On “Fake News” and Conspiracy Theories

Observers of current events seldom have their appetite for reliable information satisfied by the narratives concocted by mass media “gate-keepers” (as Chomsky once called them).  News events of great consequence, in terms of the money involved and/or number of casualties, often attract a potent mixture of morbid curiosity, state-propelled obfuscation, as well as a myriad of critical interpretations ranging from the subtly subversive to the positively paranoid.

This is a phenomenon that takes place in an environment characterized by a tangible sense of uncertainty and anxiety. As renowned documentary film-maker Adam Curtis argues, in his latest film Hypernormalization, the state of the Western world in this decade is one where people are at least partly conscious of the fact that official stories don’t ring true, yet no alternative appears as immediately possible or in any way concrete- which he compares to the state of the cognitive dissonance widespread in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

In light of the myriad of leaks, courtesy of the likes of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, this disturbing distance between rhetoric and fact has been all the more conspicuous for those who have taken the trouble to go through them. The mainstream media however, ever since the advent of such explosive revelations and its subsequent political weaponization in public discourse by populist movements, has sought to pursue a troubling policy of character assassination and poisoning the well. The now common refrain that especially after the contentious 2016 US election, we inhabit a “post-truth” zone where “fake news” proliferates to the detriment of carefully researched and empirically credible news conducted by established outlets has become something of a truism for bien-pensants members of the respectable echelons of society.

The obvious backdrop to these claims however is that, ultimately, the mandarins of the media conglomerates have been wrong in their assessment not only of the political climate but also of the fundamental nature of the problems they attempted to diagnose. This wasn’t something that begun in 2016, but goes far back at least a few decades, in so far as they abandoned a healthy critical distance from governments to become courtier apologists. Whether in the case for the 2003 Iraq War, where false claims about WMDs and Al-Qaida connections to the Saddam regime went unquestioned, or the lack of interest in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis about whether market-dominating financial firms were truly held accountable- the prevailing feature of such outlets has been one of failing basic principles of journalism. We had a similar story with the disastrous Libyan adventure designed to facilitate the toppling of Colonel Gaddafi, where anyone with any real interest had to rely on Wikileaks to paint a realistic picture of the interests at play, and the casualties that came out of the “humanitarian mission”.

The 2016 US election was most certainly not the point at which wild-eyed “alt-right’’ bigots derailed the conversation into a maelstrom of Russia-instigated fabrications, but quite the contrary, it was the point at which it became abundantly clear that the mainstream media was engaged in crass propaganda. Few have had the intellectual honesty to admit this, but some have, as widely respected journalist Glenn Greenwald puts it, the fake news term “is essentially useless except as an instrument of propaganda and censorship. The most important fact to realize about this new term: Those who most loudly denounce Fake News are typically those most aggressively disseminating it.”

It’s important to recognize that there’s more than enough reasons for this as well, seeing as the aforementioned revelations do great damage to the various foreign and domestic policy initiatives of Western governments and their media associates who gladly justify them. From the sordid tales of cronyism and pay-to-play politics behind the Clinton political machine, to the links implicating Saudi Arabia and the US in propping up violent Wahhabist Islamism in the Middle-East, there’s much to lose in allowing unruly commentators to explore these leads without facing the punishment of being labeled as tin foil-hatted cranks hiding in bunkers, or paid-up Putin bots.

The position of the observer who thirsts for truth amid a colossal architecture of financial and party-political obfuscation is not altogether different essentially from that of the protagonist of the 1994 film Fatherland. The film is set in a scenario where the D-Day landings have failed and the US retreated from the European theater of WWII, leaving Nazi Germany to take over Western Europe and survive into the 1960s, being engaged in a prolonged guerrilla war with the Soviet Union. The protagonist, an SS police officer Xavier Hauer inhabits a Europe that bears the resemblance of normality, with functioning institutions and all the hallmarks of civilized existence. Xavier on the course of his job however, is investigating seemingly relatively run-of-the-mill crimes that ultimately lead him into the brick wall of greater “national security” interests. The succession of events around him come back to the question of what happened to the Jews whose fate is given an official interpretation that as it turns out, to the protagonist’s horror is quite far from the truth. It’s far enough that he’s reluctant to entertain the possibility, because it just seems too awful to be true.

