The Culture of Fake News
It is possible to trace the origin of what is popularly called “fake news” to a Garden long ago, where a promise was made. The promise was a lie, uttered by the one who Jesus said was the Father of Lies. Jesus, of course, claimed to not only speak the truth, but to be Truth itself and, despite the timeless words of Pilate – “what is truth?” – words which echo today around soul-less editorial boardrooms and flickering control rooms – there is such a thing as absolute truth, the knowledge of which brings freedom.
Since that first broadcast of fake news – “you will not die, in fact you will be like God” – the manufacturing of “truth”, the obfuscation of truth and the creation of falsehoods masquerading as truth, have become art forms. The art of lying, and the terrible danger it poses to democracy and a free society, was identified decades ago by the great historian of culture, Christopher Dawson. Writing in the 1930’s, when the two atheistic systems of Communism and Nazism were busily and systematically manufacturing news, Dawson spoke of the “new black arts of mass suggestion and propaganda”, which could almost be described as the essence of fake news, used at different times but for the same effect. Dawson correctly identified these phenomena as “black arts”; in other words, he knew their origin and the almost magical power they could have to manipulate and convince. The Soviet system was almost the definition of a self-perpetuating lie, from fake grain harvest figures to Stalinist show trials. Joseph Goebbels, in Nazi Germany, created one of the greatest propaganda machines the world has ever known, utilizing all that was current in the modern technology of screen and sound to spread the foul and poisonous message of racism and hatred.
Propaganda, it could be argued, can be fairly easily identified – today it might be described as an “editorial slant” – and if identified will allow the consumer of such news to balance their opinions, if their media filter is sufficiently attuned. One can watch, for example, Russia Today and then switch to Al Jazeera and be fairly aware that both organs have a particular “point of view”, to put it gently. It is more difficult when formerly trusted news organisations – like the major networks in the US or the BBC – no longer appear to present factual news, but present “news” with added editorial comment, contaminated with the “spin” of propaganda.
Mass suggestion is much more pervasive than overt propaganda and, precisely because of that, much more dangerous. This is how most people today experience so much that can be described as fake news. Suggestion - via innuendo, selected facts, unnamed and unverified sources, all wrapped up and beautifully packaged and produced, is an art form which would warm the hearts of Soviet media specialists and Nazi technicians. Mass suggestion, the more attractive and more subtle twin sister of propaganda, usually takes the form of disseminating a falsehood through the failure to include relevant and necessary information. This is, in fact, what every Catholic confesses each week during the Confiteor at Mass – “what I have done and what I have failed to do.” The “sins of omission” in fake news can often be the most deadly of its black arts.
Apart from such sins of omission, a false story or an actual lie can be propagated by the manufacturing of news, using multiple “unnamed sources” who describe events that are alleged to have happened – or which will happen in the future.
One of the best portrayals of the creation of fake news was in the movie Broadcast News, a favourite of all media junkies. The notorious scene, where the reporter played by William Hurt fakes a tear when his headshot is being recorded after an interview, is a classic example of manipulation and, of course, the Hurt character goes on to become a national anchor. The devil rewards the practitioners of his black arts, giving them their hour of prideful glory before their Faustian fall into darkness. In making his promises, the devil never mentions the consequences of believing his lies. He is, after all, the master of fake news.