There is some truth in Donald Trump’s cry of ‘fake news’ – it is a historical norm

During Roman times, disinformation was rife. Conspirators used fake news about Julius Caesar appointing himself emperor to engender support for his assassination. Subsequently, Augustus used false information about Mark Anthony and Cleopatra to discredit his rival for power

Donald Trump denounced the media at his Florida rally
Donald Trump denounced the media at his Florida rally

“Post truth” and “fake news” were popular choices for phrase of the year.

We live in a world, apparently, where debates and decisions are increasingly removed from facts. Pundits point to the populace’s loss of trust in the mass media which has dropped to its lowest level in history. Part of the blame, they argue, lies with the industry and “fake news”. New technologies rapidly propagate lies (now known as “alternative facts”), rumour and gossip instead of accurate information.

None of this is new. In the late 19th century, Léo Taxil achieved renown as a creator of fake news which included persuading the French Navy to chase imaginary sharks off Marseilles and persuading those with an interest in antiquity to seek out a non-existent Roman city near Geneva. During Roman times, disinformation was rife. Conspirators used fake news about Julius Caesar appointing himself emperor to engender support for his assassination. Subsequently, Augustus used false information about Mark Anthony and Cleopatra to discredit his rival for power.

The debate about post truth and fake news is predicated on an important assertion: a golden past where things were different and better. This was never really true.

News, information and opinion has always been designed, in reality, to present events in a certain way to influence decisions and achieve specified outcomes. Causality flowed in complex ways. In relation to the Spanish American war, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst is alleged to have said: “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”

It has always been an exercise in shaping what people think about (agenda) and increasingly what to think about those things (opinion). In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann found news media provides the link between actual events and people’s image of those events.

The fundamentals around reportage have remained relatively unaltered over time.

News presents itself as fact, an accurate record of events or knowledge that one does not experience directly. But the informational content is always the rendering of recollections and interpretations, filtered through the complex lens of opinion, preconception, world view and motive. If quantum mechanics renders matter ambiguous then news renders concrete events subjective and contestable.

What is reported is a function of logistics. It must be known. It must be timely to accommodate the news cycle or schedule. The item must be the right size. As Jerry Seinfeld once remarked: “It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world everyday always just exactly fits the newspaper.”

Today, all news must neatly fit available time on TV, online constraints or the 140 characters of a tweet.

Items must be familiar. There is a preference for direct and easy items that are easy to explain or interpret. Drama, violence, conflict or the sudden and unexpected attains elevated importance. Events that are personal or can be humanised through individuals or increasingly a star journalist are favoured. Items involving well-known individuals, nations or organisations are more newsworthy.

Trump accuses 'dishonest media' of fake news at campaign rally

Commercial pressures or competition between rival media or individual reporters also influence coverage. The need to attract and maintain subscribers and advertising is constant. Even the most modern of media is slave to the need for revenue. The language may be different – page views, eyeballs, clickbait – but the focus on attracting advertisers is constant.

News has always been set against a wallpaper of ideology. As author 20th-century author Helen Swaffer put it “freedom of the press… is freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers won’t object to.”

The advent of electronic media, especially online platforms, has not altered these basic dynamics. It has weakened the ability to enforce authority, power and influence vertically from the top to the public. New media has encouraged horizontal fragmentation allowing the same event to be packaged for individual tribes, targeting specific pre-existing biases. Information can now be shared within networks where credibility is based on member’s mutual trust rather than rigorous fact checking. But journalistic practices, now cited with nostalgia, were never been free of bias and agendas where selective use of data buttressed a viewpoint. Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan argued that media’s purpose was to create artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.

Self-referential in nature, news is what is reported and what is reported is news. News and truth are fundamentally different concepts. Mankind invents rules to live and think by. News is one of these rules, being a central element in framing information. It signals an event or presents information or knowledge in a specific way to create a desired picture of reality to influence how citizens think and act.

Control of news has always been politically crucial in establishing issues and manufacturing consensus about necessary actions or policies. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, newspeak, with its constantly changing vocabulary designed to suppress undesirable concepts and limit freedom of expression, is a mechanism for controlling the population. Command of the news and means of communication defines power more precisely than the monopoly of capital and the means of production.

The ideals of a free unbiased Fifth Estate and correct information which provides the basis for considered policies and electoral decisions has always been and will be an illusion, like many other human constructs. The debate is and always will be about who controls the news, information and shapes agendas. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it: “all things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth”.

Satyajit Das is a former financier. His latest book is Age of Stagnation (also published in some countries as A Banquet of Consequences). He is also author of Traders Guns and Money and Extreme Money

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