Akira Kurosawa knew all about bubbles. The father of Japanese cinema gifted the world with a model for understanding the reality that now curses us. In Rashomon alternative histories of a single occurrence, a killing, contend to define the truth. A woodcutter discovers the body of a samurai, perhaps murdered, perhaps slain in a duel. One after the other a bandit, the samurai’s wife, the dead man himself and the woodcutter tell their stories. Each contains elements of the other but all diverge wildly in their core truths. Filmed nearly half a century before the internet became the global architecture of self serving, manufactured micro-realties Rashomon reminds us that people have always lied. To protect themselves and to further their own interests. And furthermore that those lies resemble each other in borrowing from the same shared reality only as much detail as the liar needs to establish a minimum viable connection to some irreducible truth.
Kurosawa would have understood fake news.
But this is not about fake news.
Since the election of Donald Trump, a serial fantasist and natural born liar, the media old and new has obsessed over the role of fake news. With Trump visiting the Vatican this week, it’s a fitting moment to recall one of the more widely shared items of actual fake news that circulated during the presidential campaign; a report that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump. The story was entirely fictional and hugely successful with over a million Facebook engagements in less than a week and a solid gold return via advertising and affiliate links on the investment of a few minutes work to create and publish the original piece.
It’s impossible to quantify what if any effect that one story, or the thousands of its ilk had on the final result. And just a little bit irrelevant. One of the many avenues of inquiry for the multiple investigations of Russia’s hacking of the 2016 US election, is their involvement with and support for fake news operators spreading disinformation; what used to be called ‘agitprop’, from the Russian word agitatsiya, ‘agitation and propaganda’.
But even without FSB cadres or cut outs profiting from fake Pope news, voters were in trouble anyway. Formerly agreed upon realities are now contested. We no longer simply argue over policy proposals to deal with threats and developments in the world of real things. We are fundamentally divided on whether the things themselves are real. We have entered a sort of phenomenological crisis of reality.
The Fox News agitprop maestro Sean Hannity is right now having a Rashomon moment with the killing of a Democratic National Committee staff member, Seth Rich. The unsolved murder in July 2016 almost certainly remains unsolved because it was a random street robbery gone wrong. For Hannity and Fox however it is a chance to weave a tale of political assassination, deep state black ops and the never-ending perfidy of the blood alliance between the forces of Hell and the unstoppable cybernetic organism fashioned into the shape of a human called Hillary Clinton and disguised by a thin mask of living tissue stretched over a robotic endoskeleton.
We no longer simply argue over policy proposals to deal with threats and developments in the world of real things. We are fundamentally divided on whether the things themselves are real.
As crazed as the alternative history of Seth Rich might be, millions will believe it. Just as millions believe a cabal of wealthy climate scientists have invented the lie of global warming to justify public funding of their lavish lifestyles and, at the other end of the political spectrum, that the Trump Administration’s failed Muslim travel ban was actually a dry run for a top-down coup. Mashable reports that last one, which got a lot of traction on Medium and Facebook ‘was shared by countless celebrities’. Probably because they didn’t actually count them. But the Mash did pony up the reportorial equivalent of table stakes by checking the number of Facebook Likes for the original share from Medium; 10 000 at the time of publication.
The subtle difference—and admittedly it is really fucking subtle—between the conspiracy theories like this, and a report of the Pope endorsing Trump for President, is that for now, theorists are still toying with the concept of ironic distance.
“Hey maybe there’s nothing it, but this Seth Rich guy did used to work for Hillary. And you know who else worked for Hillary? Vince Foster. And look what happened to him. I’m just saying is all.”
But the only reason there is a significant audience for pure fake news is because of the appetite created for mostly fake news.
You can credit Rupert Murdoch with this if nothing else. He understood that when information is free, you have to sell something else. News Corp sells meaning, not information. Increasingly so do CNN and MSNBC and the Guardian and Fairfax and any other old media business that would like to survive in the new world.
