Dystopian reading: thought police, newspeak – and now it’s fake news
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that aims to “present information and analysis that will rarely make it into the mainstream media” first ran and then rescinded a story claiming that an official D-notice had been issued to prevent the media from reporting the facts.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.