We Need to Construct a New Politics of Truth

How do we approach the era of fake news? The contemporary neoliberal “regime of truth,” to use a term from Michel Foucault, greatly influences the ways in which knowledge is being interpreted and implemented. Disinformation and new propaganda can take many forms – from the use of false visuals or misleading headlines, to social media techniques that create an impression that the “majority” understands an issue in a certain way. In the echo chamber of the modern information space, the spreading of disinformation is as easy as a ‘like,’ ‘tweet,’ or a ‘share.’ For Foucault, to challenge power is not a matter of seeking some absolute truth, but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time. There is truly no universal truth at all, only systems of power creating a regime of truth.

During the 1940s, the tobacco companies promoted the health benefits of cigarettes – preventing colds and relaxing individuals. Lung cancer was rare in the early 1900s but by the mid-20th century it had become an epidemic. A 1950 medical report described a casual association between the smoking of cigarettes and lung cancer. In 1952, a Readers’ Digest article decried the negative health consequences of cigarette smoking. The following year was the first year in two decades that the sale of cigarettes dropped. The tobacco industry responded by setting up the Council for Tobacco Research. This meant denying the health consequences of smoking – deceiving customers about the true nature of cigarettes through marketing and PR, as well as damaging the credibility of industry opponents. The tobacco companies joined many associations who typically oppose taxation and promoted themselves as supporters of freedom of expression, but blocked making available any information linking smoking to death or any negative outcomes.

Today social media propagandists have out stripped the misinformation system used by the tobacco industry by applying techniques such as card stacking, wolf crying wolf, denying facts, narrative laundering, facts not backed up with proof. Social media gives populist actors the freedom to articulate their ideology and spread their messages. Politics of fear is used to get people to vote a particular way, allow excesses in spending, or accept policies they might otherwise abhor. In post-truth politics social media assists political actors who mobilize voters through a crude blend of outlandish conspiracy theories and suggestive half-truths, barely concealed hate-speech, as well as outright lies. These “populist” voters now live in a media bubble, getting their news from sources that play to their identity-politics desires, which means that even if you offer them a better deal, they won’t hear about it, or believe it if told.

Card stacking includes seeking to manipulate audience perception of an issue by emphasizing one side and repressing the other – basically to slant a message. Card stacking can happen by creating media events that emphasize a certain view, using one-sided opinions or by making sure critics are not heard. By card stacking device a mediocre candidate, through the build-up is made to appear an intellectual titan.  President Trump stacks the cards against anyone with different perspectives. This propagandist rhetoric confuses the public’s ability to reason clearly and attempts to suppress the opposition. This kind of threatening leadership creates a chilling atmosphere for anyone who dares step out of line and disagree. It is about highlighting good information and leaving out the bad. This is an example of authoritarian mind control. The authoritarian, like a cult leader, controls minds by creating a psychological split within individuals and within the society at large.

Wolf cries wolf is the vilification of an individual or institution for something you also do.  The fundamental argument is that race and ethnic-based hoaxes are typically employed by extremist groups to project victim status that in turn furthers a certain political project. The main objectives for hate crimes is feeding persecution fantasies and advancing a political or social agenda. Trump’s claim (delivered by Twitter) that Obama ordered his phone tapped in the 2016 election is to deflect from the controversy over the Russians supporting Republicans during the same election. Wolf cries wolf also refers to authoritarian leaders and propagandists in Ukraine and Russia, who denounced the protestors in Kiev’s Independence Square as fascists. In the same manner, Trump claims US is under siege from ‘far-left fascism’ in the Fourth of July event: “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.”

Denying facts or using a variant of “false facts,” occurs when real facts are denied or wrongly undermined. The facts of an event might be reported, but an attempt is made to discredit their veracity. Alternatively, the facts may be re-interpreted to achieve the same effect: to establish doubt among an audience over the validity of a story or narrative. Donald Trump has spent decades spreading and sowing dangerous misinformation about disease outbreaks – from falsely suggesting AIDS can be transmitted through kissing to warning Americans not to get vaccinated and falsely suggesting vaccines can cause autism. Trump continues to comprehensively misinform the public about the coronavirus, offering remarks riddled with false, misleading or scientifically questionable claims. As a result, the highly suspect claim that the death count is exaggerated can be smuggled into saner statements such as death tolls are uncertain or the numbers that you’re seeing in the media are misleadingly precise.

Russian-sponsored channels like RT or conspiracy sites, through narrative laundering, flood the public with intense negative messages associated with the initial story, amplifying or twisting facts in a way that challenges or dismisses the mainstream media’s description of events.  As the U.S. media sphere digests the story, the tale gains a life of its own, laundered from the initial obvious traces of interference. At that stage, the ghost media system gives it a further iteration of attention, reinforcing the story by quoting genuine national media sources about the initial story. The U.S. media echo chamber is an indispensable element of the information-laundering machinery, which unwittingly contributes to fulfilling its objectives. Putin practiced narrative laundering in blaming Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 US election, a narrative that Trump now ‘believes’. For the 2020 election, narrative laundering will be one of the main venues used by Russia to influence the US election.

The no proof method is about facts or statements that are not backed up with proof or sources. President Trump insists there’s “no way” an election with increased mail-in voting will be legitimate. The subject has garnered increased attention as Trump has repeatedly attacked states for seeking to increase mail-in voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Documented voter fraud cases in the U.S. are few – and nothing close to the level that would constitute a “rampant” fraud, officials say. Trump doubles down, saying of mail-in ballots, “Nobody has any idea whether they’re crooked or not.” Voting by mail is secure,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, said. “And unfortunately, not only is the accusation that it isn’t baseless, but frankly, hypocritical. You look at Trump himself. He is an absentee voter. He’s the first one to try to undermine people’s confidence in vote by mail and elections in general.”1

Trump won the nomination as the candidate who lied the most, won the presidency as someone known to lie; has an unshakable base despite ongoing lies. Underlying social issues made this possible. His base is concerned about their place in the world, not so much about economic hardship. Rather it is about dominant groups that felt threatened by change, and a candidate who took advantage of that trend. The narcissistic personality is more of a store front designed to hide that there isn’t any there, there. Donald Trump uses Twitter with a deluge of lies, fake news accusations and outrageous claims as his provocative tweets create a chaotic, alternative reality. He sabotages democracy by creating his own swamp where one cannot tell truth from fiction, where rational debate evaporates as he diverts, distracts, and deflects accountability. The purpose of such activities is to turn the country into warring tribes by creating unyielding one-sidedness and enemies.

Foucault’s theories primarily address the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions: Power is all the more cunning because its basic forms can change in response to our efforts to free ourselves from its grip. Foucault adds that the essential political problem for us, today, is trying to change our “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth” (where truth is modeled on the form of scientific discourse), in order to constitute a new ‘politics of truth’: “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that ‘appear’ to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”

1 CEPA: Techniques. https://www.cepa.org/disinfo-techniques

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