Live streamed video of the D.C. Capitol being stormed on January 6 brought viewers worldwide into the moment that internet conspiracy theories exploded in real life. This futile attempt to block Biden from being confirmed was fueled by the false but ferociously repeated tale that votes were stolen and Trump illegitimately denied a second term. That cover transforms lawless rioters into “patriotic heroes.”
Commentators claimed to be shocked when the calls for a show of force “like Bunker Hill” — circulated on the web for weeks by pro-Trump extremists — came to life. And they appeared mystified that masses of people could be launched into action by claims and “alt-facts” that have no evidence or basis in reality. In fact, there is a continuous chain stretching over decades that ties mainstream news, link by link, to the remote reaches of dark web white supremacy boards, anti-Semitic memes and fascistic plotting.
A brief history of “Fake News.” Journalism in the U.S., like other capitalist democratic republics, is supposedly held to the standard of objectivity and even-handedness. In reality, exaggerated, sensationalized or outright lying for profit has been around for a long time. So, too, has selective presentation and editorial slanting by the wealthy owners of media outlets and their advertisers. Information, like other commodities, is controlled by cash.
In the U.S., the Reagan years proved a critical turning point in cracking the veneer of media impartiality. Three events are particularly interesting. The Koch brothers, intending to re-shape U.S. politics, began building a network of right-wing think tanks, organizations and bought politicians. Fox News was founded in 1986 — initially the cutting edge of conservative politics but now eclipsed by Breitbart and others farther to the right. And months later, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) threw out its Fairness Doctrine requiring airwaves reporting to cover multiple perspectives.
A slow slide since the 1980s morphed into a journalistic sea change. The term “Fake News” emerged during the 2016 election, largely as Donald Trump’s iteration of a common conservative complaint that the “liberal” media is unfair to them. But who’s doing the faking?
An independent study by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism analyzed 429 “hyper-partisan media sites.” Of these, only 8 — or less than 2% — were leftist-leaning.
As print media declined and many small newspapers went belly up, hundreds of online sites purporting to be local news outlets popped up. One stand-out is TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur Brian Timpone. He is linked to multiple interconnected media companies, including Government Information Services, Locality Labs, and others. Combined, they control nearly 1,300 websites scattered across all 50 states. All cater to right-leaning politicians, lobbyists and PACs (Political Action Committees), often printing their press releases word-for-word.
Such networks serve the billionaire-funded propaganda mills. Linked up with social media, they become a massive echo chamber. The power of social media to magnify is immense and growing astronomically. Axios reported that online response to sketchy news sources shot up from 0.7 billion in 2019 to 2.8 billion in tumultuous 2020.
The liberal “fail.” Throughout the four-year rule by the Liar-in-Chief, liberal commentators have counted falsehoods and done daily fact checks. It hasn’t worked. Still less does citing evidence and reason stem the tide of conspiracy theories. How can one prove to a QAnon zealot that the world’s elite do not secretly rape and eat children?
Another unsuccessful ploy is appealing to morality, fairness and decency. Joe Biden’s message to the Capitol mob was outrage at the violation of the “sacred” halls of democracy. Completely ineffectual to those who believe they are defending the “real” winner of the election, speaking for the shat-upon little guy, and saving the children. This is the mantle the right-wing propaganda machine has woven.
The far right has a massive advantage over the left when it comes to getting its message out. First, of course, they have immense amounts of money from the über-wealthy. But even more fundamentally: they don’t have to tell the truth.
Writing in Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler laid out the basics of extreme right-wing messaging: “Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively … it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favorable to its own side.”
The right wing doesn’t have to be factual or even logically consistent. What it must do is speak to the passions and desperation of the masses. Its key purpose is to identify a target, a scapegoat to deflect their fury and frustration away from the true capitalist cause and to ordain a strongman savior.
The revolutionary left has a job that is both harder and easier. Harder because its purpose is to empower the 99% to challenge the entrenched ruling class and be able to regenerate the entire social system to one that is humane and genuinely democratic. And to do that, socialists have to not only arouse passion, but also arm workers and the most oppressed with an understanding of how the system works, and what must be done to bring it down. What makes the job easier is that unlike fascism, which rests on venomous, unsustainable fictions, the path toward socialism is rooted in reality and genuine power.
For Marxist revolutionaries, the justice sought and the means to get there are completely entwined. Tell the truth. And explain these truths, as Lenin admonished, “with particular thoroughness, persistence and patience.”