Words by William Watkin.
Post-truth, post-fact, fake news, bullshit; these are all words trying to capture our new relationship to the ancient art of lying. It has widely been assumed that a year of digitised bullshit-spreading has resulted in a dramatic shift in the political landscape from evidence-based governance spanning the centre-ground, to personality-driven demagogues occupying the extremes through a blatant disregard for evidence and facts. Bullshit has even been seen by some as at the root of certain shocking election results, for example Brexit and Trump. But what is Bullshit? Come with me now on my year-long journey talking bullshit, and find out.
My agent always tells me start with a story, something personal and humanising. People like that, he says, that’s why they don’t like you…yet. So, here goes. As the snow fell softly beyond my study window, I drew a weary line under a shitty year, 2016, by composing a fun think-piece for The Big Issue on Post-Truth. Post-truth had been chosen by tweedy boffins at the OED as their word of the year. I made a distinction between facts, which are verifiable, and truths, which can’t be proven by facts alone. I signed off by declaring: “Truth, as it transpires, is nothing more than a selfie of our own prejudices”. Very tweetable.
But before the piece even appeared, the ground had already shifted beneath my feet. After Trump’s shock election we liberals junked post-truth because we were all in a tizzy about Fake News. Specifically, how Brexiteers, Trump and the Alt-Right had used fake news stories online to skew the political conversation to achieve otherwise impossible electoral results. I changed tack, term and media, making a podcast explaining that the problem was not so much fake news stories as how Trump used Twitter to fake the news agenda. Trump would tweet a fake news story, his followers would re-tweet, his opponents would troll-tweet. The traffic it generated online spiked interest in the MSM. They would, incredulous, run the story, not appreciating that each time they did that they gave Trump more oxygen. Result: a monster was born, then elected.
So not fake news but faking the news. Why is this distinction important? Well, for the simple reason that fake news per se is actually not particularly significant politically. While fake news websites have made money for the people of Macedonia, the main source of fake news for the record, they did not noticeably alter the results of Brexit or the American Election, according to studies. While some fake news stories were widely shared, the largest majority of all news shared online remain sourced from mainstream media. It is not the individual turds of bullshit that should concern us therefore, but how all this BS is faking the very idea of fact-based news reporting.
T’was a humble pod that I did cast, but something about it captured the mood. Suddenly I was conducting an interview for Sky News. Trying to be hip, yet wise, I mentioned how until Trump, politics had been dominated by Pollsters and Spin Doctors. From now on, I predicted, it would be in the hands of Trollsters and Memeweavers. Although the haircut interviewing me didn’t seem wholly convinced, I was vindicated once Trump took hold of office and the new age of Meme-politics began, meaning suddenly memes mattered more than facts or truths.
One of the issues around the spread of fake news is that the majority of news material shared online is never read beyond the headline. People are not responding to the bullshit they read, but still share those bullshit headlines all the same. When they do this, they transform the piece from an article to a meme: something striking that is shareable online, will get a response and takes a mere second or so to ‘read’ and get. It would seem that you slacktivists, you keyboard warriors out there, are not changing your vote based on crazy stories made-up by Macedonian teenagers, because you are not reading those stories. Hooray! You’re not reading them, but you still share them. Boo! What are you guys up to?
Whatever it is, my agent was wrong. People don’t like stories anymore, cos they don’t read them. The assumed passive readers of yesterday have been replaced by the active, participating, if unwitting and incompetent, publishers of tomorrow. There are 1.2 billion of you on Facebook alone. You are each your own publisher, editor and self-publicist. This is an unprecedented event in the history of human culture. I can see that like every publisher I have ever met, you are in it part for the art, but mostly for the bottom-line. What is it you get from being an online publisher of fake news, grumpy cats, memes and all that other shit you keep shovelling around your feeds? Well, there is pleasure in expressing an idea and being heard. It’s good to show allegiance, join a community, feel valued. Sometimes you are so pissed off that you share to let off steam. When this is shared by others you then get a little hit of dopamine, the love hormone. Some of you make a bit of cash. Then of course there is the attraction of sharing bullshit memes to change the fate of your country, or indeed the world. I know why you share without reading, making news into memes, because, and here is the twist in the tail, I do it too!
In the end fake news is just collateral damage, a sideshow to the cultural carcrash of mass, participatory, online publishing we call social media. We all need something to share—we are net curators not creators—to get whatever it is we are after online, and news is a good thing to share, as are cat-memes and pics of your kids. Our problem is not that we are stupid or ill-informed, but that we are caught up in a global case of over-sharing. Fake news is only one outcome of this, perhaps a passing one. But over-sharing is not a victimless crime. The process of converting news into memes that we are complicit in, is being weaponised politically with real-world effects, Brexit being John to the baptism of Trump.
Every story needs a great ending and mine is a hum-dinger, I wrote about it for The Week just before I gave up my journalism career and took the first boat back home across the bullshit canal. In Trump’s Tweet-happy hands fake news the phenomenon became “fake news!” the accusation. It stopped being about liberals calling politicians on the lies they told, and instead became a war between two contesting views of facts, provable facts, and alternative facts. And so it was that the fact of fake news itself became faked, allowing Trump to take hold of the fake news story and turn it into the #FakeNews meme, a weapon with which to troll the very mainstream media sources that had accused him of fake newsery in the first place.
Faking fake news itself, reducing fact based media outrage into memeworthy Alt-right troll-bait, has pushed us, ill-equipped, very much up bullshit creek. And although Trump’s hands are famously small, so far he has proven himself to be the best paddler onboard!