Dystopian read­ing: thought po­lice, newspeak – and now it’s fake news

Jane Martin­son

The Guardian - - MEDIA - A scene from the TV adap­ta­tion of The Hand­maid’s Tale, among ti­tles, right, mak­ing a come­back, ac­cord­ing to the Ama­zon charts. Be­low: The Tele­graph’s front page on Satur­day al­leg­ing ‘fake news’ Main pho­to­graph: Ge­orge Kray­chyk

Mar­garet At­wood wrote in an in­tro­duc­tion to Brave New World that Al­dous Hux­ley’s 1931 dystopian novel had been in­spired by a trip to Amer­ica which left him “fright­ened by mass con­sumerism, its group men­tal­ity and its vul­gar­i­ties”. Just think what Hux­ley would have made of the in­ter­net, with its 24/7 pornog­ra­phy and shop­ping and group­think so strong that faith in in­for­ma­tion sources is dwin­dling.

There are many rea­sons why dystopian nov­els ap­pear to be hav­ing a mo­ment in 2017. Amid catas­tro­phe and po­lit­i­cal chaos Brave New World, Ge­orge Or­well’s 1984, first pub­lished in 1949, and At­wood’s The Hand­maid’s Tale, which she be­gan writ­ing in 1984, have all reached the top of the Ama­zon charts on both sides of the At­lantic in the past year. The TV adap­ta­tion of At­wood’s story about a to­tal­i­tar­ian, misog­y­nis­tic state is be­ing keenly watched by more than 2 mil­lion peo­ple a week in Bri­tain on Chan­nel 4 and on the stream­ing ser­vice Hulu in the US.

“When they blamed ter­ror­ists and sus­pended the con­sti­tu­tion we didn’t wake up,” said the nar­ra­tor of The Hand­maid’s Tale in the episode just be­fore Theresa May of­fered to take her frus­tra­tions over the Manch­ester and Lon­don Bridge at­tacks out on hu­man rights leg­is­la­tion.

The ap­palling tragedy of the Gren­fell fire in Lon­don last week drew at­ten­tion to many of the worst di­vides in 21st cen­tury Bri­tain, high­light­ing the ex­tent of so­cial and eco­nomic in­equal­ity in its cap­i­tal city. It also high­lighted a lack of trust in a me­dia too of­ten felt to be on the side of the wealthy and the pow­er­ful against the poor and pow­er­less.

“Why did they not come here be­fore?” shouts one man at Chan­nel 4’s Jon Snow, who found him­self sur­rounded by res­i­dents who had had to watch peo­ple die aw­ful deaths be­fore get­ting the chance to air their griev­ances on na­tional tele­vi­sion.

Anger over the lack of of­fi­cial help and fear that im­prove­ments would be de­layed by an in­quiry turned to sus­pi­cion that the me­dia was un­der-re­port­ing the num­ber of dead. The singer Lily Allen ac­cused the me­dia of be­ing com­plicit in down­play­ing the death toll while Sk­wawk­box, a blog that aims to “present in­for­ma­tion and anal­y­sis that will rarely make it into the main­stream me­dia” first ran and then re­scinded a story claim­ing that an of­fi­cial D-no­tice had been is­sued to pre­vent the me­dia from re­port­ing the facts.

On its Satur­day front page the Tele­graph ran a re­port ac­cus­ing left­wing blogs of ramp­ing up ten­sion, un­der the head­line: “Cor­byn sup­port­ers ‘spread fake news’ about Gren­fell Tower death toll.” The re­port sug­gested the al­le­ga­tions should be the sub­ject of a con­tin­u­ing par­lia­men­tary in­quiry into fake news.

Re­ally? For­get the al­le­ga­tions that Sun re­porters are up to very old tricks by ly­ing to get into hos­pi­tal wards or even the com­plaints against the Daily Mail that it seemed to blame one man’s fail­ure to buy a brand new fridge for dan­ger­ous hous­ing, this can­not be the way for main­stream me­dia to show it cares for those too long ig­nored and voice­less.

