Neoliberalism is a toxic economic dogma that has serious social and political consequences. In Britain and the US, mainstream media have a long record of selling neoliberalism to the public and political lawmakers. Recall Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s slogan, “There is no alternative” (TINA). As I document in my new book, Real Fake News (Red Pill Press), elites throughout history have always used information to control the thoughts and actions of the public. But the modern project has stretched itself to the limit, and people are starting to say No.
A DANGEROUS DOGMA
Neoliberalism is more than just an economic theory. In fact, it’s not really a theory at all. It’s more like a toxic ideology which even Harvard Business School economists like Robert Simons have criticized. It is the basic belief in institutionalized self-interest at the expense of the wider society. It is unsustainable in the long-term and has been condemned by economists at the International Monetary Fund. Of course, the neoliberals who run the IMF tend to ignore the research of their own economists and arrange for loans and austerity regardless.
The social costs of neoliberalism are horrendous. As governments fixate on meeting deficit reduction targets, social spending is cut. This has led to literal mass-deaths in fragile societies, like those of sub-Saharan Africa, but also in so-called developed countries, too. In the UK, 120,000 people have perished as a result of the nearly ten years of austerity imposed by the Tory government.
And let’s not forget the political consequences. Fed up with right-wing governments that openly advocate neoliberalism while outsourcing jobs and relying on financial instruments instead of manufacturing and production, publics also despair of the so-called left which, all too often, seeks to mimic the right. Consequently, people cast fewer and fewer votes, leaving the door open to demagogues like Donald Trump who promise to stick it to the establishment.
THINGS AIN’T SO BAD
So, where does fake news come in? Most media institutions in the US and Britain – print, broadcast and online – operate within the context of the neoliberal economy. This is their status quo. As a result, whenever neoliberal policies result in one or another disaster, from recessions to the great crash of ’08, the media tactic in the US and Britain has been to 1) downplay the significance of the event and 2) suppress alternative theories and ideas that might challenge the system.
Media specialist Dr Joanna Redden notes that “mainstream news coverage narrows and limits the way poverty is talked about in a way that reinforces the dominance of neoliberalism and market-based approaches to the issue.”
Take, for example, the mainstream’s fake news about the crash. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University published a report on mainstream media coverage in the US and Europe. The authors found that one of the goals of big businesses, which rely on PR firms that often hand copy to journalists, is to perpetuate a “narrative of normality,” in which their greed is kept out of public view for as long as possible. As the authors put it, “no news is good news.” When a crisis does occur, the task is perception management.
“[S]tories originate from six main categories of sources,” the researchers found: from journalists, corporations, analysts, authorities and politicians and shareholders. Notice that unions, activists, alternative currency purveyors and dissident academics are not included. They can be found in the alternative online media and are thus at risk of being labelled “fake news” by the powerful. “When excluding the ‘default category’ of journalists, most of the information in news stories about the banking crisis comes from banks themselves.” Indeed, more than half came from financial institutions. “On average 52% of all information comes from banks, another 18% from analysts/experts.”
One of the goals of big businesses, which rely on PR firms that often hand copy to journalists, is to perpetuate a “narrative of normality,” in which their greed is kept out of public view for as long as possible.
Negative coverage of financial institutions was low, given the severity of the crisis. The authors found that the “average level of coverage … is about 25% negative, 48% neutral, and 24% positive coverage. 3% of coverage was classed as ambivalent.” Predictably, the authors found that “even during the crises, most of the coverage about banking did in fact retain a neutral tone.”
Another factor in the pro-banking or neutral coverage was the professional proximity of journalists to the institutions. “While it was impossible to ignore the bad news, … the close contact between reporters and public relations officers meant that much newspaper coverage in Britain contained background and context.” As a result, the tone remained neutral-to-positive in most stories. In the US, “even the most critical of the journalists … were not that negative.”
