The anniversary of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the US has naturally prompted some soul searching among the punditry, who largely failed to predict his election, and mostly opposed it.
Trump is guilty of most of what he’s accused of, but it is a mark of the paternalist attitude held by many hacks these days that fake news is held so much to blame for the wrong candidate winning, in much the same way Britons were tricked into making the wrong choice in the EU referendum.
In the same line, fake news has caught people’s attention because politics has started to matter again, which tells you nothing good about Britain and America’s ruling classes.
No doubt journalism is an important source of information which influences how the public votes, and a lot of it is uniformed, misleading and plainly untrue. But the question is not whether there are untruths that skew voting. The question is whether there is a greater proportion of bollocks than there used to be, and whether people are accessing and believing it more readily.
Anyone with a slight knowledge of journalism’s history should be able to tell you that the trade has always spread falsehoods. To take a formative period, much of the journalism during the English Civil War was propaganda for one side or the other. The same was true in the American revolutionary period, in which the press played a major role agitating for either side.
The barrier between journalism, marketing and public relations has always been porous. It is tricky to align business imperatives with an absolute obligation to be truthful, and harder still to encourage ideological honesty, while at the same time guaranteeing press independence from government and officials.
Even so, in the youth of the Internet, it is right to ask whether the public is better informed than it was previously. Another way of putting this is: does the public have a more accurate conception of reality and better sources for verifying that than we used to?
On the availability of sources, the answer has to be yes. In Britain, Fleet Street and the broadcasters have been nudged by competition from a variety of niche publications and specialist blogs, and a citizen can easily access many official documents online (though the court system in particular could be more open).
Encyclopedia-style information is also far more available than it used to be. It is now possible to look up the actual laws that govern this country, complete with amendment notes, while taking a dump. This is to say you can check your preconceptions more readily than at any time in human history.
Whether people do is another matter. As many have argued, it is now easier than ever to design your own media diet, including through narrow publications that would have been unviable before online publishing. What is not certain is whether the average person’s diet is more limited these days than in Fleet Street’s spasms of commercial pomp.
It is comforting to the remain and Hillary Clinton camps to believe they lost because of the other side’s ignorance. You can certainly find data to suggest Clinton and remain backers had completed more formal education – though how a degree in quantum physics translates into appraising the wisdom of pan-European governance is less obvious.
People will continue to be drawn to media that confirms their impression of the world. But even that fact suggests what divides people is still a matter of values rather than facts. Some who study human reason argue that the smarter the get the better you are at justifying your prejudices.
Is there an answer to all this? I don’t know. But at least you can Google it.
Image based on Newspaper, February 2015 by Mahy