Despite Donald Trump’s impending departure from the White House, “fake news,” as both a slogan and a phenomenon, is here to stay.
When it comes to fake news, human beings have been particularly addicted to the narratives of character assassination from time immemorial. The future of reputation assaults will be the distant past — the informational viruses of inquisitions and witch hunts that tap into pre-existing fears that spread without intervention from referees.
Indeed, character assassination is the weapon of our age; the only things that have changed since the times of our barbaric ancestors are the technologies of attack and the false belief that we’re more advanced than they were.
To understand why fake news is here to stay we first have to look at what the term means and differentiate it from biased news. “Fake news” consists of factually fabricated stories spread mostly on social media. Biased news is corrupted by the ideological agendas of the news outlet and has been the cornerstone of the mainstream American media for decades. News can be biased both in its content and in what the outlet chooses to cover and not to cover.
Mr. Trump deliberately conflates biased news or news he does not like with “fake news,” which is not the same thing.
Fake news, especially information designed to damage a target, will remain for a few reasons. First, there is a bottomless market for it.
Billions of people are actively seeking to have their worldviews validated, especially if it involves confirmation that we are victims of an adversarial elite that is standing in the way of our dreams or sense of justice. If one of these elites can be sacrificed in the manner of the proverbial virgin tossed into the volcano, we’re all in. Lying or spreading false information in the new climate is a perverse act proving that the trafficker has grit and tribal affinity.
Comic actor Rowan Atkinson recently said, “The problem we have online is that an algorithm decides what we want to see, which ends up creating a simplistic, binary view of society. It becomes a case of either you’re with us or against us. And if you’re against us, you deserve to be ‘canceled.’”
Another reason why character assassination using dubious data is here to stay is that it has never been easier to do. Aiding in the unfettered spread of politically-motivated fake news is its overseas origins, beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. In colonial America and medieval Europe, character assassination took the form of verbal gossip — alleging, during times of great anxiety, that an unlovable person was possessed by demons. Today, we have Twitter.
For much of the 20th century, the media were deeply biased but there were referees. If someone wanted to level an allegation, most journalists — even biased ones — felt an obligation to vet the charge or assess its merits before publishing it. The Internet has wiped out the referees.
Lifestyle self-promoter Hilaria Baldwin (wife of actor Alec) was recently exposed as a well-to-do American White woman as opposed to the Spanish continental of her fierce marketing. All it took was an anonymous tweet from someone who didn’t dig her act based on some superficial research. The close cousin of character assassination is, after all, character suicide.
In our age, all sins are essentially equal. Harvey Weinstein is rightly ruined for being a habitual sexual predator while Sen. Al Franken loses his Senate seat for being photographed making a crude gesture during his days as a comedian. Woe to anyone who suggests there is a spectrum of wrongdoing.
John Kerry, like all politicians is a self-promoter, but he lost the presidency in large measure because his honorable military service in Vietnam was attacked by detractors in the searing Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign.
Where one stands on an attack or a person or institution depends upon pre-existing biases. Nevertheless, penetrating attacks with fraudulent elements include charges that: Bill Gates created the coronavirus in order to profit from it; Donald Trump is actively controlled by the Kremlin; Dr. Anthony Fauci led the way in downplaying COVID-19; Justice Amy Coney Barrett is fully indoctrinated in a cult where women must obey their husbands and provide sex on demand.
Despite the colossal lies that wrongly convicted the Duke lacrosse players in the court of public opinion of rape, there is also enough recorded footage of genuine injustice as in the death of George Floyd that it makes the less provable ones plausible.
Issues of the day all have character assassination element — #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, climate change. A woman who has been assaulted will be the recipient of demeaning rumors if she comes forward, the accused will have his reputation and job prospects shattered. With Black Lives Matter, profiling is an act of character assassination as is being accused of being a “Karen,” a White woman acting out her latent racism through accusatory behavior. Climate change quickly degenerates into ad hominem attacks on scientists and their motives.
And now we have the rise of “deep fakes,” the manipulation of video and audio technology that can make fake words come out of a real person’s mouth, which happened when former President Obama allegedly cursed about his successor and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted his objective was to manipulate users for profit. Both of these examples were deep fakes.
Whether you call it fake news, biased news or character assassination, there is no current antidote. The only hope that I can see is intense awareness all along the ideological spectrum.
Comedian Ricky Gervais recently spoke about the hazards of being misunderstood in our digital Dodge City: “The scary thing is being canceled if you say the wrong thing and suddenly Netflix can take you off their platform. You could be the most woke, politically correct stand-up in the world at the moment, but you don’t know what it’s going to be like in 10 years’ time. You can get canceled for things you said 10 years ago.”
• Eric Dezenhall is the author of the new novel about character assassination, “False Light,” and the CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis management firm.