Plandemic and the Spread of Misinformation
Madison Hill / Independent Scholar


Judy Mikovitz in Plandemic
Judy Mikovitz in Plandemic

Misinformation has plagued the public consciousness since the beginning of the written word; however, contemporary fake news has the opportunity to be far more damaging than its historical predecessors. Access to a global information superhighway allows unreliable images, articles, and videos to be shared to millions of people in one instantaneous click. Over the past five years, online platforms have been vessels for misinformation, but it has never felt more life-threatening than in the middle of a global pandemic. It takes a virus for fake news to spread like one.

A twenty-six-minute video, claiming to be an excerpt from the full-length documentary, Plandemic, was shared to YouTube on May 6th. The video contains an interview with controversial researcher Judy Mikovitz, who the narrator credits as an “accomplished scientist.” She proceeds to bolster dubious, politically motivated theories that vaccines damage your immune system, COVID-19 was manufactured in a laboratory, and face masks reactivate viruses. These sound like groundbreaking discoveries; however, the filmmakers provide almost no concrete evidence to support their claims. Scientists and fact-checking services have deemed all of Plandemic’s theories to be false. How can we trust a medium that prides itself on authenticity when misinformation can kill? Still, as of May 18th, Plandemic has resurfaced multiple times, reestablishing itself into the consciousness of millions.


An anti-vaccine protester in Toronto
An anti-vaccine protester in Toronto

You don’t need a Ph.D. to make a documentary about COVID-19; however, in this case, Judy Mikovitz does have one—in biochemistry. She has since worked as a researcher in various laboratories. This is precisely what makes Plandemic’s widespread fame so alarming. With audiences crediting a research scientist as their source, the film’s popularity soared past the speed at which those could fact check its claims. Before PolitiFact could even begin its analysis, Plandemic had already reached millions of viewers on YouTube. Only to be deleted, reuploaded, and shared again to a million more. People looking for answers in an unprecedented moment of uncertainty used this “banned” video to support their own radical ideologies. And understandably so. Since March, 36 million Americans have lost their jobs and have received very little relief. COVID-19 has been successful in exposing ill-prepared institutions whose purposes are to provide assistance in crises. Judy Mikovitz told the world that those systems never intended to help us in the first place. Who’s going to question a renowned scientist?

And if misinformation can kill, what are we to do about it? Twitter has flagged the video as harmful while YouTube and Facebook have outright banned the video. But who is YouTube to be a mediator of free speech? Online platforms should not have to censor content as a sort of moral authority. The importance of media literacy continues to grow in an era that prides itself on unregulated accessibility. As individuals, we have a personal responsibility to discern for ourselves whether the information presented before us is factual and free from bias. But what are we to do when, in such dire circumstances, this responsibility seems to have been forgotten?



Image Credits:

  1. Judy Mikovitz in Plandemic (author’s screengrab)
  2. An anti-vaccine protester in Toronto




Power-Knowledge in a ‘Post-Truth’ World
Roopali Mukherjee / CUNY, Queens College

image1

Joe Heenan’s satirical art pokes fun at Trump’s rhetoric

Days after the 2016 US elections, The Poke invited readers to send in renderings of famous Western artworks that photo-shopped or otherwise incorporated newly elected Donald Trump into them. Collected under the hashtag #TrumpArtworks, scores of images, smarting with sarcasm and contempt, poured in, among them Joe Heenan’s revision of the 1942 Edward Hopper work, Nighthawks. In a send-up of Trump’s “alternative fact” about the size of the crowd at the inaugural ceremonies, Heenan’s revision seats Trump at the iconic late-night diner, announcing to the few patrons there: “This place is packed!”

Answering Trump’s bluster that the inaugural ceremonies would gather his supporters in a rally that “would be the biggest of them all!,” mild-mannered Bernie Sanders responded with a side-by-side visual comparison, tweeting a rare jab: “They didn’t. It wasn’t.”

