The Truth Manipulation Syndrome

When Donald Trump was first elected president in 2016, most of us assumed that we knew what was about to happen; a buffoon of a man sat on a throne, elevated above his competency, with ludicrous policy decisions leading his fanbase to become gradually eroded as his aura and power faded slowly into the background. For all the disappointment of his victory, most were sure that he would be nothing more than a lame president, serving a few years in which he would get to live in a nice house and play with some new toys, before being evicted at the next election cycle, and things would quickly revert to the normal order of things. A president would be installed whose lies were subtle but visible enough to be acceptable, whose corruption stops at taking a few cheeky back-handlers, and whose policy decisions amounted to a bit of superficial tinkering around the edges – much in the way that democracy has functioned for the past few centuries or so. We would go back to moaning that nothing really changed, all the while being thankful that, after what we thought the Trump presidency would look like, that status quo would continue for decades more.

Although his four years started with the anticipated insanity, what with the border wall failing to materialise, and policy after policy being rejected, things soon became somewhat less amusing. It began with a series of events that, whilst serious, were easily reversible; banning individuals from entering the country, and detaining children in cages. These things, whilst horrendous for those on the receiving end, and tragic for those who suffered, would have required only a few marks on a piece of paper to undo by whoever was to be the next occupant of the White House.

And then things began to take a serious turn for the worse.

Trump began to transform himself from sitting president, to a quasi cult leader, appealing to any and every populist cry across his nation in order to bolster his failing polls and draw a following. He appealed to those poor, downtrodden minorities; racists, misogynists, homophobes, xenophobes, religious zealots of the Judeo-Christian flavour, and promised to them that whatever they so desired. Forget that he was, as a twice-divorced adulterer with a preference for foreign wives who immigrated under shady conditions, the antithesis of many of their beliefs. Yet this strange practice began to work. Those with outdated views of the world, who desired some fantasy of what the past was like, gravitated towards him as though he would cure all their ills, speak to all their fears, and heal all of their divisions.

As with the weeks after his election, this was all seen as something rather amusing by the free-thinking, liberal population across the globe. What they had failed to notice, however, were the dangerous seeds that Trump had sewn throughout the population. All of those mentions of ‘fake news’, ‘liberal agenda’, ‘lock her up’, ‘build the wall’, that were so derided, had so successfully cast doubt upon the traditional mechanisms of state that for a significant portion of the population, the only place they believed they could find truth was in the words of the leader himself.

But then began something very strange, and very terrifying. The words coming from the president were not those of denial, or the propagandising of events in his favour. Instead, he began to create his own truth.

Ridiculous claims were made – ‘windmills cause cancer’, ‘my approval ratings are the highest of any president’, ‘unemployment is at its lowest ever point’, ‘the economy is at its strongest point ever’, etc. etc. ad infinitum. We knew that this would be a feature of this president; he had espoused the Obama birthed conspiracy for years. Whilst this behaviour was relatively harmless, if annoying, to begin with, the claims slowly transformed into the downright dangerous. He, began claiming that the Covid-19 epidemic was under control, that they had discovered a cure, that there was a vaccine. People died through these lies, yet Trump would always find somebody else to blame. Either the scientists had given bad advice, the media had misrepresented his words, or the public had failed to understand him. It was the ultimate in gaslighting. It was easy to see the damage he had done to the public psyche. People in their millions ignored the advice of expert scientists and doctors, and paraded through the streets, ignoring social distancing measures that were supposed to keep them safe, and demanding, in spite of the tens of thousands who were dying, that businesses stayed open regardless of risk. Trump said it was safe, and people believed him. Trump said the economy must keep on moving, and his army of followers were ready to carry out his orders.

Yet as scary as this is, it pales in comparison to what has come since.

The large part of Trump’s success is the result of an image of himself crafted on social media, and the direct connection that this new-fangled technology allows him. No other political figure has quite so cannily understood how to manipulate the power of a new technology since, if we are honest about it, the 1930s. His social media following is as devout as that of any religious movement of cult practice, and they defend his each and every move rabidly, with thousands of individuals ready and willing to jump to his defence of even the most outlandish comments and claims; his words are held by this group as the ultimate truth in the world. And it is in this that the most alarming echos of the 1930s are heard.

