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The illiberal ideology of fake news

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

This piece was originally published by the think tank Bright Blue. The piece outlines some of the research and thinking in Not Buying It, which you can pledge and support here.

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Fake news has become, quite rightly, a much-discussed topic in recent months. Most analysis of the post-truth era it contributes to looks solely at the technical developments that have allowed fake news to spread. These include the easy distribution of viral content online, powered by echo chambers on social networks.

While this is an absolutely essential element, it is only one part of the explanation. It fails to acknowledge the ideological and political issues that are also at play. In recent times there has been something of a backlash against classical liberal values, and I believe that this has played a fundamental role in the development of the post-truth era.

The current pushback against liberalism is obvious. It can be seen in the vote for Britain to leave the EU on a largely anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation agenda (whatever some Leave advocates may claim). It can be seen in the election of Donald Trump, and the support for his nationalistic rhetoric and his “America first” economic policies.

It can also be seen the assent of nationalist leaders such as Norbert Hofer in Austria, Geert Wilders in Holland, and Marine Le Pen in France. While those three may not ultimately have won elections in 2016 and 2017, they attracted huge support and shifted the debate in their country in an illiberal, nationalist direction.

To a far less sinister degree, it can be seen in many of the policies advocated in the Conservative party’s much-criticised manifesto for this month’s General Election. Furthermore, the rise from the left of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders also fit into this model. Both men and their supporters’ wear their attacks on “neo-liberalism” as a badge of honour.

John Stuart Mill, one of the fathers of modern liberalism, touched on the concept of post-truth centuries before it was ever known as such. In his seminal treatise “On Liberty” he wrote that “the dictum the truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes”.

Mill, typically ahead of his time, was clear that just because something is factually correct, and argument can support that, that does not mean it will come to be accepted as the truth. Liberals should hold the truth, hold accuracy, in high regard.

Many advocates of Brexit or Trump rejected a certain set of social and economic liberal values that had come to define the centre-ground of politics. They, and others, all put forward a nationalist and/or populist vision that was intentionally at odds with the classical liberalism outlined by Mill and others.

Those politicians and their supporters made use of new media to challenge mainstream publications and broadcasters and rise to prominence. Some of this was on the back of blatantly fake news like the Portland Communications conspiracy that was advocated by some Corbyn backers.

In other cases, such as the Trump campaign or Brexit, it is just part of a worldview that truth is somewhat elitist. The campaigns, fuelled by fake news, played on emotion, not expertise, the antithesis of liberalism.

It is also notable that despite their political differences, Trump, Corbyn, Sanders and others are all very ready to turn on the media and try to discredit it to further their cause. Attacking the media was all part of their supposedly radical and revolutionary politics aimed at toppling a powerful elite, or “draining the swamp”.

Whichever direction they were coming from, the media was very clearly in their sights.

They have hosted rallies where the media is baited or booed, and regularly criticise journalists who attempt to hold them to account. In the case of Corbyn and Trump, in particular, the media, or the mainstream media as they prefer to call it, has become as much a focus for them and their supporters as political opponents. They have turned the media, or at least some part of it, into the enemy within, telling people that it cannot be trusted.

This was hugely apparent in the run up to the 2017 UK General Election. Corbyn supporters would regularly heckle reporters who asked legitimate but probing questions of their leader. This included one bizarre occasion in which Labour supporters booed the political editor of the Daily Mirror!

In a more extreme example, President Trump now only refers to journalists, with the exception of Fox News and a couple of others, as “the fake news media”, whipping his supporters into a frenzy of anger against the press.

A free press is a seminal tenant of a liberal society. This deliberate undermining of journalists doing their job by these high profile political figures can, therefore, be seen as an assault on a free press that holds the powerful to account, and therefore some of the core values of liberalism. It is also frequently an attack on the truth.

If we want to tackle the post-truth era, we need not to just look at technical issues at play, but ideological ones too.

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