When the “alternative facts” out of Washington get exhausting, I imagine myself in one of Walt Disney’s animated masterpieces, his 1940 version of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 tale of Pinocchio, whose nose grew longer every time he told a lie.
Our factually challenged era also puts me in mind of a song from the musical “All That Jazz,” Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager’s “Everything Old Is New Again.”
We think “fake news” is new, but it’s a disturbingly durable franchise. Certainly, it is a plague of our digital decade. According to a study this year out of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, “false stories spread significantly more than did true ones.” Surmises one of the study’s authors, “Perhaps the novelty of false stories attracts human attention and encourages sharing, conveying status on sharers who seem more ‘in the know’.”
This seems quite intuitive, and reminds me of Norman Rockwell’s wonderful Saturday Evening Post cover from March 6, 1948, “The Gossips,” in which a succession of pairs of his Arlington, Vermont, neighbors turn from one to another to pass along good gossip until it reaches in the end the very person who started the chain, doubtless in now unrecognizable form.
In a Twitterverse, the outsize reverberation of half-truth or worse has resulted in what Abby Ohlheiser in The Washington Post describes as “a free-for-all, where everyone’s trying to talk at once. Because of that, there’s a tendency to mistake the informational avalanche as representative.”
Indeed, although a Pew Research Center poll this year revealed less than one-quarter of Americans tweeting, the news media reports on Twitter as if it defines us all. Oh, for the days of the silent majority!
The unstable gravity of today’s factoid universe is epitomized by grandiosity and carelessness, as Evan Osnos, writing in The New Yorker, describes all that Mark Zuckerberg has wrought with Facebook, Zuckerberg’s Frankenstein: “Between speech and truth, he chose speech. Between speed and perfection, he chose speed. Between scale and safety, he chose scale.”
Once upon a time, it was called propaganda.
George Orwell opined in 1943, in his essay “Looking Back On the Spanish War,” that “History stopped in 1936 … the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” It was a terrible time in which Hitler could deploy Josef Goebbels to such a degree of inciteful untruth that Goebbels was referred to as “Mahatma Propagandhi,” and Leni Riefenstahl could propagate her brand of celluloid lies in “Triumph of the Will.” To the east, Stalinist Russia took its run for the gold as most Orwellian.
Traveling in the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin’s “Great Purge,” French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine — no angel himself given the persistence of anti-Semitism throughout his works — told off his Russian hosts with customarily frank vulgarity: “You have the nerve to dress up a turd and call it a caramel.”
Others fell for the saccharine blandishments of Stalin, most appallingly Pulitzer Prize-winning Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty of The New York Times. At the time of the Ukrainian famine, when peasants were chewing on tree bark, grass and worms, and even resorting to cannibalism, Duranty was suborned by Stalin into reporting this masterwork of doublespeak: “There is no actual starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”
In our post-truth age, it is easy to forget the fabulous history of governmental and media manipulation of the truth as we swoon in the neologism of “fake news.” We would like to proclaim these truths to be self-evident that it all began this morning. While any history of the 20th century shows this not to be the case, there is little doubt that digital social media have gone the masters of old one better.
A Buzzfeed analysis of the top 20 “fake news” stories during the 2016 election reveals these viral untruths got more engagement on Facebook than the top 20 stories from 19 major media outlets. In other words, in Celine fashion, excremental lies floated to the electoral surface.
In the face of such a maelstrom of mendacity, in which Rudy Giuliani became a meme by stunning NBC’s Chuck Todd with “Truth isn’t truth,” the former mayor wasn’t as absurd as he appeared, since he echoed the Rashomonic trope there is no one version of events universally accepted. After all, the Bible tells us that humans were cut from whole cloth some few thousand years ago, while Charles Darwin offered an evolutionary explanation.
Paul Simon, who just finished his farewell tour last month, has a wonderful way of summing it up, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”
In the war between perspective and proof, let’s give the last word to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who defined the slippery slope this way: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Dalton Delan is an American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.