Forget About the Facts!
Let’s tell some stories instead. (This speech was given on the 16th of July during the Digital-Born Media Carnival 2017 in Kotor, Montenegro.)
I am here to tell you that things are both better and worse than we thought.
Let’s start with the term Fake News for a second: I am very critical of that. It is something that not the public, the media or even scientific community have coined, but rather a term that right-wing influencers have introduced. Under our hashtag on twitter you an actually even find a video of Trump admitting that.
In my opinion, the fact that we journalists adopted this term so uncritically is very disconcerting and part of the problem. It ends, as somebody has already said yesterday, in the not very fruitful discussions of different parties telling each other that they are fake news. (What’s interesting is that the phrase is not “you publish fake news” but “you are fake news”. It suggests identity and identification, something reminiscent of the #jesuis-Phenomenon. This formula using the verb to be discredits whole media companies instead of attacking single articles or reports. That might be one of the only things about this media crisis that is actually new.) “You are fake news!” – “No, actually, you are fake news!” The very existence of this term is an attack on media credibility and the media society in general, it’s destabilizing.
We don’t need to rebrand the concept of lies, misinformation and propaganda. Lies, misinformation and propaganda are already pretty good and useful words and, as we need to remember, have always been part of political debate, struggle and discourse in general.
Already here we can see one very important tradition in media communications of the powerful, imperialist and fascists. They introduce concepts and words that are catch to control the narrative. This is, I think, why we should be very wary of using the term Fake News or at least be much more precise in what we talk about. Distraction? Misinformation? Clickbait? Jokes, Memes? Good old propaganda? It is, for us, very important not to put all of these very different things under the umbrella term of Fake News since that is exactly what blurs the lines and shatters the confidence in modern journalism.
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1952)
Let’s get to the part of what I said in the beginning about the current situation being worse that we think. Almost everywhere in the world, journalists are asking themselves: What should we do now? What can we do to combat “Fake News”?
Well, so far, I see two strategies: one is trying to debunk Fake News and lies and the other is confronting the liars in interviews or segments that show their contradictions. However, these strategies don’t seem to work very well and, in my opinion, can even be dangerous. Why? Because, and I’m very sorry to say that, but in this bigger scope of things, and especially when a strong narrative is already in place, singular facts don’t really matter that much any more.
I will explain why, but first, I need to just make sure that we all know what a narrative is. A narrative is a story or a set of stories – true or untrue – that follow a typical scheme or pattern that we all know: Good vs. bad, there is a hero, there are obstacles and threats, something to overcome, and a clear, bright goal.
So important narratives, when we talk about media, in the history are, for example, the so-called American Dream, the idea that jewish people control the world through some sort of secret agency (one of the oldest narratives and Fake News ever, by the way), men vs women, the EU as a peace project, refugees are flooding our country, taking our money, jobs or women … I’m sure you all have many more examples you can think of right now.
Narratives are very important to humans, and, one can argue, even for the evolution of humanity and human cultures. Human brains and human culture are story-centered and not single-fact-centered. When we learn, we learn from stories, from examples, from morales. Education is a place of storytelling, just think about parents reading to their children, for example. Also, the process of remembering and memory in general is very tightly conflated with stories and storytelling: People tend to remember stuff better when there is a story or – in our terms – a narrative around it. You probably all know the trick to remember a lot of de-contextualized information at once: Try to put it into a story or into a room. The last important way in which narratives influence humanity is narratives about identity – our identity can be summarized as a set of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – and meaning. Meaningful narratives for humans, that means a greater story that the individual can insert themselves into to acquire some meaning for life and being, are for example religion and nationalism. Okay so let’s summarize that humans are, from a neurobiological and cultural point of view – and these are most definitely intertwined too – story-beings.
And to come back to my first point and explain: This is exactly why people don’t care about facts very much – I’m generalizing here. First, because they don’t remember: Once a strong narrative is in place, for example, that Donald Trump (I will use the US often as an example because I think we are all informed on that) is a good businessman and that this qualifies him for anything and everything – every singular correction, a single new fact or dispute drowns in the mass and the force that a conclusive narrative that people are happy to adopt has.
