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Counterfeit World – Part One – Fake News

When it comes to the origins of the term “fake news,” people fall into two broad camps.  The first holds that the term was coined by former US president Donald Trump to dismiss critics in the establishment media.  The second, smaller group, insist that the term has been around for as long as humans have been able to communicate.  Both groups are wrong.  The term “fake news” was popularised by Trump’s opponent prior to the 2016 election campaign.  The sentiment behind it though, began with remarks made by President Obama in a speech at Carnegie Mellon on 13 October 2016:

“It used to be there were three television stations and Walter Cronkite is on there and not everybody agreed, and there were always outliers who thought that it was all propaganda, and we didn’t really land on the Moon, and Elvis is still alive, and so forth.  (Laughter.)  But, generally, that was in the papers that you bought at the supermarket right as you were checking out.  And generally, people trusted a basic body of information.

“It wasn’t always as democratic as it should have been…  But there has to be, I think, some sort of way in which we can sort through information that passes some basic truthiness tests and those that we have to discard because they just don’t have any basis in anything that’s actually happening in the world.”

This, of course, cuts to a problem which has dogged humanity from the very beginning.  In the language of technocracy, ontology and epistemology – in plain language, what we know and how we know it.  Because in the end, we cannot know anything for certain.  Even our direct experience can be faulty, as every stage magician learns at the very beginning of their career.  And more recently, the term “gaslighting” has been deployed to describe the increasingly abusive relationship between the state and the citizenry.

For the most part, we have no choice but to take on trust – “trust the science” – the information passed on to us by authority figures.  Obama’s reference to Walter Cronkite is of interest, because news in that era was an example of the paradox of scarcity.  As Martin Gurri explains:

“A curious thing happens to sources of information under conditions of scarcity. They become authoritative. A century ago, a scholar wishing to study the topics under public discussion in the US would find most of them in the pages of the New York Times. It wasn’t quite ‘All the news that’s fit to print,’ but it delivered a large enough proportion of published topics that, as a practical proposition, little incentive existed to look further. Because it held a near monopoly on current information, the New York Times seemed authoritative.

“Four decades ago, Walter Cronkite concluded his broadcasts of the CBS Nightly News with the words, ‘And that’s the way it was.’ Few of his viewers found it extraordinary that the clash and turmoil of billions of human lives, dwelling in thousands of cities and organized into dozens of nations, could be captured in three or four mostly visual reports lasting a total of less than 30 minutes. They had no access to what was missing—the other two networks reported the same news, only less majestically.”

Those who insist that fake news has been around forever – substantively true even if the terminology was different – point more to public apathy in the face of biased, slanted or simply false news and information.  Indeed, the main fear Obama was giving voice to, was an establishment media fear of being exposed as frauds.  This is because the combined arrival of social media and the i-phone around 2008, radically changed the information landscape.

In Cronkite’s days – and, indeed, well into the first decade of the twenty-first century – the equipment required to record television quality footage was too expensive for ordinary people.  And even those hobbyists who could afford hand-held video recorders had no way of distributing their footage other than via one or other of the establishment news outlets.  In contrast, the i-phone gave a mass of ordinary people the ability to record TV quality footage, and social media provided them with access to a mass audience which by-passed the establishment media gatekeepers.

Following the money helps explain the growing fragility of the establishment media outlets as a new brand of citizen journalism emerged.  Prior to social media, a relatively small number of TV channels and newspapers enjoyed a near monopoly on advertising revenue.  At the same time, advertisers could to some extent determine which outlets were most likely to attract their potential customers.

The benefit to news organisations is that the income from advertising allowed them to employ skilled investigative journalists… even at a local level, where local and regional newspapers created and trained a pool of journalists who could be brought into the national outlets as required.  This had already begun to breakdown toward the end of the last century, with the arrival of digital printing and cable and satellite TV stations.  Nevertheless, these new outlets had no interest in undermining establishment credibility… they were in it solely for a share of the advertising revenue.

Social media changed the advertising game by providing advertisers with far more accurate access to their potential customers in a way that establishment news outlets had no way of replicating.  As a result, local and regional news has all but died as outlets can no longer afford to employ journalists.  Without the local and regional training pools, the quality of national journalism has also plummeted, even as the number of journalists and of genuine investigations has fallen off a cliff.  Today, most of what we call news consists of re-hashed press releases from approved organisations, together with commentary as a substitute for hard evidence.