In a way, this is the experience of the person who in the dark hours of the night might contemplate the sheer scale of the national security apparatus that encompasses the interminable “War on Terror” or even matters closer to home, such as the links between corporate interests and the eroded expression of democracy that prevails as it does, slavishly beholden to lobbyists and ideological programs that dare not speak their name openly. The dissonance is not limited to these cases I cited so far however.

On many fronts, it is clearly the case that official narratives are in stark contrast to the reality on the ground; we can take for instance the example of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. While it is true that there is quite conceivably a kernel of truth to the initial motivations, in terms of individual cases of racist institutional violence, the movement quickly degenerated into a hate organization bent on not only widespread campaigns of wanton violence, but also a resurgent race supremacist and separatist platform, funded by George Soros and manipulated into specific party-political projects, namely the astroturf opposition to Donald Trump. The BLM issue is emblematic of a whole host of “social justice” issues that operate masquerading as grassroots movements whose rhetorical raison d’etre appear to be the promotion of ‘freedom’ ‘justice’ and other euphonious slogans, while being funded by dubious donors and directed by a cohort of irascible ideologues.

What appears on the front pages of The Guardian or The New York Times more often than not resembles pieces of political theater, whose puppet-masters remain concealed while the drama unfolds and is propagated by the disingenuous and regurgitated by the naïve. This isn’t a healthy atmosphere, regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, especially as many of these issues transcend the archaic left-right divide. It is the atmosphere where conspiracies thrive, not simply as a result of a mindless backlash by frenzied fanatics, but by virtue of a well-documented track record of misinformation and distraction on the part of established outlets- we see this for instance in the ongoing discussion on the leaks relating to the Clintons, where the target remains not the content but the origin of the leaks.

This brings us to such stories as “Pizzagate”, namely the rumors of a wide underground child-trafficking and abuse ring involving high-ranking establishment figures. The story first appeared in certain sections of the internet due to the fact that some of the leaked Podesta emails contained peculiar instances of pizza references that seemed to allude to something else. The terminology was out of place, and looked like something of a devised euphemism, and sure enough, many seized on these to conclude that it referred to a pedophile ring. Personally I’m agnostic about these conclusions, yet, we must admit that the possibility is not resolutely outlandish; after all, poorly investigated instances of this sort of thing relating to high-ranking MPs in Westminster remain a mystery, and similarly the role of the BBC establishment in the Jimmy Savile story also remains unclear but suggests that systematic abuse by powerful figures is not unthinkable.

In a similar manner, conspiracy theories thrive in the Middle-East about the CIA’s involvement in the creation of ISIS, again  something which  shouldn’t be regarded as outright false, seeing as this kind of activity, of propping up guerrillas in the pursuit of long-term interests is not alien to the CIA playbook, as attested not only by well-documented history of Latin-America during the Cold War, as by the fact that this was also a tactic employed in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s, which led to the rise of Al-Qaida.

My point is that if these stories remain relegated to the peripheries, considered the domain of mentally unstable conspiracy theorists to expound on, its only because the mainstream media itself has no interest in pursuing these, being glad to assume they’re inherently incredible. The plague of courtier journalism ends up serving a dual purpose, of being complicit in muddying the waters when it comes to the crimes of the elites, but also of perversely discrediting and demonizing those who aren’t deterred by this poisoning of the well.

In a supposedly free and open public sphere, it becomes acutely worrying that the “fake news’’ canard has turned into a justification for censorship by social media monopolies, even the Wall Street Journal, a publication I’m no friend of, has raised concerns that I can appreciate, arguing that “Facebook’s editing experiment may result in similar judgments that are ideologically skewed’’, when it comes to the proposed out-sourcing the definition of ‘true news’ to liberal mouthpieces. Much needed accountability is not secured by these moves, on the contrary, a reinforcement of establishment outlets that resoundingly failed their basic task, is only a recipe for further bias.Facebooktwitter

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