Welcome to the post-truth era, part II #alternativefacts edition
"You're saying it's a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that."
-Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, Meet the Press, January 22nd, 2017
"Any negative polls are fake news."
-Donald Trump, Twitter, February 6th, 2017
"The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command."
George Orwell, 1984
In the modern world we need not fear censorship. Information overload and ideological bubbles present a formidable challenge to the foundation of sane and functional society. The demands of a modern lifestyle make it difficult to devote adequate time to uncover the truth. An unwavering assault against reality is being unleashed by the highest levels of authority in our nation. This assault is under-girded by sensationalized propaganda which is disseminated instantaneously on social media and viewed through smartphones. No longer is there a common lens through which events and actions are viewed; certain people have chosen to enter a seemingly unpierceable bubble of misinformation. Political power depends on keeping only a certain demographic properly disinformed, namely: The Rust Belt, Appalachia, and the South. Large segments of the population have been rendered disoriented, confused, and misinformed by virtue of an unyielding campaign aimed at tarnishing and delegitimizing the media and journalism, coupled with an unrelenting fountain of falsehoods, lies, and misinformation emanating directly from the POTUS. The post-truth era is marked by a departure from facts and evidence to an embrace of visceral appeals to emotion.
In the post-truth era there is no such thing as lies or falsehoods, only "alternative facts". Or so claimed Kellyanne Conway during a nationally-televised interview in which she framed the categorically-false words of the POTUS as "alternative facts." Such a chilling quote didn't come from 1984, Brave New World, or The Hunger Games, but rather a member of trump's administration - the Counselor to the President - a woman who has an office in the White [pride] House. This incredible moment arose in defense to trump's demonstrably untrue claim that 3-5 million illegal immigrants voted in the election, thus costing him the popular vote. This quote by Kellyanne Conway illuminates a dark truth of the current age - the highest levels of our government and society are consciously working toward disorienting, misleading, and confusing the population at large.
trump has cast himself as the sole arbiter of the truth. Having recently proclaimed the mainstream media is "the enemy of the people", he is attempting to disorient and confuse the public. He is quite literally claiming that everything critical of him is false, or fake news, and only he can be trusted for what is real. One cannot believe the negative stories they see or hear about him, everybody knows the mainstream media isn't trustworthy, right? Of course trump is a pathological liar who has warped reality beyond recognition, as have many leaders throughout history. The issue is, despite all evidence to the contrary, a large segment of the US population are swimming in a universe of alternative facts presented to them through a parallel media structure which appeals to their emotions rather than their logic or reasoning.
The smartphone is the apparatus through which the echo chamber effect has become so prominent: significant numbers of citizens are living in an alternative news reality in which events, quotations, and facts are warped beyond belief. The information superhighway has become a one-way road to an alternative reality in which there is no firm foundation of objective reality or logical reasoning.
Perhaps the most infamous "alternative fact" to originate from this administration is "The Bowling Green Massacre." Another one of Conway's classic utterances, this one arose in defense to trump's travel ban of Muslims. She invented a terrorist attack. I repeat, a member of the President's administration created a terrorist attack out of thin air in order to justify an unconstitutional ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries. These brazen lies might have been more successful had it not been for technology, astute observers, and engaged citizens. Conway attempted to retract her comments and blame them on misspeaking, but it came to light that she had made those comments before, multiple times in fact. Rather than an isolated incident, this is a pervasive trend of the nascent administration: inventing "alternative facts" to justify authoritarian behavior.
Democracy is rooted in truth. Without respect and adherence to the truth, it becomes very difficult for the public to be properly informed and thus participate in civic society. The highest office in the land spewing so many falsehoods and factually incorrect statements renders the public disoriented, confused, and misinformed. This is not a symptom, but a goal. In addition, the POTUS has adopted a strategy of 'everything is false, anything is possible' to deal with his critics and detractors. Of course Russia didn't hack the DNC, it was probably some 400 lb. guy on his bed! (note: trump actually said this) The average person simply cannot keep up with the avalanche of disinformation emanating directly from the POTUS. When authority figures appeal to emotion, it is manipulation. When the public is manipulated, they make decisions which are not based on logic, reason, or objective reality. When those aforementioned qualities are cast aside, there will be negative repercussions. It is not normal or with precedent that the President is attempting to do this to the American public. In the post-truth era, the average citizen has legitimate trouble discerning what is true from what is fake.