THE ALTERNATIVE IS WORSE
Another narrative sold by the mainstream is that the alternatives to neoliberalism are worse. No prizes for guessing what happens when a political leader who challenges the prevailing status quo comes along. In the US, anti-Trump media bias is strong, as is anti-Jeremy Corbyn bias in the UK.
Several studies demonstrate that the mainstream’s portrayal of the Labour leader Corbyn (whose anti-neoliberal policies aren’t really all that radical) have been unusually negative, including that of so-called left-wing mainstream newspapers, like the Independent and the Guardian. The BBC is perceived by many to be a centre-left organization (22% compared to 18% who think it’s right-wing). For example, its Newsnight show featured an image of Corbyn set against a Kremlin backdrop. Compare that to the right-wing. One headline in the Express read: “Jeremy Corbyn Sparks HORROR with a Plan to Turn Britain into North Korea.”
So, according to the mainstream, the only alternative to neoliberalism is a Kremlin stooge or North Korea (or a Venezuela-style dictatorship on the verge of collapse). Fake news.
Aside from leaders, the mainstream’s other favourite tactic of keeping us in a neoliberal thought bubble is to either ignore demonstrators and activists or portray them as demented kooks. Douglas M. McLeod of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication writes that, with few exceptions, coverage of protest in US media “generally disparages protesters and hinders their role as vital actors on the political stage. The lack of respect for the value of social protest inherent in such coverage has created frustration among the protesters, which has in turn contributed to dysfunctional confrontations,” usually between rival demonstrators and/or state forces.
The first major public action in the West against neoliberalism in the post-crash period was Occupy – the sustained encampments that began in Zuccotti Park, New York, and spread to European countries. It was inevitable that the mainstream would spread fake news about the protestors. Media analyst Margaret Cissel compares mainstream coverage of the first weeks of the demonstrations to alternative media coverage. The mainstream painted the movement “as lackluster, dismissive and confusing, [but] alternative news emphasized the strength and diversity of its protesters and demonstrations.”
The first major public action in the West against neoliberalism in the post-crash period was Occupy – the sustained encampments that began in Zuccotti Park, New York, and spread to European countries. It was inevitable that the mainstream would spread fake news about the protestors.
ONE SOLUTION: ALTERNATIVE MEDIA
There are many solutions to the crisis of neoliberalism. One of them is engagement with alternative media, hence the mainstream’s broad-brush dismissal of web-based news as “fake.” The very technologies developed by and for elites with the objective of social control, sold to the public by corporations for profit, can be used as tools against them.
Activism predates the internet. The organizers of the Peasants’ Revolts (1381 and 1524) didn’t need to post messages on Facebook. But few would deny the power of instantaneous, global communication in organizing events and sharing information. The website BURN! was set up in 1995 by undergraduates at the University of California-San Diego as a way of monitoring real-time web activities related to global activism. The website appeared to be aimed at anarchists and included information about/posts by the Chicano Press Association, Anarchist Communist Federation, Anarchy Now!, the Anti-Censorship Campaign and the Black Ribbon Campaign.
The Global Carnival Against “Capitalism” (meaning neoliberalism) in June 1999 coincided with the elite’s Group of Eight meeting in Germany. The slogan, Our Resistance is as Transnational as Capital, captured the mood of an integrated people’s globalization, as opposed to a corporate globalization, enabled by the instant spread of information. New, cheap surveillance tools like camcorders enabled the demonstrators to document police brutality in ways never before possible.
The very technologies developed by and for elites with the objective of social control, sold to the public by corporations for profit, can be used as tools against them.
The growth of citizen journalism has undermined the authority of elites and enabled interested citizens to look for alternative information to support their instinctive understanding that something is seriously wrong with the underlying structure of the current social and political system. The challenge now is reaching critical mass and getting enough people to act.
T.J. Coles is a postdoctoral researcher at Plymouth University’s Cognition Institute and the author of several books, including Real Fake News. He’s also been a guest on Renegade Inc.