In the wake of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory, both of which the majority of the establishment media clearly did not want to occur, there has been a great deal of talk that we have entered an age of “post-truth politics.” So much so that the Oxford English Dictionary crowned “post-truth” its word of the year.
There is also a great deal of concern over the rise of so-called “fake news” outlets, web-based publications that knowingly publish outlandish and fraudulent clickbait stories. In the UK, the Brexit side campaigned on a pledge, since dropped, to divert the £350 million per week the UK spent in Europe into the National Health Service. This, despite the fact that the new UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall, openly advocates its privatization.
Likewise, in the US, the media attacked Donald Trump for making outlandish claims to further his agenda and for continually lying. The latest fake news from the Trumposphere is pizzagate, a widely-believed story which alleges that Hillary Clinton is involved in a child trafficking, prostitution, killing and eating ring run out of a pizzeria in Washington D.C. Some have argued that those who believe fake news aren’t duped, but rather have decided to accept whatever outrageous story fits their viewpoints and emotions.
There is no doubt much truth to the media’s criticisms. However, the media’s claim that we now live in an era of post-truth politics is highly patronizing and carries with it the false idea that we until recently had a fact-based political system. This could not be further from the truth.
Take President Obama, for instance. Obama’s eight years in office are dominated with the seven wars, none of them legal, he has prosecuted or continued. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia have been destroyed and Pakistan has been completely destabilized. The President has also overseen eight years of economic malaise, arguably the worst since the Great Depression and the construction of the greatest mass surveillance network in history. On Tuesdays, the President meets his aides who advise him on whom around the world to kill without trial, warrant, nor even accusation.
Yet the President presents himself as a cool, non-threatening liberal in touch with the common people and the media, by and large, goes along with it. After eight years of economic slump, war and spying, The New York Times notes that Obama will “leave the White House a nerdier place than he found it.” Obama won Ad Age’s prestigious marketing campaign of the year award, which celebrates what brands are most successful in emotionally connecting with people to make them fuzzy inside.
The liberal press have also shown they are not above simply lying to their audience when it suits their agenda. In Britain, The Observer was crucial in building the case for war in Iraq based on phony data while The New York Times’ Judith Miller repeated false information from intelligence services to do the same thing in the US.
But the media’s new post-truth claim is also absurd because it leaves out a bigger truth that they rarely even acknowledge. While corporate profits are at an all time high, real wages for people in Britain and the US have been dropping steadily since the mid 1970s and quality of life for ordinary people has fallen. The slump has deeply psychologically affected us- few anywhere believe this generation will be better off than their parents’. There is also a geographical factor to the malaise: London and the coastal metropolitan cities of the US are doing (relatively) fine, but the ex-industrial heartlands of the North of England and the steel belt of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania have been destroyed, with well-paid manufacturing jobs being outsourced to Asia. Few in these areas have jobs, even fewer jobs they want. The North of England and the Rust Belt of the US are, not coincidentally, areas that surprised the liberal press by voting en masse for Brexit and for Trump. For many of these people, the greater truth is inescapable: that the status quo is unsustainable.
We have been living in a post-truth society for a very long time. But what is an undeniable fact is the anger of ordinary people spat out by an economic system that deems them surplus to requirements. The media should ask themselves why there is so little trust in establishment journalism today that fake news abounds.
Alan MacLeod (@AlanRMacLeod) is a PhD candidate in media and sociology at the University of Glasgow.