Corresponding to the decline in establishment journalism, a new breed of citizen journalist was able to use cheaper recording equipment and access to social media to provide almost instant rebuttal of establishment news.  In effect, social media allowed the masses to peak behind the curtain to see how the trick was done.  And no amount of protestation or censorship will ever restore the previous trust in establishment media news.

The establishment media defence is that they still endeavour to provide an accurate representation of the truth… something that ordinary citizens, acting outside the constraints of news regulation, are not required to do.  The result though, is a corrosion of information, as social media provides a means of instantly rebutting the official narrative, but no comparable means of offering an alternative.  We see their lies, but we share no objective truth.  And so, news becomes what sociologist Jean Baudrillard called a simulacrum – a representation of a representation of a representation of the real world.  Baudrillard’s three stages of simulacrum are:

  1. The image masks and/or distorts reality
  2. The image masks the absence of basic reality
  3. The image bears no resemblance to any reality at all.

Insofar as news attempts to represent reality, the relationship between news and truth is as the relationship between an Ordinance Survey map and the real world.  All too often though, the news becomes a representation of a representation of the real world – the map looks more akin to the iconic London Underground map:

“After all, how could a designer fully represent lines that criss-crossed a few square miles of central London yet also stretched across what, until as late as 1900, had been farmlands, markets gardens and remarkably remote Middlesex villages? And how could it all fit onto a single map – one that could be folded neatly into a coat pocket?”

Walter Cronkite and his inheritors, attempting to convey world and national events in thirty minutes of mainly visual coverage required a similar reordering of reality to make it fit.  A convenient and largely unconscious “Overton Window” aided the overstretched program editor in deciding what is and what is not a representation of news.  But it doesn’t end there.

A more down to earth explanation of Baudrillard uses a tale about strawberries.  Sometime back in the 1950s, a grandfather takes his grandson to pick strawberries from the garden.  The grandfather leans down and selects the biggest, juiciest strawberry and hands it to the grandson.  The grandson bites into it and is delighted by the combination of sweetness with just a hint of bitterness. 

Fast forward to the late 1960s, and the strawberry patch has been replaced by a massive hydroponic strawberry farm.  And the strawberries are no longer the original organic ones but are the product of intensive gene selection designed to enhance the sweet flavour.  Moreover, the flavour itself has been captured in strawberry jam and strawberry juice.  Later still, confectionery companies begin to use sugar and sweeteners to enhance the strawberry flavour in candy.  And then a soda company begins to produce strawberry flavoured soda.  But because the sugar is too expensive, they have used even sweeter corn syrup as a key ingredient.  Finally, another company takes the strawberry soda and freezes it, marketing it as a strawberry slurpee… a product which not only bears no resemblance to a real strawberry at all, but which has been crafted to taste better than the real thing.

Sometime later, the original grandson – now a grandfather in his own right – takes his grandson to the old strawberry patch.  He leans over an picks the ripest, juiciest strawberry he can find, and hands it to his grandson.  The grandson is amazed to see a real fruit which looks just like the logo on the slurpee.  He bites into it, and then spits it out.  “Yuk!”  It tastes nothing like strawberry…  “Strawberry” has become a simulacrum, bearing no resemblance to reality at all.

To give an example of how news can become a simulacrum in this way, consider a non-story about antidepressants from back when I ran a mental health charity:  The story began when Liberal Democrat MP came up with a story – as one drinking water engineer put it, “plucked it out of his arse” – about SSRI (Prozac-like) antidepressant use being so widespread that they were being found in drinking water.  This, in and of itself, was big news at a time when the allure of antidepressants was wearing thin, as governments began to count the cost of providing them to as many as one in six of the population, and as Big Pharma was being caught overstating the benefits and covering up adverse events in clinical trials.  Not long after, some marine biologists published research which claimed that antidepressants discharged from the sewage system into rivers and the sea was causing radical behaviour changes in marine life.  Fast forward to today, and the idea that antidepressants can be found in drinking water and in treated sewage to the point that it affects marine life has become common knowledge.  Few, I suspect, would even stop to question it.  There is though, just one teensy-weensy problem with the story… it is complete bollox!  SSRI antidepressants breakdown so rapidly in water that they barely survive the journey around the u-bend, and have no chance of making it all the way through the sewage treatment process.

What about the marine biology paper though?  Surely, we should trust the science?

