Building on yesterday’s post about writing yourself into (or out of) beliefs and opinions, I want to return to a piece from late last year which I keep rereading, and which I think has important lessons for us all in this year of many elections of consequence.
The title is plain and forthright—“You Can’t Fact Check Propaganda“—and really you should just read the whole damned thing before returning to this, my amateur exegesis. Because I’m going to skip the historical preamble, and go straight to the bit where Teubner and Gleeson answer the obvious retort to the title: well, why not?
A baldfaced lie would theoretically be open to falsification, which would leave the speaker exposed and discredited. So the skillful propagandist instead works by insinuation, by spinning the significance of events in one way or another, by bringing the reader, listener, or viewer around to a particular point of view. Propaganda creates a general atmosphere in which a particular conclusion seems undeniable, even though it is suggested rather than stated. What matters is not the facts, but their significance.
If so, then fact-checking has some obvious weaknesses. First, since much of what skillful propagandists say will be true on a literal level, the fact-checker will be unable to refute them. Second, no matter how well-intentioned or convincing, the fact-check will also spread the initial claims further. Third, even if the fact-checker manages to catch a few inaccuracies, the larger picture and suggestion will remain in place, and it is this suggestion that moves minds and hearts, and eventually actions.
And fourth, just to add to the general sense of fairness affronted, the process of attempting to fact check propaganda serves to discredit the fact-checker’s own authority. If you want a simple answer to the “why all this spiralling polarisation?!” question, well, there it is1.
The authors end up approaching a position that’s more than a little reminiscent of Latour, albeit from a very different direction: facts are the central fetish of Modernity, the religion that falsely defines itself as being purged of all religions. Think of what we’ve learned about the discursive battle over carbon emissions and climate change, and then read this:
Facts are just what you see—look! But facts are rarely just that. Rather, they come in the form of statements, which are not bare observations but descriptions of some state of affairs. In other words, there are no “pure” facts available, as Karl Popper pointed out. All descriptions entail selections, implicit theorizing, and are attended by subjective factors such as interests, expectations, and wishes.
This is no mere philosophical speculation. Despite our common-parlance naivety about facts, our deep and troubling disagreements have much to do with the fact that facts as stated are contestable. And this is what is often propelling an information war: The two sides refer to the same events, but they diverge on the very first level of interpretation—on the description of the event or occurrence. And on this parochial foundation, they go on to build out competing narratives that further obscure the ineluctably intertwined nature of the information and communication we pass back and forth among one another.
(As something of a note-to-self, I’m just going to mention in passing that the levels of description and/or interpretation to which the authors refer here seems to bear some relation to the problematics of propositions that Russell and North Whitehead saw themselves as wrestling with in their collaborative work on logical philosophy, which might in turn be thought of as a prelude to the schism between the continental and analytic schools of thought.)
Back to TFA for one last lengthy quote:
Propaganda is the inevitable outcome of digital plentitude, as commentators try to make sense of an overwhelming amount of information and, as often as not, push their own theory or interpretation of events. This is doubly so in the midst of an information war. To use Bolter’s map metaphor, different political communication operations are like stars, exerting their own gravity on the discursive field as they try to draw media consumers into their orbits.
The inefficacy of our much-expanded fact-check industry is thus an index of the broader crisis of institutional authority. A mid-century newspaper would not need a designated fact-checking column; an authoritative news source could produce widely credible accounts without having to establish their truth value or significance. But today even the largest and most powerful newspapers are single players in a vast and fragmented media ecosystem. The fact-check is an admission that consumers are already getting their news elsewhere, and now the newspaper must make regular efforts to establish its authority over what counts as a fact—or even over what a valid interpretation might be.
The opening sentence there gets to the heart of Higgs’s argument from yesterday’s post, I think: the act of writing commentary, which has been democratised in considerable degree by comparison to the media environment of three decades previous, as not a mere reporting of one’s opinion, but an active process that combines sense-making with dissemination. Or, more simply: a great many people are writing in order to discover what they think!
Things start to get interesting here, because this is the stage in the argument where folk who identify with the freedoms of liberalism turn out to be a lot fonder of authority than they realise. And with good reason! It’s no coincidence that an author is hidden in plain sight within every authority… and we all want some author(ity) to point to as the arbiter of (our) truth, particularly when someone else is (reportedly) threatening it.
This has probably been the case for most of the history of humankind, with modernity (and its associated notions of universal fairness and grounded truths) being the exception to the rule. I am reminded of a gloss on the recent thought of John Gray (the source of which I am regrettably unable to find right now) which argued that the most likely form of a cultural futurity for “the West” is something like the pre-Westphalian middle ages: localised authority (in the sense of “authority” referred to above, and also in the more vernacular governmental sense), localised values, localised truth.
That’s not a comfortable reference for me, despite having long had an instinctive but inarticulate sense of the argument at hand: Gray is a very interesting writer and thinker, but one with whom I am liable to veer between close sympathy and savage disagreement multiple times within the course of one essay.
Nor, to be clear, is it a particularly desirable outcome: I recognise the relative privilege of my circumstances, particularly those of my youth, and further recognise that the promise of Gray’s prolepsis is one in which my relative privileges and freedoms are likely to diminish further. (Along with a lot of other people’s!) One might counter that such a diminishment would be to the benefit of what in the current system are minority groups, and that seems plausible, too. But it will also involve struggles over the establishment of local truth, the establishment of new authorities—at which point dearly-held revulsions with regard to rhetorical and political technique may be shelved in the name of expediency.
In a response to my response to Higgs, a good friend admitted yesterday, quite cheerfully, that their personal policy platform would be a limitarianism that didn’t imprison the super-rich, but rather staged their show-trials and executions in the largest venues in the land, and streamed them for free for those who couldn’t make it to the physical event.
My own deep commitment to pacifism makes me recoil from this suggestion, even if made somewhat in jest: a revolution whose hands are bloodied will be a tainted project. But that pacifism is almost certainly a product of the aforementioned liberal upbringing, and is thus perhaps a pacifism paid for by the bloodied hands of professionals in conflicts which, until fairly recently, were conducted beyond the easy reach of media.
My pacifism, in other words, is a story built on stories upon stories. What facts might be found—or made—to support it, if any?
- It turns out that reality doesn’t have a liberal bias at all! Quite the opposite, in fact: rather than activating some secular principle of inherent justice, wailing about fairness serves only to inform the bully that they’ve found your weak spot. It is sometimes surprising to me how few bullied people have learned this, until I recall that I probably didn’t learn it myself until I was in my early thirties. ↩︎