Sanders Tweet ASanders Tweet B

Images comparing the crowd sizes for 2017’s Presidential Inauguration and Women’s March

Within hours, CNN unveiled the now famous split-image comparison of aerial shots of Trump’s 2017 and Obama’s 2009 inaugurations, which showed, quite unequivocally, that the Obama crowds far outnumbered those that had assembled for Trump.

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Images comparing the crowd sizes for Obama’s 2009 inauguration to Trump’s in 2017

Gleefully re-tweeted across social media circuits worldwide, these responses join a nightly barrage of sharp-tongued television satire as well as a string of public condemnations – Meryl Streep, John McCain, and others – contributing to a glut of blistering commentary and satire. A catalogue of Trump’s characteristic lapses into invention and exaggeration, these rejoinders track prognoses of an alarming new “post-truth” or “post-fact” world. [ ((Belluz, Julia. June 28, 2016. “Do Brexit and Donald Trump prove that we’re living in an era of fact-free politics?” Vox. http://www.vox.com/2016/6/28/12046126/brexit-donald-trump-facts-politics))] [ ((Drezner, Daniel W. June 16, 2016. “Why the post-truth political era might be around for a while.” Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/06/16/why-the-post-truth-political-era-might-be-around-for-a-while/?utm_term=.9d9bce8b42bc))] [ ((Egan, Timothy. November 4, 2016. “The post-truth presidency.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/opinion/campaign-stops/the-post-truth-presidency.html))] [ ((Holland, Justin. November 30, 2015. “Welcome to Donald Trump’s post-fact America.” Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/welcome-to-donald-trumps-post-fact-america-w452917))] [ ((Krugman, Paul. December 22, 2011. “The post-truth campaign.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/23/opinion/krugman-the-post-truth-campaign.html))] [ ((Manjoo, Farhad. 2008. True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. New York: Wiley.))] [ ((Sirota, David. March 3, 2007. “Welcome to the post-factual era.” Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sirota/welcome-to-the-postfactua_b_42527.html))] The willful spread of “rumor bombs” [ ((Harsin, Jayson. 2010. “That’s democratainment: Obama, rumor bombs and primary definers.” Flow, 13(1). http://flowtv.org/2010/10/thats-democratainment/))] [ ((Harsin, Jayson. February 2015. “Regimes of posttruth, postpolitics, and attention economies.” Communication, Culture & Critique, 8(2): 327–333.))] and “contrary facts of dubious quality and provenance” [ ((Fukuyama, Francis. February 23, 2017. “The emergence of a post-fact world.” Project Syndicate. https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/the-emergence-of-a-post-fact-world-by-francis-fukuyama-2017-01))], the dangerous masking of propaganda as “fake news” and “alternative facts” [ ((Soll, Jacob. December 18, 2016. “The long and brutal history of fake news.” Politico.com. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/fake-news-history-long-violent-214535))] [ ((Stanley, Jason. 2015. How Propaganda Works. Princeton University Press.))], each underscores the stakes of the post-truth/post-fact crisis. A sign of its permeation within the cultural milieu, popular use of the term “post-truth” grew by approximately 2,000 percent over the year, a spike that so distinguished the term that Oxford Dictionaries named it the 2016 Word of the Year.

These shifts toward distortion, misrepresentation, and hyperbole have, in turn, spurred reprisals of a vehement facticity – vigilant repositings of verified and verifiable claims – via news reports, blog posts, social media updates, op-eds, scholarly commentaries, fact-check services – and a parade of data-heavy empirical forms including charts, graphs, interactive maps, timelines, testimonials, photographs, video and audio recordings, surveys, and interviews. Thus, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch maps [ ((Southern Poverty Law Center, Spring 2017. Active Hate Groups in the United States in 2016 (Map). https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map))], Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King’s crowd-sourced USA Election Monitor [ ((King, Shaun. 2016. USA Election Monitor (Interactive Map). Ushahidi.com. https://usaelectionmonitor.ushahidi.io/views/map))], the Pew Research Center’s sobering graph showing anti-Muslim hate crimes escalating to post-9/11 levels [ ((Pew Research Center Fact Tank, 2016. “Anti-Muslim assaults reach 9/11 era levels FBI data show.” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/21/anti-muslim-assaults-reach-911-era-levels-fbi-data-show/))], the Center for American Progress’s fact sheet on the costs of Trump’s deportation policies [ ((Edwards, Ryan and Ortega, Francesc. September 21, 2016. “The economic impacts of removing unauthorized immigrant workers: An industry- and state-level analysis.” Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/reports/2016/09/21/144363/the-economic-impacts-of-removing-unauthorized-immigrant-workers/))], the Reuters/Ipsos poll that documents high levels of anti-black sentiments among Trump supporters [ ((Reuters/Ipsos. June 30, 2016. “Racial attitudes of Presidential candidates’ supporters” (Chart). http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/USA-ELECTION-RACE/010020H7174/USA-ELECTION-RACE.jpg))], each offers a painstaking compilation of figures, statistics, records, and documents as a demonstration of, and a prophylactic against, the administration’s dangerous disregard for facts and evidence.