So just ask yourself what would happen to someone who rocked up at the nearest marine sewage outlet and started dumping tons – it would need that amount to avoid diffusion – of psychoactive drugs into the sea?  Certainly, no research ethics committee would even consider allowing it.  Nor did the researchers find a way to do it.  What they had to do instead, was to dump antidepressants into a fish tank containing some shrimps… which did, predictably, change their behaviour.  They then extrapolated their results to explain what might happen if marine life close to sewage outlets were exposed to similar concentrations of SSRI drugs (which, remember, break down rapidly in water).  In other words, the research findings were a representation of a representation of the real world – instantly causing any news reporting – i.e., representation – of the story to be a simulacrum.

A more recent – and far more troubling – example of the creation of a simulacrum occurred during the pandemic…  Although the story has been largely forgotten now that various state and Big Pharma actors are being exposed for misconduct going possibly as far as mass homicide.  This was the odd case of the Surgisphere “research” into hydroxychloroquine.  The now retracted “research paper” overturned 70 years of safe prescribing to falsely claim that hydroxychloroquine use came with a significant risk of heart attacks.  Only later did we discover that the “lead authors” had little to do with the research, which was ostensibly carried out by the company Surgisphere – which appears to have lain dormant for a decade prior to popping up with what proved to be fabricated hydroxychloroquine treatment data.  Nevertheless, establishment media outlets triumphantly reported that:

“Trump drug hydroxychloroquine raises death risk in Covid patients…”

And so, once again we had a simulacrum – the reporting as real, of something which itself bears no resemblance to reality at all.  News emerges as the strawberry slushee rendition of the real organic strawberry.  And the trouble is that – rather like the surplus energy lens – once we begin to look at the received version of reality through the simulacrum lens, we find simulacra all over the place.

For example, stories about this or that city, region or even country running entirely on renewable energy abound.  And yet, as with Las Vegas, they are entirely unconnected with reality:

“A person visiting Las Vegas can’t help but notice that the city consumes a tremendous amount of power. The Vegas Strip is a site to behold at night, but there’s a lot of fossil fuel involved in powering those lights.  So imagine my surprise when I saw a recent article in Popular Mechanics titled Las Vegas Is Now Powered Entirely by Renewable Energy. If that wasn’t clear enough, the subtitle read ‘Las Vegas is now the largest city in the country to run entirely on renewable energy.’

“This claim was repeated in numerous mainstream media outlets, but I immediately knew this couldn’t be correct. Although it is true that Las Vegas is installing a lot of new solar power, and the state of Nevada is home to over 500 megawatts (MW) of geothermal power – the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that the 3.3 million megawatt hours (MWh) that Nevada generated in September 2016 came primarily (>70%) from natural gas:  Of course that’s for the entire state of Nevada, but nearly three-quarters of the state’s population lives in or around Las Vegas. With natural gas generating four times the electricity of renewables for the state, it isn’t mathematically possible for Las Vegas to be running entirely on renewables…

“I thought the more likely possibility for the mistake was that the City of Las Vegas – in other words the city government of Las Vegas – was now capable of powering its needs with renewable power. Indeed, that is what happened.

“Then, as with the game of telephone someone misinterpreted ‘City of Las Vegas’ as ‘city of Las Vegas’, and that ultimately became ‘Las Vegas is powered entirely by renewable energy.’ Thus, a new energy myth was born.”

Even allowing that the city government of Las Vegas was able to run on renewable energy was mendacious.  It was a representation of the reality, which was – in net zero fashion – a description of how, during daylight hours, the city generated and exported enough solar electricity to match the gas electricity it imported during the night.

The green-space is, sadly, full of examples of simulacra.  Of technologies like hyperloops, solar roadways, carbon capture devices and battery-powered haulage trucks, which are reported as if they were already in commercial use when, in reality, they have yet to make it off the laboratory bench.  Indeed, since many defy the laws of physics, we can confidently say that they will never arrive… but this, of course, would spoil the techno-utopian fantasy of the Great Green New Reset Deal that the technocracy is desperate to create – as we shall see in part three of this series.

Until then, the point here is to understand that much of what we take to be truth is – at best – merely a representation of the real world and – at worst – may be a simulacrum – something entirely divorced from the reality it purports to represent.  Indeed, at a time when human reporters are being replaced by Artificial Intelligence – which cannot generate news but can only trawl the internet for content which already exists – the degree of separation between the real and the virtual forces us to question everything.  And if this is disturbing to you, it is meant to be.  Because I will argue that our very life support systems have been built upon simulacra which are now crumbling before our eyes.  And for this reason, we need not just to rethink our understanding of the world, but to first unthink much of what we already believe.

As you made it to the end…

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