Donald Trump, now POTUS and not just BOASTUS, is continuing his election campaign battle about the truth and the press. In echoes of authoritarian regimes everywhere, most famously the Nazis’ accusation of Lügenpresse ( literally translated as “lying press”), more recently adopted by the Pegida movement in Germany , he has increased the temperature of his war of words about press lies, as he sees it.
• Trump’s first days in office have been overshadowed by a row with the press about numbers attending his inauguration
• Relationship with some major US broadcasters seems set to continue decline
• Anger and accusation continue to dominate press/Trump relationship
• Fundamental questions about the truth, the media and social media are becoming ever more important in politics
What is the truth? It is my truth, your truth or is there only one truth. There has always been fact and opinion, one based on events widely known to have happened and the other based on a set of values or beliefs which filter and shape the facts to meet our opinion.
Anger is an energy
But now, in the age of Trump, Brexit and rising, raging, right-wing movements everywhere, the press is constantly accused of lying if their truth does not meet the viewpoint, often extreme viewpoint by any measure, of the angry right. And angry they are, whether post-election Trumpeteers or post-referendum Brexiteers in Britain. Victory seems to have inflated their rage in some strange way, as if having achieved what they want, they are disappointed and looking for new targets to focus their anger on.
A cynic might say that not having any realistic policies on the table or knowing that they are doomed to failure before implementation, it is best to attack the press from the beginning, thus laying the groundwork to attack all subsequent reporting of failed campaign promises.
Trump and his press spokesman Sean Spicer, in a revealing example of the shape of things to come, have taken issue with press reporting of the numbers attending his inauguration ceremony. Pictures of the event seem fairly conclusive and suggest that Obama had a lot more people at his first inauguration than Trump did, but the more important question is, does it really matter?
Focus lost as trivia prevails
Surely an incoming president, whose mission is to “make America great again”, must have more important business to attend to than becoming engaged in a war of words about his victimisation, as he sees it, by the press. On a big policy issue anger about misrepresentation might be understandable but on the question of numbers at an inauguration such outrage is partly laughable, partly worrying. The sense of self-importance is laughable but the energy and outrage expended on the matter is a worrying sign of the shape of things to come. Will there ever be any actual “making great again” or will it just be a permanent Twitter battle of preaching hate again? Because even in the social media age of hype, fake news, hysteria and permanent abuse, to call someone a liar is still a serious accusation. In most countries even battle-hardened politicians save the L word as a nuclear weapon, when they are sure they are right. Even now, with the battle between the US press and Trump reaching new levels, many media organisations have called his press secretary Sean Spicer’s figures for numbers attending the inauguration “falsehoods” and held back from the L word.
Peak paranoia troubles propaganda practitioners
It speaks volumes about the arrogance but also basic ignorance of Trump’s operation (formally called a government, in normal times) that these attacks and accusations are believed to be worthwhile and valid. There are parallels with the British Brexiteers, in that an angry campaign made outrageous claims and far-fetched promises, while attacking anyone who dared to question them.
Aaron Banks, a wealthy backer of Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has said he will set up a news website to combat prejudice and misinformation in the British media, despite the fact that much of the British tabloid and broadsheet press wholeheartedly supported Brexit.
New levels of distrust damage concept of truth
We are used to politics being a rough and tumble fight about “the truth”, with bitter arguments and constant disagreements between political parties about the motives, mistakes and broken promises of their rivals. Politics has always been vicious but what we are seeing now, from Trump, from Brexiteers in Britain and, probably pre-Trump, by Pegida in Germany, is a policy of accusing all critics of being liars. The concept of debate and discussion, counter-argument and criticism is not something they are prepared to accept, and their supporters seem to embrace this brave new world of paranoia, anger, suspicion and media mistrust.
To try and avoid a moral panic about the death of truth we could say this is just the aftermath of a bitter campaign in which a billionaire outsider, as he amusingly claims to be, down to his last few billion, and resentful of the initial mockery of his presidential run and later angry criticism, is now taking some time to vent his frustration.
Or we could say that given the growing concerns about Facebook and fake news, Google and paid adverts ranking in searches and Twitter and the short attention span exchanges it encourages, we are on a dangerous slope into a twilight zone where opinion becomes fact becomes news becomes the truth.
More is less in social media age
For generations raised on social media, where there are multiple sources of news offered by companies whose main purpose is profit and who, in having become part of the fabric of their daily lives, have acquired a worrying level of trustworthiness, the truth is probably harder to separate from fiction than it should be. In this area of our lives more really is becoming less: more choice, more information at our fingertips, less of it provided by discerning individuals who care about the truth of their message. News is a commodity for such companies, somewhere between friendship and search, other valuable commodities in their portfolios.
The truth is in danger from a pincer movement of the angry activist who only knows one truth and sees conspiracy around every corner, and the uncritical consumer, grazing on a variety of sources but not critically examining the quality and objectivity of the material delivered in a package selling other services.
War on truth is one which must be fought and won
Where do we go from here? It seems likely that Trump and like-minded individuals/parties of a similar political complexion will continue this fight against the established media. It is unlikely that Facebook and other similar companies will be able to get a grip on the blizzard of fake news which is at the other end of the untruth spectrum. What matters in the end is that enough people care about the truth and are prepared to seek it, stand up for it and stand up to those who want to blatantly corrupt it for their own narrow ends or present rumour as fact for profit.
I believe all of these words above to be the truth, about the truth, but all of us filter our views though a sieve of experience, upbringing and various personal prejudices, so it might be less than perfect. Importantly though, my intention is not to deceive.
We have all heard of the much maligned and less than triumphant war on drugs. Now we seem to be at the start of the war on truth. History shows us that in countries and times where the truth becomes the property of one group or individual, terrible consequences tend to follow. Let’s hope the winner here is ultimately the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.