By Horus Alas
When President Trump encounters any sort of news that’s critical of him or his incipient administration, he utters a brutally simple and effective refrain: “fake news.”
On Feb. 6, the president tweeted: “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.”
It would be worthwhile to remember that Trump tweeted this statement in the aftermath of his disastrous travel ban that barred entry for nationals and even green card holders from seven majority-Muslim countries.
After days of virulent protests not just within the country but around the globe, the president tweeted the statement quoted above.
Empirically, it was obvious to any observer that there was in fact widespread opposition to President Trump’s travel ban. TV screens were aglow with images of protesters taking to the streets against the measure. You didn’t have to be crazy to believe Trump’s travel ban was unpopular—you had to be crazy to believe otherwise.
Still, against verifiable evidence coming from all major media outlets nationwide, Trump responded via Twitter that all of it was simply “fake news.”
This was by no means a new strategy for Trump. Even during the campaign when he was confronted with a well-documented incident, like the fact that he mocked a disabled New York Times reporter, Trump would flatly disavow the accusations against him as false and accuse the media of harboring unwarranted malice against him.
His supporters would stand by him. They would turn to news sources like Breitbart, Fox, Infowars, etc. and present purported “facts” that stood in stark contrast to those reported by The Washington Post or The New York Times.
Often, they would get their information from Trump himself and believe it wholeheartedly. This group of Trump supporters did just that when they asserted before CNN that some 3 million votes were illegally cast for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections. Trump had been regularly disseminating that claim for weeks via Twitter prior to their interview.
The crux of the issue I aim to present here is as follows: we currently have a president who revels in diffusing false claims and information when they suit his agenda. In contrast, he vehemently denies media reports that can be objectively verified as true, and instead denounces their propagators as “fake news.”
Effectively, this strategy creates a climate in which intelligence and objective fact are put into doubt while flagrant lies are taken into factual consideration.
Under normal circumstances, we can easily discern a true claim from a false one. True statements are those in which our assertions correspond to a given state of affairs in the outside world. False statements are those which don’t.
If I were to make a claim such as, “There’s purple whiskey in my glass,” it should be easy to determine whether my claim is true or false depending on whether anyone else can verify that the whiskey in my glass is purple. If so, then there is indeed purple whiskey in my glass. If not, then I’m full of shit.
The media is of paramount importance in checking whether the claims put forth by our elected officials are true or false. Sites like Politifact and FactCheck make it their express mission to objectively verify the truth or falsehood of statements made by politicians for the benefit of the public.
Under normal circumstances, a well-oiled, well-informed press serves as a vital platform for true information to be distributed to a citizenry. They also serve as an essential watchdog that might expose corruption or other illicit activities from behind the scenes of government, like when The Washington Post first reported on Watergate.
Trump’s denunciation of our free and impartial press doesn’t only run counter to the First Amendment—it creates a cognitive loop among his supporters whereby their zany information obtained from sites like Infowars are corroborated by the President, whereas objective reporting of the kind carried out by The Washington Post and The New York Times are dismissed as fictitious.
“Any negative polls are fake news…” That’s true, if you’re a Trump supporter.
Trump and his supporters thus divorce themselves from any apprehension of the objective facts present in the world. They instead rely on their confabulated “alternative facts,” and altogether inhabit an epistemological world of their own invention.
Entire books have been written about how dangerous this approach can be. An undermining of the press and a corruption of the information presented to citizens is a hallmark of autocracy. If Trump’s approach succeeds en masse, any negative polls will become fake news.
Those of us who still recognize that there is an objective way the world is and our claims must correspond to that state of affairs won’t be so easily misled by the Trump administration’s ruthless agenda of deceit. By extension, we bear a responsibility to help prevent our fellow citizens from being thus misled.
Camus once remarked, “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” In an age where the nature of intelligence and knowledge are under attack from the most powerful man in the world, we need this kind of resilience more than ever.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jon S’s Flickr account.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.