SPL Hate Map

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch maps track active hate groups in America

Pew Anti-Muslim Assaults

The Pew Research Center Fact Tank found that anti-muslim assaults are at highest level since 2001

Reuters/Ipsos Poll

Reuters/Ipsos’s poll documents high levels of anti-black sentiments among Trump supporters

The steady drumbeat of these data-heavy responses suggests a foreboding, a widespread unease, as if their testimonies must bark to drown out Trump’s machinery of dissemblance and exaggeration. Belting out refrains of reliable and replicable evidence, they labor to assert the disciplinary modalities of facts and truth as if, somehow, the formidable authority of these epistemic forms now needs shoring up and reassurance. Reiterating the ethical necessity of empirical, fact-based truths, each is, at once, an inoculant against and a wary admission of the bewildering specter of a post-truth/post-fact world.

Certainly, the fast-and-loose proclivities of the new administration deserve nothing less than relentless vigilance for they are, quite without doubt, opportunistic, irresponsible, and dangerous. But the post-truth/post-fact crisis also invites insights about a whole terrain of epistemic contestation that marks the authority of official knowledges precisely in their encounters with unpalatable counter-knowledges. The stakes of the current crisis, then, also allow us glimpses of the disciplinary modalities of facts and falsehoods themselves as categories of power-knowledge embedded within struggles authorizing some truths and repressing others, and enlisted to maintaining the dominant order.

******************

The earliest salvo in Trump’s arsenal of reckless “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert terms it, repeated the widely discredited but viscerally effective birther lie that the nation’s first black President was foreign-born. His assertion that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and “criminals,” likewise, struck a chord, needing little factual footing to cement support for his candidacy. His claim to have watched “thousands and thousands of people” cheering in Jersey City as the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on 9/11 drew discursive life not from any basis in truth but from its cynical wink-and-nod appeal to anti-Muslim sentiment. Each of these declarations links Trump’s spectacular ascent to a series of racial, and reliably racist, assertions, each one resting not on the power of evidence but on that of gut-level, intuitive beliefs. The propagandist, know-nothing excesses of the Trump edifice, then, track, and are themselves tracked by, the genealogies of racial, and racist, epistemic orders, which with visceral obduracy – in the face of incontrovertible countervailing evidence – have long organized truth and fact as profoundly raced categories of power-knowledge.

How does the post-truth/post-fact crisis engage and mediate this racial order of things? How might we understand the predicaments of truth and fact, marked and haunted by racial counter-knowledges, which remain, in the main, repressed, dismissed as laughable, odd, impossible?

In a January 11, 2017 episode of the ABC sitcom Black-ish, the protagonist Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), confronted by a white co-worker despairing after the election, responds with an impassioned enumeration of bleak everyday truths about black life. [ ((“Black resilience in America” (Post-election Anthony Anderson monologue). Black-ish (TV series, Season 3, Ep. 12, “Lemon”). ABC, New York, January 11, 2017. ))] In a monologue accompanied by a montage of images representing black experiences, and featuring Billy Holliday’s brooding anti-lynching anthem Strange Fruit on the soundtrack – in effect, dossiers of stirring visual and sonic evidence – Johnson reposits the shameful record of the nation’s racial crimes to explain that Trump’s victory is no cause for heartache to a people for whom the system has rarely worked, and who have long suffered its brutality.

