are only adding to the sense that Brexit might be the greatest challenge they’ve faced. Which, of course, it is.

This air of uncertain competence is not as endearing in serving politicians as it is when embodied by former ones. Boris Johnson, once seen himself as a national treasure, is now being treated as a global embarrassment.

Leadership and uncertainty

It would be easy to indulge in truisms, call politics a cruel mistress – even point out that governing in difficult times should be the greatest honour to which a politician can aspire. But these are not just difficult times.

Politics – as the old saying goes – is the art of the possible. But right now our politicians are facing the impossible. And not just in the shape of Brexit – where a majority of Brits favour unchanged access to the European Union’s single market, but with immigration controls that have already been ruled out by remaining EU members.

From climate change, to a growing chasm of inequality, to the sense that the West – after generations of global dominance – is on the wane, we are seeing challenges that our politicians can’t just style out on their own. That means we will have to change our expectations of how politicians and governments solve these challenges – and, indeed, our own role in the solutions.

If we were to imagine that the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition had both spelled out how difficult a Brexit would likely be it is not hard to fathom the reaction their honesty would receive. The markets would tumble, and the tabloid newspapers would wail. Ultimately, we would be no closer to a solution – only watching a different set of politicians trying desperately to style it out.

Instead, we have the unedifying prospect of uncertainty that politicians have to pretend doesn’t exist, choosing either stony silence or speculative busking to keep us calm. A constant analogy has been a game of poker. ‘We won’t reveal our hand in negotiations with our European partners, because to do so would weaken our position,’ we are told. That unwittingly betrays a sense of random chance that none of us can be comfortable with, particularly given that the cards in the government’s hand are our own futures.

Leadership needs to change

So how do we grow up? Brexit and the even greater challenges that lie ahead won’t be solved by our politicians pretending they can simply sort them out, or by us expecting them to. Calling for a ‘new kind of politics’, meanwhile, is just as facile as the poker analogy. Instead, we have to start asking questions about the concept of leadership in the 21st century – recognising that it really isn’t one person’s job any more.

By the end of the 20th century we had largely adopted a system of parliamentary democracy in the West and elsewhere that offered a degree of popular involvement restricted to elections. This made sense, given the constraints of the industrial age. It invested power in a relatively small group of people for entirely practical reasons.

Around that system grew a culture of political scrutiny that responded to our political leaders as the sole arbiters of the future, albeit for limited periods. Newspapers, TV and radio journalists each did their jobs to pick at, understand and challenge the political class, but it remained a politician’s job to lead.

Today we are unburdened by the restraints of the industrial age but have made few attempts to explore how our democracies need to change. An age of information has helped to distribute power in new ways. In some cases this has turned the notion of leadership on its head completely. Is Theresa May more or less of a leader than someone who commands millions of followers on Twitter? The obvious answer starts to look more and more shaky when Donald Trump is elected US President.

Nonetheless, our political systems have not responded. They are largely the same top-down institutions that they were when they succeeded monarchies in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps, given the challenges they now face, it is not surprising that we are seeing more and more referendums, unhelpfully lobbing tricky questions to the voting public and then scrambling when the answers that come back don’t suit.

Similarly, the media – so vital in calling to account our politicians – is caught in its own interregnum. As newspapers go to the wall, new media businesses emerge that command huge power but are less constrained by the standards we expected from their predecessors.

The only way of addressing this is to start to be honest, both about the scale of the challenges, and to face the fact that we are moving to a new kind of democratic and political system, one in which control is much less fixed than it was. The response to this will need to be more than just a switch in voting systems – like moving to proportional representation. It will require a full-scale change in our thinking that starts with questions about who leads, how do they lead and when? More pertinently, it needs to address what involvement we all have in leadership. We each face profound issues about how we manage this, but those challenges are upon us now.

This will have to start with a conversation about our democratic institutions at the very least. They are woefully out of date. If politicians can’t yet be honest about their own readiness for the scale of the challenges we face, we must at least make sure they are made to confront this.

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Trump told a story and his story won

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Donald Trump looking up in blu tie and suit
Donald Trump photographed by Gage Skidmore, Flickr, licence: CC-by-sa-2-0

A man who wants to build walls and promised to ban Muslims is the president-elect of the world’s most powerful country.

There are innumerable theories posited, explaining how it happened and apportioning blame: Trump stood on a platform that exploited white people’s fears and used immigration to signal an existential threat to the Western world. Trump exploited the collapse of blue-collar America. Alt-Right lies spread because Facebook’s algorithms don’t favour veracity. The Democratic Party invested in a candidate who was never genuinely popular. Add to this a hundred more.

Each argument may have merit; some will  stand the test of time. Perhaps together they help to explain Trump’s victory. But we are a long way from understanding this phenomenon and will probably remain so for years.

So rather than dwell on the arguments, I want to make one observation about Trump: That he tells a story.

Stories are powerful things. They sink into your consciousness, and permeate your being.

In politics, the stories that appeal most are the ones that confirm our views and our values. They don’t even need to be true, in fact sometimes they are more effective if they are not. Seth Godin, in his book ‘All Marketers Are Liars’ describes how stories are often the way we tell lies to ourselves, about who we are, who we want to be and the world we live in.

Trump understood this and he used his own carefully crafted story time and again.

It was ruthlessly simple. Trump was the guy who knew Washington, who understood corruption and could tell people how bad it was. He was the insider who had seen how bad things had got and could ‘drain the swamp’. Only he could see, from his vantage point, how the American Dream had been corrupted by Washington and by the outsiders who were taking away American values and power.

Trump’s story signalled to his supporters that if you were angry, he was too. He told people that they were right to feel frightened but he’d take that fear away because only he really, truly understood it. Most importantly, Trump’s story made sense to people – it told them something they wanted to believe about themselves.

It is harder, but not impossible to identify Hillary Clinton’s story.

Clinton stood to become the first female president of the United States. This part of her story should – really should – have been a moment of great renewal in America. Clinton, too, was a hardworking politician who had relentlessly pursued equality for minorities – and whose record at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11 suggests a remarkable politician, with determination, fearlessness and compassion. But too often the story she told was simply one of continuity and acumen. It played right into Trump’s own critique of what his supporters saw as Clinton’s privileged and corrupt America.

Does this explain Trump’s victory? No, it absolutely does not. It makes no reference to the world that Trump found himself in, the bizarre set of consequences that undercut Clinton’s lead in the polls and the state of America right now. But it does demonstrate the power of story – and how a story can overcome the inconsistencies that all politicians embody. Trump told and sold his story well, whatever we might think of the consequences.