The "Bowling Green Massacre" may seem relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of politics. Maybe she did misspeak? Maybe it was just an accident? But this is only one example of the highest authority in our land inventing atrocities as justification for their actions. trump held a campaign rally a month into his presidency and cited what happened "last night in Sweden" as grounds for his travel ban of Muslims. A crowd of thousands roared and shrieked in fear and disgust, whipped into a frenzy based partially on imaginary terrorist events that never occurred. When confronted and mocked globally for fabricating terrorist attacks, trump demurred, citing a segment on Fox News by hyper-conservative Tucker Carlson which links migrants to elevated rates of crime. The segment actually does exist, and is - of course - easily debunked. There is no correlation between legal or illegal immigrants and crime.
There is a palpable irony here: a compulsive liar citing infotainment on TV as the foundation for his immoral and unconstitutional actions. In the post-truth era, there is a reality-TV President who gets his information from the lowest ledgers of TV pundits on Fox News. It has only been a month and even the most dedicated politicos are having a hard time keeping up with this sprawling web of false information. The truth is out there and easily accessible with a simple Google search, but herein lies the problem: vast numbers of people refuse to seek the truth and refuse to leave their echo chamber. Large quantities of the population reside in an online alternative reality, consuming hyper-partisan media, quite literally viewing only the propaganda which fits their worldview. Imagine going on Facebook or Twitter and 98% of your friends list shares and views news and media from fringe sites such as Breitbart or The Drudge Report, purposefully dwelling in the factually-devoid realm of the pro-trump online echo chamber. Imagine all of your accumulated intelligence coming from misinformation and refusing to acknowledge any evidence to the contrary because 'the media can't be trusted', as you know...
It has only been a month of this Presidency and nothing major has happened...yet. The torrent of lies and misinformation is already incapacitating the public at large, but what will happen in the event of a major attack or geopolitical development? If and when something truly serious transpires, will the public at large be informed and rational? Or will a deluge of lies and disinformation be used to manipulate the public and trick them into surrendering their human rights and civil liberties? Or revoking those of the other? If a troubling number of trump supporters believe the baseless and farcical claim that 3-5 million people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton, how will they discern between fact and fiction and make rational choices in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11, for example?
You may be saying: the truth is out there, people can tell the difference, with technology we will not be fooled. To a certain extent, you may be correct. Indeed, the truth is very easy to find, in many cases only a simple Google search away. And yes, there are many people who take an active interest in politics and history and seek out the truth. The question seems to be: which group outnumbers which? As well as: have the people who are well-informed moved to California, Colorado, and New York? It is certain Americans have segregated themselves ideologically; liberals (especially the young) are moving en masse to the West Coast and other liberal states. This means areas critical to the election of the POTUS, namely the Rust Belt and Florida, have experienced a drain of ideologically liberal people, thus allowing trump a path to victory and re-election.
While the truth is out there, many people simply choose not to follow or acknowledge it. They quite literally live in an alternate reality based on alternative facts. The accumulation of alternative facts during Pres. Obama's eight-year tenure have warped reality beyond recognition for a certain segment of US citizens. trump voters overwhelmingly believe in utter falsehoods regarding the unemployment rate, Wall Street, the popular vote, voter fraud, and George Soros' paid-protestor conspiracy theory, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Smartphones and the internet have ushered in an era in which individuals view only what pleases their biases and fits their narrative. No longer are sources censored, the public is inundated with information and allowed to choose what they want. It is virtually impossible for a society and country to function properly when there is no fixation in objective reality, when we are not grounded by facts.
A perfect example of this manifested itself in trump's unhinged press conference on February 16th, 2017. By any objective or reasonable account, the POTUS was detached from reality, angrily attacking the press and vacillating between positions of incoherence. At one point, he decried Russian involvement in the US election, stating "RUSSIA IS FAKE NEWS!" All in all, it was a delusional diatribe which more-closely resembled the rantings of an unhinged madman than the POTUS. In the parallel conservative news media, however, it was hailed as a success and dignified rebuke of a corrupt press and establishment.
Rush Limbaugh heaped praise on the President, saying "it was masterful. It was the truth. When you've got the truth and when you're telling people the truth of what you really think, you don't have to remember it." He continued on in a quote that personifies appeals to emotion in a post-truth political environment, saying "It's in you heart. You don't need a cram course in what you believe. You don't really need advisers to tell you what to believe. You believe it, it's in your heart, it's in your mind, and you can easily explain it to people."
Fox News' primetime star Sean Hannity wasn't shy in adulating the POTUS for his press conference, portraying the inarticulate stream of consciousness ramblings as a valiant crusade against the "alt-left" media establishment. All across the board, members of the parallel conservative news media structure rose up to praise and adorn trump for his objectively insane press conference. trump deceived and spread disinformation on a variety of subjects ranging from the size of his electoral victory, Russian involvement in the US election, his campaign's ties and connections to Russia, the implementation of the travel ban, and more. He told baseless lies and stated fiction that was demonstrably untrue and flippantly misinformed the public. Based on these falsehoods, describing the press conference as anything other than disturbing and incoherent is objectively false. This isn't a difference of opinion, this is one side defending claims which are false and not true beyond a shadow of a doubt. Millions of Americans, however, were told a completely different depiction of what transpired. The aforementioned examples of conservative media weren't spinning a story or taking a different perspective, they created an alternative reality which was consumed by millions.
