Column: Why we MUST fight fakes

Published on January 24, 2017.

The inauguration of the Trump presidency is a true, deeply disorienting pivot in history; it may lead to the end of the post-World War II international order. The only certainty is uncertainty: As his dark inaugural address reminded us and his first acts in office confirmed, Donald Trump will upend many rules and traditions designed to limit the power of the American president, and as a consequence dramatically reshape US relations with the rest of the world.

But many Filipinos watching the Trump takeover over the weekend may have felt a shiver of déjà vu. We’ve seen this kind of brash talk, media hostility and enemy-oriented war footing before; when President Duterte speaks of the illegal drugs problem he is fixated on, it can assume the contours of the apocalypse. If Trump has his American Carnage, Mr. Duterte has his Philippine Collapse (or, maybe, Pambansang Bad Trip). If Trump has his “movement,” Mr. Duterte has his 16 million voters (a part of the body politic he sometimes mistakes for the entire country). And if Trump has his Twitter-enabled, cable-news-fueled campaign against media, Mr. Duterte has his social media army (and his sometimes uncontained contempt for inquisitive journalists).

But in at least one aspect, President Trump has trumped President Duterte. From Day One, the American president and his administration have declared war on reality; both Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer have for instance falsely claimed a much larger estimate for the inaugural crowd, despite overwhelming TV, photographic, and eyewitness evidence; and adviser and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway rationalized the false claims as “alternative facts.” The most that Mr. Duterte and his various spokespersons have done is either blame the media for reporting his statements, or ask journalists to exercise “creative imagination” in interpreting the remarks.

To be sure, some of Mr. Duterte’s supporters on social media (as well as some who are likely affiliated with defeated vice presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos) have proceeded to try to create an alternative reality, even generating obviously fake news (“the best president in the solar system,” according to “NASA”) which nevertheless manages to be shared widely. Even those of us who recognize that standard media’s gatekeeping power has been diminished and accept social media’s ability to drive the conversation—we all must feel a sense of foreboding, not because the power to define the news is now shared (much of the agenda-setting news still appears first in newspapers or on TV, such as the killing of the Korean businessman inside police headquarters; at the same time, some of the biggest players in the social space are actually standard media organizations), but because the democratic project itself is at stake.

Trump’s alternative universe makes the political thinker Hannah Arendt necessary reading again; in the 13th chapter of her “Origins of Totalitarianism,” for instance, she explains why a state of confusion is indispensable to authoritarian rule.

“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

This is not to say that journalism in both standard and social media is blameless. But it has what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel defined as a “sorting out process,” which allows its practitioners to correct mistakes and thus, over time, offer ever more accurate accounts. If they begin by chasing what Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, called “the best obtainable version of the truth,” and then return to the story again and again, in smaller and smaller circles, they can help un-confuse the ideal subjects of authoritarianism.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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