Trump has encouraged his following to see the Second Amendment as not just optional, but compulsory. He has managed to convince them that political rivals are doing everything in their power to remove this right. As such, he has essentially created a quasi-private militia, willing not only to defend his honour upon the wilds of the internet, but out in the real world too. He has bypassed the traditional mechanisms of national peacekeeping, in order to create a body that would do his bidding at a single word. This state-within-a-state arrangement has, as noted above, already been the feature of a past state in the 1930s.

But the most alarming moment in the presidency of Donald Trump was the moment that the veil of civilised behaviour was finally lifted; the moment when in an advertisement placed on Facebook, he chose to use the imagery of the Nazi Party in order to suggest that those on the political left were a terrorist organisation. The red triangle, used as a symbol denoting that an individual was a political dissident under the Nazi regime, is one of many that they used in order to categorise the enemies of state. For Trump to use it was unforgivable; either is was used knowingly and he has unveiled his true political goals, or it was used unknowingly in which case he is simply not responsible enough to be in such a position of power.

One might think that this glimpse beneath the mask might have turned people away from Trump, but instead, his online army has been out in force to validate his comments.

Facebook, taking action against the president for the first time, accepted that the use of Nazi symbolism was a form of hate-speech, and dutifully removed traces of it from their platform. However, the damage had already been done. Every person in the connected world knew what had happened, and everybody either sided with the president, or reacted with revulsion to his actions.

Yet, I suspect that this was simply a toe-in-the-water for the president, in order to gauge what public reaction to such overtly brazen displays of fascist symbolism would be. As his followers reacted positively towards it, I don’t think it will be the last time such an approach is taken.

We shall wait and see…

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The Damned Media

Over recent days and weeks, it is fair to say that there has been considerable unrest across a number of countries, including the United Kingdom. The fires of civil disobedience have been stoked, in part, due to the inequality that still continues to be a fact of life for many within the black, and other repressed minority communities. Whilst it has been heartening to see the inclusion of white allies in calls to take action against injustices, it has also broken the hearts of many to see the outing of neo-Nazis and fascists, who have taken to the streets in a show of hatred against all that is different to the straight-white power hegemony that has existed across the globe since the early days of European colonialism.

These racist, homophobic, misogynist, fascist nut-jobs have been, in recent years, emboldened by the rise of the political right, particularly in (thought not limited to) the English-speaking world. Here, we have seen nationalistic insularism become the new alter upon which politicians have decried the evils of immigration and cultural integration; difference has become a dirty concept. An increasing number of followers of this not-so-new cult of hatred have lapped it all up, seeking more and more, as if requiring their next hit of heroin. And just like those who cannot control an addiction to heroin, a tipping point has been reached in which all sensible activity has been suspended in the crazed need to get their next hit of hatred. For these people, it has become a need, and there are dealers who are ready, willing, and able to supply them with their fix.

I am, of course, talking about that symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media. On the face of it, this should be a simple relationship in which the politician speaks, and the media reports what is said. Yet, as with so many things in this modern world, that is simply not the case.

It seems that the media has, in recent years, taken it upon itself not only to report the news, but also to create it. They no longer need the input of the political side of the relationship. They have surpassed the requirement. This is a terrifying prospect; the organisations that we reply upon to let us know what is going on in the world around us are manipulating events in order to sell more advertising space. The shinier and more exciting a story is, the more people will consume the article. Therefore, media organisations are in a constant battle with one another in order to ensure their survival by providing the consumer with the most tantalising and exhilarating stories possible. This is capitalism at its not-so-finest.

But surely, you ask, this is all just a conspiracy dreamt up in the mind of some oily little person in the basement of their responsible adult’s home? It does sound awfully like it. But when one looks, even with just a hint of criticality, it is easy to see that it could not be more horrifically true. I shall highlight this with a few choice examples.

