The Post-Truth About Fake News

This is a guest post by Anthem Press author Steve Fuller, University of Warwick. His new book, Post-Truth: Knowledge As A Power Game, is now availableSteve recently spoke to the BBC. Check out his interview here:

In Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game, I argue that the post-truth condition was first understood by Plato nearly 2500 years ago. His most diligent latter-day student has been Walter Lippmann, the man who set the tone for ‘objective’ and ‘professional’ journalism in the twentieth century.  Both Plato and Lippmann agreed that that key to political stability was a public belief in a generally stable reality, with the remaining uncertainties left to be managed by experts, which in Lippmann’s case included journalists.

‘The present crisis in democracy is a crisis in journalism’ is a statement about what we now call ‘fake news’, but it was made not today but in 1920. It appeared in Liberty and the News, one of Lippmann’s early books. He was reflecting on The New York Times’ coverage of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which at the time was heralded as the most detailed, up to-the-minute reporting of any major overseas political event. His analysis had originally appeared as a forty-page supplement to an issue of the progressive US magazine, The Nation.

The New York Times’ reporters had been drawn from the ranks of ‘muckrakers’, the prototype of today’s investigative journalists, whose credibility came from their eyewitness accounts of what was happening ‘in the field’, channelling the mood and feel of the major players. The result was that print readers were subject to an unprecedented immediacy, as editors in New York rapidly reconstructed the accounts they received from the field, mainly by telegram. Keep in mind that this was just before the advent of radio broadcasts, and more than a generation before television.

However, once the dust had settled from the conflict, Lippmann concluded that the reporters had radically misrepresented the course of events. Largely sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause, they ended up trusting Bolshevik press releases and read their own wishful thoughts into what they managed to witness first hand. There may have even been a touch of narcissism, as many of the revolutionaries – not least Lenin and Trotsky – had been very able publicists, appropriating much of the rhetoric that the muckrakers had used to describe poverty, corruption and injustice in America.

Indeed, Lenin is reputed to have coined the phrase ‘useful idiots’ for the journalists that Lippmann went on to criticize. Today we would simply say that Lippmann discovered that they had been ‘spun’.  But what does ‘unspinning’ mean? It is here that Lippmann, a philosophy student at Harvard, shows his mastery of Plato – and the post-truth horizon.

Lippmann was clear that The New York Times’ breathless coverage of the Bolshevik Revolution got enough of the basic facts wrong to undermine the newspaper’s credibility. However, Lippmann’s solution was arguably more about publicizing journalistic credibility than validating specific facts, especially in an increasingly uncertain and complex world. The legacy is that even today newsreaders are normally careful not to display too much affect as they read news copy, which is itself scrupulously written to downplay or neutralize any values at play, unless they can be attributed to specific parties, preferably in their own words. Even more than speaking the truth, it would seem that one must appear to speak the truth. This is the post-truth condition in its most naked form.

Interested in more on the topic? Check out Steve’s interview with Virtual Futures.

Steve Fuller is the Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK. Originally trained in history and philosophy of science, Fuller pioneered the field of ‘social epistemology’ in a quarterly journal that he founded in 1987 as well as in more than twenty books. His most recent books are Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History (2015) and The Academic Caesar (2016). Connect with Steve on Twitter and Academia.