Black-ish screen grab

When confronted about the election, Black-ish‘s Dre Johnson responds with an impassioned enumeration of bleak everyday truths about black life

The scene choreographs a spectacular encounter between dominant and marginal truths, dramatizing the epistemic force with which empirical, fact-based evidence of enduring and persistent racial inequalities remain, for the most part, subordinated to dominant national scripts of a square deal and a fair share bolstered by smug Obama-era conceits of racial progress. Like the “Election Night” skit on NBC’s Saturday Night Live that aired days after the election, in which host Dave Chappelle pokes fun at the visceral sway of authorized truths about racially tolerant rather than blinkered white liberals, and sentimental attachments to an innocent rather than shameful national past, these are counter-knowledges that resonate within black public spheres but which remain, for the most part, assiduously silenced and marginalized.

Labored reiterations of empirical, fact-based truths in the current moment, then, are symptomatic, as the Black-ish episode proclaims, of “knowing what it [feels] like to be black,” of knowing the truth – about climate change, mass deportation, the Muslim ban – despite its dismissal or repression as laughable, odd, impossible. Confronted with challenges that have long bedeviled unpalatable racial knowledges, the current crisis underscores the ethical necessity of “deconstructive jolts” to the disciplinary modalities of what counts as fact and falsehood, and the hard work of opening to skepticism the armature of distortion and erasure necessary for maintaining the epistemic order of a post-truth/post-fact world.

Image Credits:

1. Joe Heenan, January 23, 2017. “This place is packed!” @ThePoke #TrumpArtworks. Author’s screen grab.
2. Bernie Sanders, January 20, 2017. Twitter.
3. CNN, January 20, 2017.
4. Southern Poverty Law Center, Spring 2017.
5. Pew Research Center Fact Tank, 2016.
6. Reuters/Ipsos. June 30, 2016.
7. Black-ish (TV series, Season 3, Ep. 12, “Lemons”), ABC, January 11, 2017. Author’s screen grab from YouTube.

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The Authenticity of Trump, Emotional Democracy, and the Red Pill
Víctor Navarro-Remesal and Ignacio Bergillos / Centre d’Ensenyament Superior Alberta Giménez

Red or Blue Pill from The Matrix

Neo’s choice between the red or blue pill in The Matrix has taken on new meaning in some online communities.

After the dispassionate politics of the past we are living in an era in which information and communication processes have a heavy influence on the political debate. We must thus focus on the changing nature of the meaning-making processes in our societies and the ways in which the metaphors that help us explain our conception of the world are framed. Today, politicians abandon rhetorics based on facts and figures and enter a new battlefield: the conflict to catch the attention of the public through grand narratives and stories. If, as Westen defends, people tend to build their understanding of what reality is on stories that create an affective link with actual events, a keyword in the politics of this century will be storytelling. [ (( Westen, Drew. 2007. The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation. New York: Public Affairs. ))]

In a post-truth era where emotions are more important than facts, compelling narratives stand out among political strategies. Manuel Arias Maldonado puts it better: “There seems to be a general tendency towards the decline of rhetorical rationalism as a means of public persuasion, in favor of an authentic language that emphasizes emotional register, personal experience and suspicion towards the elites, that is, that a story excels an argument. We then speak of a post-factual democracy where facts count less than the feelings they produce”. Therefore, it is increasingly difficult to identify the boundaries between reality and fiction, rumours and facts, news and fake stories. [ (( Arias Maldonado, Manuel. 2016. La democracia sentimental. Política y emociones en el siglo XXI. Barcelona: Página Indómita. ))]