On the face of it, when Charles Saatchi grabbed Nigella Lawson by the throat whilst having breakfast in a London restaurant, the story was clear; an abusive husband physically harms his wife. There can be no excuse for this kind of physical violence. And initially, that was the story. Our national treasure, that slightly-naughty tv cook with a bubbly personality and assets that drew men to her shows, had been dis-respected, and we were not going to have it. However, as the months drew on, stories began to appear in the press about how Nigella was a habitual cocaine user, may not have been faithful, and was a poor wife. The media had begun to reframe her not as an innocent victim of a violent attack, but as a person who perhaps had driven Charles to do something out of character. Why on earth would this kind of story manipulation take place? What could be gained from it? Well, aside from dragging out a tragic tale of love gone wrong, it was to fill column inches and to draw out more details; Nigella could not simply stay silent and have her name tarnished in such a manner, so she and her team of course would respond. Now, it is up to others to consider what role Saatchi, whose multi-millionaire status was crafted in advertising and media, had to play in the attempt to discredit his victim. But with his contacts list, it cannot have been hard for him to make a couple of phone calls. Did these stories require fact-checking? Of course not. Throw the word ‘allegedly’ in front of any sentence and it becomes legally acceptable. Does the public read this as potentially misleading? Of course not. They see the words, ‘Nigella’ and ‘cocaine’, and immediately she is a drug user, and her reputation is tarnished.

This practice has been applied with devastating effect to the events surrounding the murder by the police of George Floyd. Never mind the fact that there is video evidence of the police officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds, with him begging for his mother and his life, having not resisted arrest or engaged in violent conduct. Never mind that two other officers were also allegedly kneeling on his back. Never mind that his pulse was checked after six minutes or so and none was found, but the officer continued to kneel on his neck. Never mind the fact that his supposed crime was the use of a fake twenty dollar bill, which at the time could not be proven. Never mind the fact that when he was murdered there was no evidence whatsoever that he was guilty of any offense. What matters to the media is that, in the past, he was guilty of armed robbery, and that he was ‘allegedly high on drugs’. Note that canny little word again, that absolves the writer of any responsibility to fact-check their claim. ‘I heard it from a reliable source.’ Will the public read this as a potentially misleading statement? Of course not. They will see, ‘George Floyd was on drugs, he was a violent criminal, and the police officer needed to restrain him because he was dangerous’. It is despicable.

Why would the media seek to discredit individuals in such a manner? There could be a number of reasons. It could be to protect a wealthy and powerful individual who has influence over a particular outlet or organisation. It could be to draw out the story in order to generate more revenue. Or, it could be to push a certain agenda. There are many reasons for doing so, but it is unlikely that from the outside it can ever be established with any certainty.

Another way in which the media creates its own news it by the careful and cynical manipulation of facts. In the past, this has been a subtle art, but in recent years it has become a blunt-force instrument used no differently than a police officer uses pepper spray to blind a peaceful protester.

I will firstly use the example of Laura Kuenssberg, a vile individual whose only rival in the art of manipulation would be the theoretical devil-spawn of Rita Skeeter and Delores Umbridge. Her BBC title gives her a sense of credibility that she simply does not deserve. And lets not forget, the BBC is an organisation itself that cynically manipulated the image of a candidate during an election cycle to make it look as though he were a Soviet soldier. Kuenssberg has managed to get away with more lies than a child whose parents catch them drawing graffiti on the walls with crayon. Let us not forget the occasion upon which a story was released of, ‘A labour supporter viciously attacking a Tory electoral candidate’ in Leeds. This story was release, picked up by the wider media, and then escalated to the Tory Prime Minister who willingly lapped it up as the next story in the ongoing propaganda attempt to paint the Left as hooligans. Even the person who was the supposed victim of the attack got on board with the witch-hunt. Until it was revealed the next day that the whole affair was fabricated. It had never happened. Kuenssberg tweeted a brief apology, and that was the end of the matter. Except that it wasn’t. The apology did not matter one jot; the aim of the story had already been achieved; the right-wing rage indicator had risen another notch, and strengthened their resolve to do anything they could to ensure the ‘loonie lefties’ were punished. By the time the apology was issued, the impact of the fabricated event was over, and no amount of back-tracking could undo the damage it had caused.

