THE BLOG

Fake News And Confusion. The Way Modern Dictatorships Close Down The Media

21/02/2017 16:25 GMT | Updated 21/02/2017 16:25 GMT

Donald Trump's extraordinary press conference on Thursday featured yet another sustained attack on many of the most respected news networks on the planet. He barracked reporters and repeated his accusations of fake news, finally predicting that many commentators would subsequently characterise his criticisms as an unhinged rant. I'm happy not to disappoint him.

But he isn't alone in his contempt for the media. His febrile ramblings sit alongside the evasiveness of Theresa May and the unbridled quacking of whatever it is that drives Boris Johnson's mouth. But in his latest stand up routine, The Donald made the frankly baffling statement that the leaks were true but the news based on those leaks was not. Confused? Well maybe that's the point.

Regardless of Trump's apparent lack of capacity to stay on one subject for longer than it takes the thought travel from his brain to his mouth, fake news, alternative facts, real facts and educated speculation have begun to blur into one nebulous blob of claim, counter claim and deliberate falsehood.

Even I, as someone who takes pride in countering the more obvious social media fairy tales, have started to be caught out by occasional bits of flotsam carried along by the torrent of barely believable nonsense. The recent revelation that last year's reports of a mass sexual assault by refugees in Frankfurt were complete fabrication gives me some comfort that at least I'm not alone.

Many of the recent reports from the White House would once have been dismissed as hoaxes and spoofs. But with Donald Trump as the source, it's difficult to know what's real or make believe. A President that governs his people in 140 character mind-farts is hard to take seriously, but that is the new reality.

You could be forgiven for hoping it's the reality of a phantasmagorical coma-dream that will eventually resolve itself into the kindly face of a nurse explaining that you've woken in the year 2317 when we've finally submitted to the perfect governmental system of benign dictatorship by a race of super intelligent satsumas. But that might just be me. There is another more serious explanation for all this though and it's one we should all be concerned about.

A widely recognised waymark on the road to dictatorship is control of the media. In the old days this would be achieved by closing down papers and TV stations and imprisoning or 'disappearing' journalists and commentators who persisted in the annoying habit of reporting the truth. But of course in these days of social media, the internet, and citizen journalism, it's not as straightforward.

Since the advent of the mobile phone, several regimes have discovered that gagging news stations isn't enough. Even if you could get away with closing or restricting all these digital touchpoints, the impact on the rest of your society and your economy would be too damaging to maintain. So a new strategy had to be found.

In his speculative documentary 'Oh Dear' released in 2014, film maker Adam Curtis told the story of Vladislav Surkov, a long serving personal adviser to Vladimir Putin and former Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. Curtis explained how Surkov brought the principles of conceptual art into the arena of political PR. He supported both right and left wing extremists and sent out deliberately confusing narratives. Around the beginning of the Ukraine crisis he also wrote about a concept he called 'non-linear war' where the underlying aim is to use conflict to create a state of destabilisation in order to manage and control the population.

Soviet-born British journalist Peter Pomerantsev described Surkov's approach as "a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused" He called it "A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it's indefinable".

It's arguable that the so-called alt-right in America has borrowed many of these principles, particularly in publications such as Brietbart, itself in the centre of the fake news warzone. It's not a huge leap to see parallels between the roles of Brietbart's erstwhile CEO Steve Bannon - now a close adviser to President Trump - and that of the relationship between Putin and his own unconventional strategist. Indeed I'd argue that we're already seeing many of the same principles being applied, and Trump's constant mantra of media fakery, allied with his inherently outlandish behaviour, is a big part of that.

The constantly shifting focus of Trump's administration and the lack of direction is not of Bannon's making, but it's something he is taking full advantage of. Sending out as many confusing and alarmist press releases and announcements as he can get Trump to put his bizarrely angular signature to. Meanwhile the President tweets away furiously, circumventing the usual channels and he and his spokesman humiliate and berate journalists for daring to ask awkward questions.

This approach is something that many politicians, including our own, are eager to capitalise on. Reports that need to be discredited can be now be officially labelled as fake, whilst the most outrageous policies and plans are implemented in full view of a baffled and bemused public who are finding it increasingly difficult to know what they should be paying attention to. In this way the media can be effectively undermined, discredited and eviscerated without a single news agency having their plugs pulled.

Even well researched, educated speculation is now brushed aside, investigative reporting is characterised as muck-raking, experts called into question and once respected current affairs programmes are reduced to the level of tawdry circuses where stories and interviews are featured not because of public interest or veracity, but because they play into an already established, ratings grabbing, mantra.

Our media is essentially silenced, or at the very least heavily attenuated. Journalists are kept off balance, and a public who no longer know who to trust simply switches off. In this way the impact of news reporting is bound and gagged as effectively as by any number of D-notices and those who would seek to undermine our free media tick another box on their to-do list of oppression and subjugation.