In this context, authenticity is regarded as a distinctive value that identifies politicians as genuine and trustworthy. But, as Enli notes, being an authentic politician is not the same as being truthful. [ (( Enli, Gunn. 2015. Mediated Authenticity. How the Media Constructs Reality. New York: Peter Lang. ))] We should instead analyze how authenticity illusions are created or how authenticity is performed. For Enli, authenticity in politics is built on the performance of a candidate who is valued as spontaneous, intimate, and consistent. In her book, she elaborates on the construction of Barack Obama as an authentic politician. Interestingly, we can compare how these three strategies have also been applied to Donald Trump. While Obama was introduced as the unlikely candidate, Trump is a traditional American one: a famous name backed up by personal wealth and genuine intentions. [ (( ibid., 117 ))] Both of them, however, have presented intimate stories from their family and life. If Naomi Klein thinks that Obama went a step further compared to previous presidents in terms of “turning the White House into a kind of reality show starring the lovable Obama clan”, Trump has gone further by taking advantage of his numerous appearances in mainstream media. Today, a star of reality television inhabits the White House. [ (( ibid., cited in Enli 2015, 114 ))]

Second, Obama and Trump have shown consistent performances because they have seemed true to themselves and to the values they defend along the way. But while “mainstream media were accused of having a ‘love affair’ with Obama during his election campaigns,” Trump insists on denouncing a continuous mistreat and unfair coverage by the press. [ (( ibid., 115 ))] Third, in both cases spontaneity is built on social media, especially on Twitter. Their participation in online platforms is designed to create a sense of improvised and unscripted communication with the users-voters. This illusion of authenticity reveals a disquieting trend in today’s emotional democracy: the rising belief that the direct address from politicians through social media (that promotes individualistic interpretations) is a transparent communication with citizens.

In its most extreme version, authenticity can override any notion of truth – especially the truth as presented by the media. If every idea depends on the existence of its opposite, authenticity demands the construction of a deceptive reality. That is the case of the so-called RedPill right, for whom Trump is a disrupter of that deception.

Red or Blue Pill

“Red pill,” when used by members of its community, refers to an “awakening” to a conspiracy of injustices brought on by “social justice warriors”, radical feminism, and political correctness.

“Being red pill”, argues a user at rooshvforum.com (a site in the so-called “manosphere”), “is seeing how the real world works. Donald Trump sees how the real world works”. But how, then, does the world work? Taken from The Matrix, [ (( Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999 ))] the notion of a pill that lifts a veil from reality was adopted early this decade by online groups self-described as “men right’s activists” (MRA) and “pick-up artists”, who used it to describe an “awakening” to the reality that female submission is a myth. Their view is that, as journalist Rebecca Reid has described it, “what women really want from men is a bit of good old-fashioned subjection”. [ (( Reid, Rebeca. 2015. “Welcome to the Red Pill: The angry men’s rights group that ‘knows what women want’.” The Telegraph, November 13. Accessed December 8, 2016 ))]

The concept became some kind of shibboleth for a broadly defined and disperse community, with sites such as trp.red, the subreddit TheRedPill (more than 176000 users) or the Twitter account @redpilltweets (14600 followers). In typical net society fashion, redpillers lack a hierarchy or a governing force, to the extent that the administrator of RedPillPhilosophy.com claims that “when I named it “red pill”, it had nothing to do with what other popular “red pill”-related internet groups believe in”. But the contents of that site do match the trends of other redpill spaces: reports on presumed attacks on Trump supporters or men, criticism of liberals, feminism (with headlines like “BODY SLAMMED! Female Gets Taste of Gender Equality After Shoving Boy”), or the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Journalist Jay Allen described redpillers as a conflation of “conspiracy theorists, Men’s Rights Activists, Pick-Up Artists, GamerGate, even the Neoreaction”: active online communities of mostly white males, tech-savvy, self-described as ”libertarian” and “atheists”. [ (( Allen, Jay. 2015. “A Beginners Guide to the Red Pill Right.” Boingboing, January 28. Accessed December 8, 2016 ))] Redpillers often see themselves as the victims of a “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy plotted by “social justice warriors”, radical feminism, and political correctness.

