I have a theory. And it is just a theory, I’m spitballing not researching so let’s not get carried away here. But…
I hypothesize for the purpose of discussion that the real purpose of all these fake news stories is not exactly to deceive us, but rather to place us unto an epistemic fugue state in which truth and falsity commingle to such an extent that the question of ‘what is true’ and ‘what is false’ is lost.
In order to do this, these sites circumvent the gatekeepers who normally keep garbage out of circulation (the much and somewhat wrongly derided ‘mainstream media’) by exploiting the network effect.
After all, if one is to see a wild, wild lie mixed in with the truth, is it not possible that the presence of this lie would impeach the credibility of the truths rather than the truths’ presence falsely bolstering the credibility of the lie?
If I give you a list of five claims, one a clear lie and the others undetermined, wouldn’t you then presume that the accuracy of the 4 remaining claims is in doubt. If I lie once, might I not lie again?
And, If we do not know what is true and what is untrue might we then be more susceptible to non-rational forms of persuasion?
So, an obvious question is ‘who is behind these fake news sites?’ In some cases it is clear that it is Trump associates. Brietbart’s head honcho Stephen Bannon is a key Trump adviser. In some cases it appears to be bored teenagers, but in many cases (including many of the latter cases which seem at least slightly suspect to me) it is unclear, particularly with the small ones.
The most probable answer is that it is Trump. Either the Trump campaign or arms-length bodies or advocacy groups. Many of the site’s DNS registration information is hidden, the sites are registered on behalf of the real owners by proxy companies. (This is a perfectly legitimate and commonplace business.)
But… let’s go really far down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole for just a moment here.
Could it be Russia?
Why Russia? Well, because simply put something very similar is happening in Russia.
In the Soviet Union, everything was fake. Everyone knew it was fake but everyone pretended that it was not. To do otherwise was crimethink. In modern Russia, everything is still fake. Or more accurately, everything is postmodernist. Because now, everyone accepts that it is fake and just moves on.
The chief of fakery is Vladislav Surkov. He is Mr Putin’s gray eminence but also writes lyrics for rock bands and avant garde poetry. I’m not joking. He also is generally thought to have written a novel about himself and what he is doing under a pseudonym which is a masculinized version of his wife’s maiden name.
Surkov sponsors everyone and everything, even the political opposition at times. yet, everyone knows. According to the dissident writer Eduard Limonov, the strategy is based on keeping the opposition constantly confused. The political system relies on everyone being unsure of what is actually happening and what is not. Is even the opposition real? Who knows!
Surkov speaks of ‘nonlinear warfare.’ Once there were many groups in two sides (Axis vs Allies, NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact.) Now, everyone is against everyone.
One of the jobs of News is to expose fakes. But News can only expose things which are hidden. How is that supposed to work? Does Fact Checking work when hardly any effort is made to hide that it isn’t really so? How does one get any purchase against nothingness?
Maybe this is not true. Maybe ideas of Russian influence are a form if cranky nonsense cum wishful thinking.
(How would we know?)
But even if it is not, even if the usefulness to those of power and wealth of this postmodernist fog that has settled on our lives is a coincidence, it is still a huge problem.
The Traditional Critique is that Newspapers are dying because advertising has moved online. This is partially true. But, I think that it misses the fundamental point that the truth binary no longer is a major feature of a huge number of people’s daily lives. Since that is what newspapers sell, why buy them?
We feared, once, that we would create a computer world, upload ourselves into the dream and forget who we were. That, I think was optimistic, not dystopian.
The real dystopia is that we don’t have to do any such thing in order to find ourselves in a reality of illusion. We don’t have to upload ourselves to the computers to become lost in them.
One of the oldest traditions is the sacred knowledge. That there is some esoteric ‘truth’ that only the ‘chosen’ few can understand and so slip the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of god.
Even seemingly completely secular systems can have this silly feature. Marxists called it ‘dialectical materialism’ and Abraham Mazlow called it ‘self-actualization.’
I believe that exactly idea is what is found in optimistic science fiction such as The Matrix and World on a Wire. And that is why I call it ‘optimistic,’ because it asserts the existence of a true world into which the properly initiated can awaken. And so, I think impliedly it stimulates our secret desire to believe that not only is there is something beyond our own experience but that all of the things which we hate about our world are just nightmares, from which we can awaken without actually doing anything.
This is not so. Neo can’t wake up.
The imaginary seems real because it is real.
If this sounds totally hopeless and depressing, however, remember that a dream is like a train which goes on its course and which cannot be turned to one side or another. You cannot change a dream, not even in theory. But you can, theoretically, change the world.
We just have to discover how.
PS: there were traces, and just traces, of the miasma around Mr Obama, particularly during the first campaign. But isn’t it weird that the first truly hyperreal postmodernist candidate is a Republican?