Representative Lamar Smith of Texas went a step further, admonishing the public in stating: "Better to get your news directly from the President. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth." As a reminder, Rep. Smith is referring to a man who claims: 1) President Barack Obama is a secret Kenyan Muslim 2) 3-5 million people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton in the election 3) He witnessed large groups of Muslims cheering in the streets on 9/11 4) The media has stopped reporting upon terrorist attacks, among many other patently false and nearly ludicrous statements. Essentially commanding the public to ignore their brains and knowledge, it is disconcerting other members of the government are engaging in such bizarre post-truth behavior.
trump's crusade and attacks against the media are representative of his disdain for the truth. In railing against the mainstream media he is actually fighting against the truth, because the truth isn't beneficial or flattering for him. The obfuscation of the truth rests upon two pillars: 1) the rise and mass-promotion of conservative parallel news media propaganda sites such as Breitbart and InfoWars, and 2) tarnishing and discrediting the "mainstream media" and attacking media sources which criticize or hold the current administration accountable.
The first pillar is flourishing and resides soundly alongside the POTUS in the West Wing of the White House. Steve Bannon is the former head of Breitbart, an openly pro-trump vehicle for white nationalism. He is now the right-hand man of the POTUS and a member of the National Security Council. He even described his website as 'the platform of the alt-right.' He has not stepped down from Breitbart, taking only a thinly veiled leave-of-absence from his propaganda firm. His close proximity to the President and active ideological role in crafting policy raises the spectre of a state propaganda company originating directly from the White House.
The second pillar has been a constant trope of candidate and now President trump. Having waged an unending war against the mainstream media, except Fox News, trump has labeled the media as 'the opposition' and set forth to destroy their credibility amongst US citizens. His fight against the media has only intensified over time and it appears as if he is making progress in his attempt to discredit the media at large. Of course dictators typically target the media in their quest for totalitarianism, and corrupt leaders have existed throughout history. What is remarkable and chilling is how large segments of the US population are in agreement with trump and his demonstrably false statements. What is bothersome and worrying is how there is no anchor to objective reality for tens of millions of citizens. What is deeply problematic is that separate realities exist and events and facts are warped to fit a narrative.
Furthermore, it appears as if the current administration is intentionally misleading the media so they can discredit and delegitimize them. They have followed a relatively simple formula: 1) Present a draft memo of a radical executive order to a government agency or department 2) Wait and hope a bureaucrat with morals and/or ethics leaks said draft to the press 3) Refuse any contact with media; ignore all inquiries by reporters and journalists to set the record before publishing leaked memo 4) Upon release, decry the story as "fake news" and deny they ever had any intentions of signing the order 5) Attack and discredit the media from the White House and POTUS directly using aforementioned "fake news story" as a prime example; assert callously: 'They didn't even ask us before the ran the story.' 6) Rinse and repeat until the media hesitate to publish new stories in the future. A great example of this is a leaked draft in which the trump administration proposed the idea of deploying 100,000 National Guard Troops to round up undocumented immigrants in the streets of America. Sean Spicer, in classic post-truth form, denied everything and mocked and chided the media.
While any rational observer can clearly see this is false rhetoric and extreme manipulation, master propagandists of the parallel media structure can use these examples to craft a narrative that the mainstream media is not valid. This idea is spreading throughout the US as trump and his administration have waged war on the media. Post-truth (read: low-quality) "news" sites can twist these cases and disseminate highly influential propaganda quickly. Said propaganda can travel at light-speed through the annals of social media. Smartphones blast the content directly into the viewers' mind through sites like Twitter and Facebook. The echo chamber effect is very strong and some never leave their online bubbles. Fox News simply doesn't cover negative stories against trump and instead focus their efforts on matters of great importance such as emails. Many people have simply chosen not to even acknowledge news or media that doesn't explicitly cater to their biases and worldview.
In summation, we are faced with a dire threat to the truth and objective reality. The information age and exponential evolution of technology has given us access to all of the knowledge every compiled by human beings. Despite this, we seem to be regressing into sectarian feuds and ethnic turmoil. The average citizen has trouble discerning truth from fiction in regards to reality; they have been rendered disoriented and unsure what to believe. Humanity seems to have been pushed to the brink, teetering between two paths: one toward a global consciousness marked by understanding and connection, the other toward international chaos and turmoil characterized by disdain for the other and virulent ethno-nationalism.