It may not be the most use­ful thing to ask amid such death and de­spair but if the me­dia is to do its job, if we are to avoid los­ing a vi­tal part of democ­racy – an informed me­dia – we should at least ask what counts as fake news. Given the fail­ure of al­go­rith­mic cu­ra­tion to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween truth and lies, it is surely any­thing that acts as a de­lib­er­ate, vi­ral spread­ing of mis­in­for­ma­tion for com­mer­cial or po­lit­i­cal ends. The story about Hil­lary Clin­ton and thou­sands of bo­gus votes be­ing found in an Ohio ware­house made up by a 23-year-old who earned $5,000 (£4,000) from do­ing so was as fake and fic­tional as any­thing Hux­ley wrote. In 1984, the truth was what­ever Big Brother wanted it to be: in 2017, the truth is what­ever Trump and other politi­cians want it to be, with screams of “fake news” when it isn’t. But mis­takes, if made hon­estly, are not fake news. Ad­mit­tedly, in an age in which ru­mours can fly round the world be­fore the truth wakes up, work­ing out which ones are hon­est takes time. This is why news or­gan­i­sa­tions must wait to ver­ify of­fi­cial in­for­ma­tion be­fore con­firm­ing some­thing like the num­bers of those dead. What­ever I think, or in­deed the war­ring parts of the me­dia think, there are signs that in­creas­ing num­bers of peo­ple be­lieve all me­dia is fake. The polling out­fit YouGov pro­duced a sur­vey of 1,600 Bri­tish adults ear­lier this year in which 61% said that the term fake news should be used to de­scribe “news or­gan­i­sa­tions that twist their re­port­ing to fit their po­lit­i­cal viewpoint or agenda”. In Bri­tain, where much of the press takes pride in be­ing opin­ion­ated, this view is prob­lem­atic. It is also an is­sue in the US, where last week Fox dropped its ob­vi­ously un­true “fair and bal­anced” slo­gan for “Most Watched. Most Trusted.” In an in­ter­view in April, At­wood said: “We are in an age of yet more au­to­cratic regimes, thought po­lice, dou­ble­s­peak, and fake news ... When you have to­tal con­trol of the news sys­tem you can re­ally have fake news.” The in­ter­net, which promised thou­sands of bloom­ing flow­ers and the wis­dom of crowds, has in re­cent years looked too much like a per­fect mech­a­nism for supra-na­tional tax dodgers to grow rich.

A plethora of news and in­for­ma­tion sources on­line may make dire dystopian warn­ings seem pre­ma­ture. Yet we have pos­si­bly spent the early years of the in­ter­net so high on the ex­cite­ments it of­fers – so­cial me­dia soma – that we for­got to worry about the po­ten­tial side ef­fects, such as how fake news and bad be­hav­iour can end all trust in the me­dia.

Democ­ra­cies de­pend on an informed pub­lic, to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes on fake news. At­wood de­scribed Hux­ley’s vi­sion, one in which peo­ple are kept com­pli­ant by drugs, sex and en­ter­tain­ment, as one in which “ev­ery­thing is avail­able, noth­ing has any mean­ing”. No won­der the best dystopian nov­els and their au­thors are of­fer­ing such a warn­ing for our times. a hall of mir­rors in which the front pages are re­flected on the TV news and on­line.

Dur­ing last year’s ref­er­en­dum, a sim­ple yes/no vote on a hugely com­pli­cated ques­tion led to fears over im­mi­gra­tion be­ing splashed on of­ten mis­lead­ing tabloid front pages – “Let Us In: We’re from Europe” among them. An ebul­lient Sun edi­tor sent me a text less than an hour af­ter the vic­tory for leave was de­clared, crow­ing: “So much for the wan­ing power of the print me­dia.”

This year’s elec­tion was dif­fer­ent for many rea­sons, in­clud­ing that a far higher num­ber of young peo­ple voted, more than 60% of whom backed Labour. For th­ese young vot­ers, left-wing so­cial me­dia stars like Cap­tain Ska or web­sites such as No­vara Me­dia, the Lon­don Eco­nomic and the Ca­nary of­fered view­points more likely to chime with their own. In with the new and out with the old.

The fact that 30% of the Sun’s 1.6 mil­lion read­ers voted Labour ac­cord­ing to YouGov could be seen as ev­i­dence that its con­stant pound­ing of Cor­byn had no ef­fect. In the 2015 gen­eral elec­tion 24% of Sun read­ers voted for Ed Miliband.

Yet the up­swing was largely due to the col­lapse of Ukip’s vote, which was at 19% of Sun read­ers two years ago and fell to 3% this month. While many of th­ese vot­ers switched to the Tories, who were backed by 59% of Sun read­ers, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber backed Cor­byn on the same day a front page de­picted his head in a dust­bin un­der the head­line: “Don’t chuck Bri­tain in the COR-BIN.”

The Sun and the Mail’s cov­er­age was al­most uni­ver­sally neg­a­tive about Labour. Ev­i­dence from Lough­bor­ough Univer­sity sug­gests that pos­i­tive news about May’s cam­paign di­min­ished af­ter the un­pop­u­lar man­i­festo.

Labour may have shrugged off the at­tacks with the help of the on­line me­dia but such a high per­cent­age of swing vot­ers means the Sun will con­tinue to have power over the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem for a while to come, what­ever we think of it. The Sun may no longer have the power to win it but, for the time be­ing at least, it could still swing it.

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