As a norm, redpillers support Trump: according to journalists Ben Collins and Ken Judy, “the third most popular subreddit for active users of TheRedPill” in August 2016 was r/The_Donald, “Reddit’s home for Trump supporters”. [ (( Collins, Ben and Ken Judi. 2016. “Woman-Haters and Pickup Artists Love Trump on Reddit.” The Daily Beast, August 11. Accessed December 8, 2016 ))] A year ago, a poster at TheRedPill admitted that “[it] makes me feel somewhat embarrassed to admit this, but after taking the pill, I am starting to like Donald Trump and see myself voting for him”, ending his post with “Lessons learned: Trump might embody a lot of red pill principles”.

The noun redpill became a verb, meaning to wake up someone to the realities of gender politics, to the true nature of Trump, and to his unfair treatment by the media. Two months before the elections, a user at r/Ask_The_Donald wrote a post defending his candidate titled “HOW TO: Red Pill Someone”, with a forewarning admitting that “this post obviously has a Trump bias. I am aware that not all of this is 100% truth”. At the end of it, the poster asks: “Have I red pilled you?”, and, after encouraging the readers to fact-check the sources themselves (since they “can be fake”), adds: “If you are however a now converted Trump supporter, check out /r/the_donald and this subreddit to join our culture”.

In the RedPill sphere, thus, supporting Trump is not just a matter of agreeing with his policies or even trusting facts, but of being “awakened”, a sudden clash with an “authentic” reality not unlike the one Neo experiences in The Matrix. A commenter in the same “HOW TO” post writes: “I was given the red pill, and I finally saw what the world truly looked liked. It’s astonishing, honestly”. Becoming a Trump supporter is a passional, transformative experience that reveals the previously known world to be an illusion – a deception that can never be trusted again. It is not only a matter of knowledge as justified true belief, but one of knowledge as salvation and epiphany. It is truly a post-factual, post-truth approach not only to politics, but to knowledge itself, where dogmas are presented as self-realizations and authenticity is seen under a “conspiranoid” lens, a world where the separation between ideas and emotions is virtually non-existent.

Redpillers may not be the majority of voters, but they point to an unavoidable problem: emotions cannot be left out of politics, or they may end up being redirected towards mockeries of debate and dialogue, producing realities where conspiracy theories like Pizzagate are taken seriously. Any opinion, as John Stuart Mill defended, needs to be “fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed”, or it risks being turned into “a dead dogma, not a living truth”. [ (( Robson, John M. 1963 – 91. The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ))] Or, we may add, into conspiracy theories. There is no escaping from emotions and passions, nor should they be excluded from deliberation, but dialogue and debate should be protected by a healthy understanding of these and their role in a sentimental democracy.

Image Credits:

1. The Matrix (author’s screen grab)
2. The Matrix (author’s screen grab)
3. Pizzagate video

Please feel free to comment.




The Scourge of Fake News
Richard Van Heertum / New York Film Academy

fake-news
The Scourge of Fake News

In the wake of a party-changing presidential election or collective traumatic event, there is a tendency for bold proclamations of a sea change in the cultural milieu. In recent history, there are two rather profound examples, the short-lived incantations of a “post-ironic” age after 9/11 [ (( Randall, Eric. “The ‘Death of Irony,” and Its Many Incarnations,” The Atlantic. September 9, 2011. ))] and the rather absurd “post-racial America” discourse that followed the victory of Obama in 2008. [ (( See, for example, the NPR piece “A New ‘Post Racial’ Political Era in America” (All Things Considered, January 28, 2008), or Toure and Dyson, Michael Eric, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to Be Black Now. New York: Atria Books, 2011. ))] With the election of Donald Trump last month, a new narrative has developed, proclaiming a “post-truth” world, where fact and fiction are indistinguishable and “fake news” has sullied the public sphere beyond recognition. [ (( See Egan, Timothy, “The Post-Truth Presidency,” New York Times, November 4, 2016; Holland, Justin, “Welcome to Donald Trump’s Post-Fact America,” RollingStone, November 30, 2015; or Glasser, Susan, “Covering Politics in a ‘Post-Trust’ America,” Brooking Institute, December 2, 2016. ))]

