Don’t blame fake news for the rise of populism

US Politics: The media only ever lands a glancing blow on the course of history

Michael Cohen giving testimony to the US Congress last week about his former client, Donald Trump. Photograph: Erin Schaff/New York Times

Choosing a name more suggestive of an airline than a radio station did not help. Funding was always a problem, too, and by the time its most compelling broadcasters started to leave, Air America was plainly nearing the end of its short life. Launched with some bravado 15 years ago this month, the liberal challenger to conservative talk-radio lasted all of six years before folding.

Given kinder circumstances, it might have worked. But to what end, exactly? The premise was that embattled liberals (then midway through the George W Bush years) could find deliverance in the media. The voluble propaganda of the right had to be matched decibel for decibel. The truth would out, if only it were heard. It did not seem to occur that mass opinion might have a life of its own, or that the media only ever lands a glancing blow on the course of history.

I think of Air America whenever well-meaning people commit themselves to the war against “fake news”. It is another worthwhile mission on its own terms. Misleading information in the public realm should be challenged out of principle. But there is also that familiar danger of overrating the role of the media in politics, including the electoral shocks of recent years.

Even if every huckster website and malicious, foreign-funded bot were regulated out of sight, even if every respectable news outlet quadrupled its audience, I suspect the current era of populism would still be happening.


The problem in western democracies is not mass confusion about points of fact. The problem is that, even when apprised of the facts, even when exposed to the most objectively persuasive arguments, millions of voters remain unmoved. In a blurring of the line between politics and sport, they have picked their team, and that is that. To put our hopes for progress in the technical reform of news-distribution is to rather downplay the psychological depth of what is going on.

Last week, the lawyer-fixer Michael Cohen gave sworn testimony to the US Congress about his former client, Donald Trump. After the opening fusillade – the president is a “racist” and a “conman” – Cohen added to existing allegations that Trump bought an adult film star’s silence after an affair, knew in advance about a WikiLeaks cache of Democratic Party emails and tried to build a hotel in Moscow while running for president.

Comfort fake

In response to these claims, Congressional Republicans ventured, well, not a lot, other than attacks on Cohen’s credibility. We can infer their response to special counsel Robert Mueller’s eventual report on Russian interference in the 2016 US election, almost regardless of its contents.

In other words: my president, right or wrong. Some people have a priori biases that are not all that responsive to new information, fake or otherwise, which is why Trump’s core voters remain loyal. This behaviour exists not just beyond the GOP (Democrats have been just as tribal in defence of their own), but beyond the US, too.

In Britain, after almost three years of Brexit developments – which have revealed its intractability, its potential costs – public opinion on the subject has changed only at the margins. Who believes that misinformation via fringe news sources can account for such fixity of mass opinion?

The idea of fake news has become something of a comfort blanket for moderates. It allows us to interpret populism as an elaborate misunderstanding, easily straightened out with a better-informed citizenry. Just as Air America missed that the country’s ferocious vein of conservatism was something rightwing shock jocks were tapping, not manufacturing, too much store today is put in the power of the media, both as a cause of nationalism and as a potential way out of it.

None of which is to discourage the crusaders against fake news. Truth is worth pursuing as an end in itself. “Deep” fakes, which manipulate audio and video to show, for instance, a politician saying something they never said, really could unhinge our public life if not stymied early.

But it is possible to fight against all this and still be realistic about how much it is likely to achieve. No amount of media reform is going to correct for human foibles. There are voters who would disbelieve the Oracle at Delphi if it contradicted their views. Perhaps we dwell on fake news to avoid a much bleaker explanation for all that is happening. Every so often, usually after decades of relative peace, voters lose their aversion to extreme ideas and rogue politicians, even when they understand them perfectly well.

The important variable is not the news. It is us. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019