In the era of information overload, it is essential to distinguish between what is misleadingly called “fake news,” and a downright lie. They sound related, but they are not synonymous. In fact, the relationship between the two is more complex, since calling valid reporting, i.e. “news,” fake is a lie itself.
A lie is a deliberate misrepresentation of reality, of the truth. A lie is when a government says one thing… but then does the opposite. A lie is when a politician “gins up” the threat to sacred “national security” to justify an otherwise unjustifiable military adventure. The Bush administration, with the help of the UK’s Blair government, did just that to corral public opinion into supporting their war on Iraq.
Lies not only misrepresent, but also distort reality. The Nazis and the Soviets both understood the effectiveness of a good lie…
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.
The Guardian carried this message about Soviet lies from a Warsaw ghetto survivor:
Do not underestimate the destructive power of lies. When the war broke out in 1939, my family fled east and settled for a couple of years in Soviet-occupied Lwów (now Lviv in western Ukraine). The city was full of refugees, and rumours were swirling about mass deportations to gulags in Siberia and Kazakhstan. To calm the situation, a Soviet official gave a speech declaring that the rumours were false – nowadays they would be called “fake news” – and that anyone spreading them would be arrested. Two days later, the deportations to the gulags began, with thousands sent to their deaths.
Lies are what build and protect the power of a dictatorship. Those lies are fashioned for easy consumption by fearful citizens. When the US President said that there was an ‘imminent threat’ from Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, he was lying, but we hardly noticed in the avalanche of lies from the White House. The Washington Post has meticulously counted the lies since the last inauguration, all 16,000+ of them.
One of the most insidious lies, perhaps this is the “big lie” of the current era, is to label legitimate news as ‘fake.’ It is a very carefully formulated lie. It is designed to both undermine public confidence the veracity of the news, while simultaneously setting the stage for a new lie, one that directly counters the true facts.
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses [would] reach the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.
Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism
It is surprisingly easy to shrug off inconvenient information as ‘fake.’ After all, if what you are being told is somehow fake, then why take the time to understand the research, analysis and thought that went into that news? If, as the White House claimed, the Impeachment was a witch hunt – here ‘witch hunt’ is a synonym for ‘fake’ – then it is not worth bothering to understand any of the compelling evidence that emerged in the House of Representatives.
Calling legitimate news ‘fake’ is a very dangerous lie. It comes as American democracy is on the ropes. If it survives this bout, it will be a very reduced version of the robust democracy that has thrived and struggled over 200 years. It’s a lie to believe anything else.