Unlike the stories of a post-ironic or post-racial age, there appears to be less hyperbole in the more recent arguments around the inception of a “post-fact” America. In fact, there is growing empirical evidence to support these claims. One such source was BuzzFeed, which showed that fake news stories on Facebook, in some cases passed along by Russian hackers, may have fooled a rather large percentage of the electorate into voting for a man who does not appear to have their best interests at heart. They found that during the final, critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, compared with 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments for the top 19 articles from reputable sources. [ (( Silverman, Craig, “This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook,” BuzzFeed News, 16 November 2016. ))]

1-fakenews_image1buzzfeednews
Total Facebook Engagements for Top 20 Election Stories

While it is difficult to quantify the effects of inaccurate or false information on individuals voting behavior, a poll released by the PPP on December 9 provides some rather startling findings that do support a voting bloc less informed than their peers. Among the results, Trump voters were far afield of the 50% who have a favorable rating of Obama (45% unfavorable) with a mere five percent holding a favorable view of the outgoing President versus a full 90 percent who see him in a negative light. More troubling were the false beliefs they held about his presidential legacy. Under Obama, the Dow has risen from 7,946 to 19,615 and unemployment has fallen from 7.8 to 4.6 percent. A majority of Americans are aware of both facts, but not Trump voters. Among them, 39 percent say the Dow has actually dropped under Obama and 67 percent believe unemployment has risen. On top of this, 40% of Trump voters believe their candidate won the popular vote, 60% believe millions voted illegally, 73% believe George Soros is paying protestors to take to the streets post-election, and an astounding 53% have inexplicably decided that California’s electorate should not count in the popular vote tally.

2-popular-vote
Trump Voters on Who Won the Popular Vote

3-unemployment
Trump Voters on Unemployment Rate

4-stock-market
Trump Voters on Stock Market

The reality of the contemporary crisis of democratic legitimacy is thus clear and yet the panic surrounding the “post-truth” America fails to acknowledge the long history of both manipulative political discourse and of radical ontological skepticism. The ability to spread false information has existed for as long as modern politics but has, ironically, risen precipitously in recent years, aided by the very tools that were supposed to provide the entire world with a free and readily available “fact-checking” sources. The foundation of the new skepticism also has deep roots whose seeds rose to prominence among social critics in the 1960s, building on ideas that go all the way back to Ancient Greece. One was Marshall McLuhan, an English professor in Toronto, who predicted the coming of an “electronic age” where retribalization would initiate a world dominated more by faith, mysticism, and mythology than science and reason. A few years later, the French Situationalist Guy Debord proclaimed the arrival of a Society of the Spectacle where all human ideas and emotions are commodified and sold back to the public in a representational field that was superimposed on top of reality. Below, I briefly consider their central arguments and relevance to examining our contemporary political malaise.

Marshall McLuhan was arguably one of the most brilliant cultural critiques of the 20th century, though his popularity in academic circles has waned in the years following his death. His seminal work, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (1962), however, rather prodigiously predicted the world we live in today. McLuhan was the first to speak of the inchoate global village, imploding time and space through modern technology that radically alters our relationship to the social, economic, and political spheres, forcing us to choose sides in the key battles of the era (like the Civil Rights Movement). McLuhan was a technological determinist who believed that major social transformation was initiated by impactful new technologies, most profoundly the book, which commenced an age of scientific, technological, and economic advancement, before the more recent “electronic age,” which was pushing back toward the Zeitgeist of the oral tradition that preceded the “literate man.”

He argued this was accompanied by a change in consciousness that made the distant near and altered the very nature of our relationship to the world around us. Among the ways media specifically affected us was his famously misunderstood “the medium is the message,” which argued that the form of new media was substantially more important in determining its social effects than the content. To McLuhan, it didn’t much matter what you watched on television as much as the fact you were watching television at all. The reason was that particular technologies altered the nature of our sense ratios, focusing attention on some while neglecting others. McLuhan believed the electronic age, with the advent of radio, television, record players and the like, was replacing book culture and what he called the “literate man” with more tribal communities where consciousness itself became simulated and the time between action and reaction shrank to the point that there was little time for contemplation and critical thinking.