The next problem is that facts are never happening outside of a context. This is true for science as well, but it’s especially important for us, because: When people hear news, they do not take it on an empty stomach. They already have a set of beliefs and narratives internalized that this new information is then inserted to – or not. One single fact or debuke cannot dismantle a whole set of beliefs and narratives. There is research that suggests that trying to debuke something that people are convinced of actually makes them hold onto it even stronger.
But that is often how we as journalists are working: We do research, we see Donald Trump saying something and then try to look it up, try to verify, and then we say: Well, actually, he only had 304 votes in the electoral college and not 306. Our approach is very reactive: We wait for “news” to “happen” and then do the fact-checking. This is peanuts compared to the powerful narratives that actually control media conversation and policy making. Another problem is the formulaic structure of journalistic approach: Saying “there is no scientific evidence for” let’s say vaccines causing autism – is not as strong as the fear or the story that automatically enfolds in parent’s minds when they see the syringe. “There is no scientific evidence” – in a readers mind, they add “yet” – “there is no scientific evidence yet”. They read our very polite and correct way of debuking things as “well, we couldn’t find any evidence” – almost like an admission of incompetence. Another thing that can happen when we say “there is no evidence for Hillary Clinton being a lizard from space” is that people say: “Well of course there is none, the lizard people wouldn’t want us to know that we’re being manipulated and they would wipe the traces!” These are drastic examples, but you can probably deduce the process: People just incorporate the facts or information that they hear into already internalized narratives to keep everything intact. Why? Because narratives, as I said, are important for people, we build our lives around them, and if it is something dear to our heart or something that seemingly explains a lot of the world around us, we will not let it go easily. I will, once again, just mention religion and nationalism here.
And I do not want to minimize the public’s abilities to discern between facts and lies and I am not trying to say that people nowadays are more or less manipulated or critical. We all hold beliefs that are ridiculous and that there is no scientific base for. The vaccine thing, you all know, is actually more popular among well educated parents, so its not about education or intelligence. For example, I am 100% sure that Coca Cola tastes better from smaller bottles and cans, and no one can change my mind on that. Who here thinks that Donald Trump received Golden Showers from sex workers in a hotel room in Moscow? Show of hands. I do! It just makes so much sense, and it’s visually … well, there is a specific visual quality to it. The question whether the Golden Showers happened or not is not that important any more, it’s now entered some sort of collective hive-mind, a collective knowledge, it’s become a running gag, a meme, and no debuking will make it go away. So considering that, I think we as journalists also need to stop looking down on the public and, to put it in capitalist terms – this will also be important for later – our customers.
Okay so enough about the hopeless fight of journalism against narratives, let’s get to the more hopeful things: First, I will have to disagree, from a historical standpoint, on the notion that today is post-truth time, that we live in some sort of exceptional post-truth era. If today is the post-truth era, can somebody please tell me when truth time was? In the 1930ies or 1940ies, when first books and then people were burnt to ash? In the 1950ies, when the public was told that to “duck and to cover” will save you from a nuclear blast? In the 1960ies, when people still thought that black people were inferior and should not “mix” with whites? (All of these notions, by the way, have been „science“ at some point.). What about the seventies and eighties, when we thought only homosexuals could get Aids and women were still legally property of their husbands in many countries. Or the nineties and uhm, zeroes, when the US went to war with Iraq while knowing that there were no ABC-weapons? No, I’m sorry, post-truth era is not today, post-truth era is all time every time. We are just slowly and very publicly realizing that policies are not being decided on the grounds of facts, science and technology, but (greatly due to everything happening around climate change) but national and economic interests.
I strongly advise you to see that as a positive thing, the revelation that humans are story-beings and therefore the history of humanity is post-truth 24/7. Just look at how far we’ve come! Embrace the fact that human times are story times. It means that we are not in a singular, especially bad time, it is not all going to shit, it is not the apocalypse (also a very important, surprisingly political narrative, but we can talk about this later maybe). It is just a time of confusion and thickening of plots, and that, in my opinion, has a lot to do with the current abundance of information, a new fascist uprising and the change in media due to the internet and social media and new forms of communication. Humans have been here before, so don’t worry.