Next, we turn to the USA. Fox News has, for many years, been known to those with anything more than two brain cells as the media outlet of choice for those who like to consume their news content in a right-wing, subtly racist flavour. Over the years, this has mostly been presented in the form of praising one individual over another, ignoring character faults of those to whom they are sympathetic, and finding the most trivial transgressions of their enemies and presenting them as atrocities. But in recent days, things have taken an alarming turn. For context, it should be noted that social media is a place upon which images are photoshopped, and videos are misattributed with astonishing regularity in order to prove a point, regardless of accuracy or truth (see any number of examples from the recent right-wing riots in London, labelled as left-wing violence). However, direct manipulation like this has been below the standards of traditional media. That is, until Fox News decided that it was acceptable to take the perfectly peaceful protests in Seattle, and attribute to it images of a man standing with a machine gun amid rioting and looting, and the burning of cars and buildings. Not only is this misattribution alarming, but in the first instance, some person had even gone to the effort of photoshopping the man with the machine gun into the image. If this is the new standard of the traditional media industry, what hope does the public have of being able to discern truth from it? What does the media, in this case, Fox News, have to gain from such a heinous activity? They play into the hands of their hard-won audience by blowing the dog whistle and proving that they were right all along. They cement the loyalty of their fanbase by reconfirming their beliefs, and in doing so ensure that their audience in the future is assured. That day-long right-rage that exists before the inevitable admission of deception is, as with the Kuenssberg incident, worthwhile to craft the narrative they have decided upon in advance. The rage dies down after a day or so, and the apology becomes meaningless as the story has already served its purpose.

The British are alarmingly arrogant about their superiority in many aspects of their culture. I should know – I am indeed British. And for that reason, many that read these words might well be thinking, ‘ah yes – but that sort of thing would never happen over here. We have far higher standards!’ If only this were true. We have had occasions where the mobile telephones of dead children have had their voicemails hacked in order to generate a story. We have had newspaper stories printing images of queues of migrants in order to present the image that our borders are ‘under attack’, only to be shown that they are entirely false. And we have had blatant lies about this, that, and the other fed to us (£350m per week for the NHS? Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?) channelled through to us throughout the last few decades, with little regard as to the quality of information given by the ‘reliable source’.

But for my last point, I turn to a large, regional media outlet with a declining physical newspaper readership, but a loyal and dedicated Facebook following of over 200,000.

Over the last week or so, the Yorkshire Evening Post (YEP) has posted no less than twenty articles to its social media sites, highlighting the disruptive nature of the Black Lives Matter protests around the world. They have noted when protests have turned into riots in the USA, that UK BLM protests have resulted in social distancing laws being broken, and that vandalism and destruction of statues has taken place. Each time one of these stories is posted, it is followed up, usually two to three hours later, with a ‘reaction article’, in which a local politician has given a response. These articles might in and of themselves seem like they are presenting the facts, but for one small issue; those 200,000 followers. Articles are immediately lost in a maelstrom of comments, angry-faces, and abuse, all of which the YEP relish. Once the commenting begins to quiet, the ‘reaction article’ pops up in people’s feed to ensure that the rage never truly subsides. And what rage it is. I have witnessed numerous comments along the lines of, ‘If they don’t like it, they should leave England – this is our country’, written about protesters taking part in the BLM movement. I have observed, ‘these people should all be shot’. I have noted hundreds of occasions where images of far-right, fascist and racist riots have had a label such as, ‘see what the BLM protesters are doing’ have been posted. And the YEP does nothing to prevent this. In fact, I added a number of comments underneath these types of posts over the last few days, mentioning that the supposed facts that these contributors presented were indeed incorrect, only to find that they had been subsequently removed and the misleading images left in place. Twenty or more articles posted denigrating the BLM movement as violent and illegal, yet upon the occasion when the far right took to the streets of London, smashing up property, throwing missiles at the police, urinating on memorials, and making Nazi salutes, at the time of writing this piece, there has been absolute silence on the matter. What does this tell us about the YEP?

Well, it tells us the same story as can be drawn from every one of the above examples. Traditional news media is dying. It is at its endpoint. In the ultra, possibly even late-stage-capitalist world warned about by Werner Sombart over a century ago, they have to justify their reason to exist, and fight with every fibre of their being to do so. In a world where social media reports the news instantly, as it happens, and with high quality camera equipment in every street of every town of every country, traditional news media must use its coffers as a war-chest in order to fight for its existence. The capital it has built up in money, power, and public trust ever since the moment the Gutenberg pressed his first piece of paper are being used to fight for survival by any means possible. If the news can no longer simply be reported, for that is now the job of those with a phone in their pocket, then it must be created. In order to ensure consumption, they must ensure loyalty. In order to ensure loyalty, they must provoke rage and inspire fear. By doing this, they might continue on, but at what cost to society at large?

The actions of the industry whilst attempting to survive in the modern world has been the cause of division, anger, and violence on a global scale. After all this noise and pain, it is time for traditional news media to go into retirement, and die a quiet little death.

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