The market will not pay for information, but people will pay and pay handsomely to have their biases validated. To confirm the myths which explain the world to them. Political myths are especially powerful because they form around threats and fears and promises of protection and deliverance from the same.
The market will not pay for information, but people will pay and pay handsomely to have their biases validated.
The former Fairfax columnist has made a number of significant contributions to The Quarterly Essay, including A Time For War and Appeasing Jakarta.
He publishes regularly on Medium and on his website, Cheeseburger Gothic.
How do you spend your days?
I’d like to say I write, but realistically I spend a lot more time running around after kids and an ageing Labrador than I do at my keyboard. This is probably why I can’t afford that business jet I always wanted. Damned kids, ruining everything for me.
What drove you to focus on journalism and fiction writing? Was there a particular moment you can remember that led you to this field?
I always wanted to write, but initially I wanted to write fiction. Specifically horror fiction. I was a huge fanboy of Stephen King and as a teenager I filled my exercise books for school with really awful sub-King horror stories. Stephen King once made the point that horror and humour are two of the most difficult writing forms.
Done poorly, horror turns unintentionally funny. And badly written humour is just creepy. I never did find a way to make a living from ripping off Stephen King stories, but writing ten dollar features for student newspapers I did discover I could crank out jokes like a sausage machine. The first time I trousered ten bucks for doing that I knew I’d found my calling.
What drives you professionally?
Did I mention those kids? They’re really expensive.
In your opinion what are the three biggest problems facing the developed and developing world?
I really hope climate change isn’t real, because otherwise we’re all gonna die screaming. But I suspect it really is the problem 99% of the relevant pointy heads say it is.
And because its a problem, and we often solve our problems through violence, I suspect the inability of national states to deal rationally with climate change will feed into state on state conflict for decades to come.
Or until we all die screaming.
Number three? That’s easy. The trillions of dollars in tax that corporations and the super wealthy refuse to pay.
If you hadn’t become a writer what would you have done?
I trained for a while as a spy catcher. That was fun, except for all the public service rules.
If I could have been a spy catcher but without having to fill in all those forms, that would have been sweet.
What led us to this moment in history?
What are the lessons we failed to learn during and since the 2008 crisis?
The Australian banks complained for years that they weren’t allowed to get into the derivatives hot tub with all the other cool kids. And then the spa filled up with exploding piranhas and they went a little quiet.
But now, both here and in the US, there is a powerful lobby which wants to fill the hot tub again. With piranhas.
Can you list some ‘baby steps’ out of the current economic mess?
The Australian government’s recent win over Chevron is actually a very big step towards getting multinational corporations to actually carry some of the tax burden which has increasingly fallen on individual taxpayers.
Other revenue authorities in other jurisdictions will be examining it closely.
If you were a President or Prime Minister what would your first three pieces of policy be?
I think we all know who’d be paying more tax. I’d be using that revenue to fund basic education services, and then ramping up spending at a tertiary level down the track.
After that I’d be looking very closely at subsidies built into the fossil fuel economy and preferencing renewables by all means possible.
Tell us something you have been wrong about?
WMD in Iraq. Who knew? Besides all those stupid peace protesters.
You are stuck in a ski lift for twenty four hours - you can have one person (living or dead) with you who will it be?
As long as they bring a bucket, anyone will do. But I probably the blues legend B.B. King.
Name the book that changed you.
Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I could feel it reprogramming the language centres of my brain as I read it.
What would you do differently if you were to start all over again?
I’d get out of traditional publishing five years earlier.
Give our readers, members and subscribers a piece of advice that has served you well.
The story you most want to believe is the story you should question the hardest.
Anything you would like to plug?
I run a subscription newsletter, Alien Side Boob, which is delivered directly to your inbox, twice a week, for $4 a month. My attempt to find a new business model before the media apocalypse hits. Coz clearly the old ways aren’t working.
Latest posts by John Birmingham (see all)
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- Partisan Media Bubbles - June 1, 2017
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