Let’s get to some concrete techniques and solutions, suggestions to what we can do in regards to combatting misinformation, propaganda and lies today:
1) We need to shift the focus from debunking to (re)contextualising. We need to say: Look, dear readers, this is why Donald Trump is telling you that he is a good businessman. This is why the republican party is telling you that you don’t need health care. We need to stop just answering and start giving more backstory and new context to try to shift the narrative.
I think it was BuzzFeed or some other hip US site that, once Trump was in power, started to count all the lies that he has told in one big article. (They stopped updating in March, by the way.) And to me, as a journalist, that was interesting, but from a user’s point of view and in regards to creating a more progressive media experience, it’s useless. You are just repeating the lies and using your own platform to spread the misinformation even wider, and for free.
This ties into point 2.
2) Journalists need to be more proactive instead of reactive. Stop waiting for news to happen and instead research your own stories, do independent analysis, and again, recontextualise. Once Trump has said something outrageous like, that outrageous thing. Your debuke is much less entertaining, much less outrageous and therefore much less interesting. By being one step ahead, the liars, powerful institutions and fascists control the narrative and the media cycle. Also, by constantly producing scandals and lies, they keep us busy with work that they know will never be as powerful as their narratives. Your image of being a journalist needs to incorporate more than “just reporting on the facts” since producing facts and non-facts, to put it in fascist terminology, alternative truths, is a distraction from influencers that gives us busywork that will stop us from contextualizing and analyzing.
The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing. (Toni Morrison, Portland State, Black Studies Center public dialogue, Pt. 2, 30.5.1975)
3) In modern so-called data-journalism, it has become popular to collect and visualize. That is something that online journalism and creative journalism can offer that is different and new, but it is not always useful in combatting disinformation. Be careful about how you present your data. Always embed it into the context you would like it to be seen or in a context that is productive and progressive and not harmful. Less single data points, more networks, structures and patterns. Because again, that is how the brain and human culture works. Besides: You’ve probably often seen something taken out of context completely in order to make the opposite point: Try to make this very hard in your article or piece.
4) No-platforming of fascists, liars, hate speech and so on. I know journalists don’t like to hear that since on the surface, it seems to contradict free speech. But this is where you’ve been fed fascist propaganda. You are the journalist, you are the editor, and you are responsible to choose which content will be published and/or repeated. We don’t always need „to hear both sides on the topic“, especially if one side is a conspiracy theory, propaganda, lies or misinformation. It is your job and you are trained in deciding, filtering and making choices, which voices and which content to put on the air or in your article. Not making that decision under the veil of freedom of expression for everyone is actually reckless and lazy. You as a journalist have the responsibility to make a sensible choice about whose words to amplify. We’ve all seen the horrible interviews with for example Kelly-Ann Conway and other so-called Trump surrogates. They will not listen to the interviewer, answer questions or react to anything that resembles an argument. They are always on message and they will just blatantly lie. You can see some of the most prestigious journalists and interviewers struggling in that situation, and that is because there no discussion with fascists. There is no arguing with liars because they have no regard for the truth. That is not a weak point where you can, as a journalist, hurt them or expose them or make their policies, their decisions or words look bad. You don’t get fascists to tell less lies by giving them more airtime. They don’t deal in truth, facts or arguments, that is not their currency.
5) Let’s get to the last and my favorite point: What the media instead has to do is to offer inspiring visions and meaningful narratives themselves. This is much harder than looking up the number of electoral votes or fact-checking with this or that statistic, but it is also much much more important. Because that is what we live in, a market of stories. “Fake News” will always be cheaper than real news in capitalist media. This is why the product needs to be better and offer more. Embed your facts, your research, into a positive and meaningful narrative or context. Find your heroes, analyze their obstacles, identify the good and the bad and the enemies, set up a story with a goal. Be creative. You can do all that while still being a good journalist and true to the facts, I promise.
And again, I would like to stress that we should not dismiss the public as disinterested and uninformed or dismiss so-called Fake News as inherently bad. As a student of history and the history of stories, I can promise you that the lies we tell each others as humans can be much, much more telling than the truths, and that is why we need to not blindly dismiss them but rather examine them very closely and see what lies beneath. Thank you.