Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) claimed all concepts are human inventions (created by common agreement to facilitate ease of communication), human beings forget this fact after inventing them, and come to believe that they are ‘true’, but, in fact, do not correspond to reality. In Nietzsche’s view there is no objective fact about what has value in itself – culture consists of beliefs developed to perpetuate a particular power structure. The system, if followed by the majority of the people, supports the interests of the dominant class. Nietzsche argued that truth is impossible – there can only be perspective and interpretation – there are no absolute and fixed truths. Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten what they are; they are lies according to which we find it necessary to live. The sole opportunity for truth and the only experience of reality, Nietzsche claimed, are from an individual’s perspective within life.
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) developed the concept of cultural hegemony – whereby the ruling class of a capitalist society coerced the working class to adopt its values in maintaining the State. Gramsci developed the theory to explain why workers in industrialized countries in Europe had not risen up in revolt against the capitalist system as predicted by Marx. He claimed society is manipulated and controlled as a direct consequence of ‘false consciousness’ and the creation of values and life choices that are to be followed. In advanced industrial societies, hegemonic cultural tools such as compulsory schooling, mass media, and popular culture indoctrinate the workers. Gramsci described cultural hegemony as a form of thought control by the dominant economic and ruling elite that permeated throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality. He warned of the necessary struggle, “To tell the truth is revolutionary.”
The Information Age began in 1989 along with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Telecommunications, computers and the Internet allowed instantaneous communication, notwithstanding the vast geographic difference that separated jurisdictions. These high-speed technologies allowed the cross-border flow of commodities with great efficiency. Ronald Reagan had been president for two terms and neoliberal capitalism had become established. The fabrication of trickle down economics provided the opportunity to dismantle the gains of the New Deal. It justified slashing funds for welfare programs to support a pro-growth agenda claiming centralized planning of big government doesn’t work because it creates a culture of dependency that can trap people. In 2015 Ted Cruz observed, “the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our income nationally than any year since 1928.”
Global corporations adopted disinformation programs perfected by the tobacco industry over the past fifty years. This includes the climate change denial tactics of the fossil fuel industry. These tactics include introducing manufactured uncertainty by raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence, by setting up so-called independent front organizations to publically promote its desired message. This also involved cherry picking scientific spokespeople whose interpretations of the peer-reviewed literature suggest to the media and the public that the debate amongst scientists continues, and the results are not definitive. Industries sponsor sophisticated research activities that include both funding of established research institutions, as well as funding of advocacy and ideological organizations to conduct disinformation campaigns – leaving public and law makers confused.
Media does not hesitate to create cognitive dissonance, the feeling of uncomfortable tension that occurs in the pairing of unrelated facts to create correlation. Roger Ailes and Fox News understood this all to well and regularly distort information. An example of this is President George W. Bush’s speech in which he mentioned Iraq and the September 11th attacks in the same sentence. The close proximity of the mentions is designed to create a correlation in people’s minds when the reality is different. By insinuating, people subconsciously take the idea and turn it into a possibility. This information is fed into the conservative echo chamber of which Fox News is the centerpiece, and through repetition, the correlation becomes fact based on misinformation. As a result, in 2013, two years after the terrorist’s strike against the US 70% of Americans believed that Iraq was involved. The belief in the connection persists even though there has been no proof of a link between the two.
News systems have changed greatly in the past decade. The future of publishing is being put into the hands of the few, who now control the destiny of the many. Emily Bell observes, news publishers have lost control over the distribution of their journalism, which for many readers is now “filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable”. This means that social media companies have become overwhelmingly powerful in determining what we read – and enormously profitable from the monetization of other people’s work. As Bell notes: “There is a far greater concentration of power in this respect than there has ever been in the past.”1 The Facebook app, ‘Paper’ tracks the news you’re interested in and gives you more of that and less of everything else, never burdening you with contradictory information or telling you anything new.
George Orwell’s novel, 1984, written after the Second World War, introduced a concept of reality control that the population could be controlled and manipulated merely through the alteration of everyday language and thought. Orwell’s prophesy in his novel was the appearance of a state in which the truth does not exist; it is merely what ‘big brother’ says it is. Rather than Big Brother watching, today we have multiple big brothers in the form of huge Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, which log every keystroke. Hossein Derakhshan, observes, the “diversity that the World Wide Web had originally envisioned” has given way to “the centralisation of information” inside a select few social networks – and the end result is “making us all less powerful in relation to government and corporations”.1 When it comes to the Internet, Amazon, Netflix and Pandora use complex algorithms to make recommendations based on what similar people like, and Facebook and Google use them to cull pertinent information from personal emails and Internet searches in order to provide unsolicited user-specific advertising.
The increasing prevalence of this approach suggests that we are in the midst of a fundamental change in the values of journalism – a consumerist shift. Instead of strengthening social bonds, or creating an informed public, or the idea of news as a civic good, a democratic necessity, it creates gangs, which spread instant falsehoods that fit their views, reinforcing each other’s beliefs, driving each other deeper into shared opinions, rather than established facts. In the digital age, it is easier than ever to publish false information, which is quickly shared and taken to be true – as we often see in emergency situations, when news is breaking in real time. The influence of false information on consequences has become apparent in recent elections in the UK and America.
When a fact begins to resemble whatever you feel is true, it becomes very difficult for anyone to tell the difference between facts that are true and ‘facts’ that are not. During Brexit the Leave campaign was well aware of this – and took full advantage, safe in the knowledge that the Advertising Standards Authority has no power to police political claims. A few days after the vote, Ukip’s leaders informed the Guardian that they knew all along that facts would not win the day. Their plan was to take ‘an American-style media approach’. Two political slogans or lies incorporated into the campaign: an extra £350million a week would be spent on the National Health Service if the UK backed a Brexit vote, and it would address concerns over the level of immigration that was threatening social and national identity. What is common to these two reasons is that both involve the diminishing status of truth.
During the 2016 US election style was more important than content. The Internet proved to be a barrier to new ideas – if you’re a hardcore liberal Democrat, for instance, Google shows you news from blue-leaning states. If you’re a conservative Republican, then you get everything that’s slanted that way. In this manner, the Internet became a series of tunnels of misinformation. The algorithm-induced information echo chambers allowed the FSB and FBI to independently undermine one of the candidates in the 2016 US presidential election. The Evangelicals’ mini bubble filtered out Donald Trump’s character flaws and religious beliefs, rather focused on the fact he could deliver conservative judges to the Supreme Court. While it was workers’ fear of neoliberal economics that allowed Donald Trump to win, the economic elite’s interests remain well represented in his cabinet, so the power of the oligarchs continues unabated.
When searching for truth, we must realize the Internet search algorithms are not arbiters of the truth. In fact, there is no such thing as an unbiased news site. This does not mean that there are no truths. Most skeptics believe that by continuously questioning our knowledge, the source thereof, and what is held as “truth,” we can greatly reduce the risk of being deceived. However, the oligarchs and their proxies take advantage of the structure of the Internet to control information that serves the interest of financial capital and globalized elites in the redistribution of wealth upward. We must be ever more cognizant of the the social media subtleties that impact us. It is more important than ever to actively seek out alternative views to sense-check our understanding of truth. In addition, progressives must buy subscriptions to printed press in order to ensure the quality of newspapers. Otherwise, the result is a less well-informed public. Today, truth involves not only a search, but also a struggle.
1 Viner, Catherine. (12 July 2016) How technology disrupted the truth. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth