Una Mullally: Buzzfeed played into Trump’s hands
Publishing unsubstantiated allegations gives the President-elect ammunition to further demonise the media and accuse legitimate news organisations of being fake ones
A phrase you see a lot online these days is the opening lyric to Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” It is not surprising that many people are grappling with reality considering the mind-bending daily events in the run up to and since the election of Donald Trump, and his deliberate and constant distortion of reality as is the trademark of any wannabe autocrat. His first press conference since he was elected was nothing short of insane, and during it Trump repeatedly spoke about his version of “fake news”, which for him included CNN. But what is fake and what is real anymore? All Americans can do at this stage is try and maintain a grasp on what they believe reality is, because that very thing is imploding and eroding with every word out of Trump’s mouth. Most of us probably never thought we’d exist in an era where American democracy would come crumbling down with a maniac in charge, but there it is. Welcome to dystopia.
But first: real life and fantasy. When George Orwell wrote about Big Brother, the idea was that an overarching totalitarian surveillance state would control the actions and thoughts of its citizens. We all live in surveillance states now due to the eradication of privacy, yet the success of such surveillance is due to personal collaboration. Big Brother turned out to be not one figurehead, but all of us as individuals, with citizens becoming Big Brother’s spores, happy to hand over our civil liberties and privacy in exchange for connecting and sharing our information with each other and with tech companies, and by proxy, government and security agencies. The prophecy came true, just not in how Orwell may have envisaged.
Another existential philosophy gaining popular traction is the simulation hypothesis, a rather off the wall (if anything is off the wall anymore) idea that what we consider to be reality is in fact a computer simulation we are existing within. Like Orwell’s 1984 prophecy - Big Brother is real but it turned out to be within as well as external - perhaps the simulation exists, but it is one of our own making, and not a code invented by an advanced race gone rogue. In science fiction, we often look outside of ourselves to imagine where the oppressor or evil power exists, but history shows us that it is much more likely to come from within the self. Dictatorships, for example, require a malleable and cooperative population to do much of the dirty work. So the simulation hypothesis might be true, but in a different way that initially posed. We and others create simulations of reality, and so what we view to be “true” and what we view to be “fake” is not actually based on reality, but on what we choose to believe is “true” or “fake”. Terms such as filter bubbles and echo chambers have entered our lexicon as if before the internet existed people constantly interacted with ideas and people outside of their experiences. But in TrumpLand, obfuscation and distortion are key tools. The once grounded population gets spun around so much, it emerges like a kid off a fairground ride, dizzy and disorientated.
The American presidential election became Trump’s simulation, and now the country is at risk of losing its grip on reality. Much of this “real” versus “fake” conversation in a world coming to terms with Trump, has focussed on the propaganda and “fake news” that assisted his election win. Up until this week, for the most part, the fake news was primarily a one-sided exploit - with pro-Trump websites and “news” sources becoming the outrageous successors to pro-Republican news outlets such as Fox News. When a large number of people believe lies to be true, the pretence of reality crumbles. When the President-elect calls real news outlets fake and offers different versions of the truth sometimes within the same sentence, the mind shudders and it becomes increasingly difficult to process what is going on. It is as if the brain is trying to process a mirage or a magic trick - we know it not to be true, but we’re also seeing it right in front of us.
Which brings us to the problem with Buzzfeed publishing the unsubstantiated dossier on Trump which contains explosive revelations from an unnamed former MI6 agent about everything from treason to election-rigging to destabilising western democracy to orgies with prostitutes. Up until now, Democrats, progressives, liberals, the resistance, whatever you want to call it, could hold on to a handrail on this sinking ship they call American democracy and know that even though they were at sea, the sky was above, the water was below, and their feet were on a deck. This was real life, this was not fantasy. It was the Trump side of the divide that dealt in lies and fake news and general insanity. CNN reported on the fact that US intelligence chiefs presented these classified documents to Trump and Obama. That is true. What we do not know is if the contents of documents themselves are legitimate. By publishing the document, Buzzfeed dived over a finish line no one was racing towards. Publishing the document wholesale is not the same as reporting the facts around it. It is understood that several news organisations had access to this document, but couldn’t back up the claims within it, so held back. In this current conspiracy-fuelled environment, that is responsible. By publishing such unsubstantiated documents, Buzzfeed is unfortunately giving Trump ammunition to further demonise the media and accuse legitimate organisations of being fake ones. Buzzfeed’s reasoning that they are publishing and be damned, and that Americans can read it and make up their minds is not responsible reporting. We do not need any more maybes or half-truths or made up stories or fakery. Maybe it’s all true, but maybe it isn’t. We don’t know.
If the anti-Trump side starts to fall down rabbit holes similar to those their opposition have been digging, then we are all in serious trouble. The only thing keeping us afloat right now is a memory of reality and actual truth and reassuring each other that there is a world where facts exist. In the coming months and years maintaining a grip on that will be harder than ever for America and the world.