In his estimation, this change was moving society from a world of detached rationality and individuality to one punctuated by retribalization and mythology, where the individual becomes subservient to the larger social whole, undermining reason in lieu of group mythology. While many at the time pointed to the cultural revolution that soon ensued, many of his ideas were still relevant and they have only become more so in the digital/internet/smart phone world of today. Among the many prognostications that have come true are clear signs of retribalization occurring in contemporary Americans society today. Facebook and social media in general allow us to codify our friendships and business associations into well-defined groups. Specialized news outlets create political insularity where many are unwilling to even consider the arguments of their ideological foes and are often openly hostile to them. New virtual communities, based more on taste and predilection, have replaced proximity or old social lines of demarcation. At the same time, aging populations hold even more steadfastly to those old identity markers seemingly dispirited and alienated by the more diverse populations that now surround them. This has not been all bad, of course, but it has drawn ideological lines in the sand that have served the rise of right wing populism in both America and across Europe. The general decline in quality of life in the West dating back to the 1970s has been redefined in this discourse by a narrative that places white as victims of affirmative action, feminism, the liberal media, the liberal elite and, more recently, Muslims, PC culture, and immigrants. Trump played on all of these narratives at once, using white resentment as the foundation to spread misinformation and lies, largely immune to truth as the very institutions that could challenge those ideas have been disparaged as biased and thus untrustworthy. The end result is that mythology replaces science and reason as the defining founts of truth and echo chambers supplant balanced, reasoned, and civil debate.

From a more Marxist/postmodern perspective, Guy Debord took these ideas even further in his 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle. In the book, Debord argued we live in a world where representations of reality had replaced reality itself and relationships between humans had been largely replaced by relationships between humans and commodities. In this new configuration, commodities have colonized social life with social relationships between people mediated through images, leading to an impoverished quality of life and a lack of authenticity that distort human perceptions, degrade knowledge, and hinder critical thought. Debord believed the new channels of knowledge production were employed to assuage reality, with the spectacle obfuscating the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated, never-ending present that disarms the channels for dissent and social transformation. The vast right wing news empire perfectly fits this description, cultivating a siege mentality that dehumanizes the many others, victimizing the power elites and treating all knowledge as a battleground of perception.

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Still from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

Many are indirectly aware of these theories as channeled through the work of the famous French philosopher Baudrillard in The Matrix Trilogy [ (( See Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. ))] or the translation of McLuhan’s worldview in David Cronenberg bizarre 1983 film Videodrome. Both provide a compelling visual metaphor of a world that is not lived as much as it is relived, with the average American spending countless hours daily surfing through the hyperreal miasma of popular and celebrity culture, the manufacturing of desire in the worlds of advertising and televisions and the shift to news as infotainment. For almost every social phenomenon, there is an almost endless array of narratives that describe both its contours and potential solutions, with a readymade shield to protect us from inconvenient truths that might challenge our deeply held shibboleths.

With McLuhan, Debord, and Baudrillard, we see three related theories on how reality has been distorted into subjective pods where an individual can live cocooned, comfortably oblivious of news or information that could shatter their worldview. The result has been a dramatic increase in political insularity that cuts off the channels for dialogue and debate, of conspiracy theories that distort real world problems and solutions, and a resultant deep cynicism, all working to undermine democracy and redefine the relationship of the public to our social and political institutions. Believing is seeing today, as the documentarian Errol Morris put it, with the average American more likely to see the world through their ideological beliefs as to alter those beliefs based on the empirical world around them. With the election of Trump, we have seen the culmination of these trends, as the thin line between truth and fiction disintegrates into an epistemological jungle where just about anything can be considered true. With a President Elect who finds little reason to adhere to traditional notions of truth, no problem is too big to be washed away in a tidal wave of half-truths, lies, and mythologies, altering the very contours of our reality and, in the process, the path of our collective future.

Image Credits:

1. The Scourge of Fake News
2. Total Facebook Engagements for Top 20 Election Stories from BuzzFeed News
3. Trump Voters on Who Won the Popular Vote (author’s screen grab)
4. Trump Voters on Unemployment Rate (author’s screen grab)
5. Trump Voters on Stock Market (author’s screen grab)
6. Still from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

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