Fake News? The Search For Reality and Its Consequences
Today, everything can be both false and true at the same time. What does this mean for communication? Here, a few thoughts on the New Year starring Napoleon, Trump, and other influencers.
When we founded our communications agency ten years ago, I, like many others, was inspired by the opportunities promised by the then-called participatory internet or “Web 2.0”. People and consumers could finally have a say and companies could speak more directly to their target groups. Increased competition for the attention of readers and viewers would ultimately lead to a higher quality of the classic mass media (which already had considerable problems at the time). In this process, politicians and companies would become more transparent and the consumer more responsible. The election of Obama, the debates surrounding the financial crisis, and the Arab spring that started in December 2010 initially confirmed this assessment.
A dark curse over the Internet
If you follow the public discourse today, it seems as if the expectations have been reversed. Have we ended up in a parallel world? The fun, new communication tools of yesteryear seem to have been cast with a dark spell. The most powerful man in the world has spread lies at least 7,500 times since taking office (such as here on the Washington Post). And, unfortunately, he speaks very directly to his target groups via his own channels. Authoritarian rulers elsewhere are transforming social networks into a digital Gestapo with a propaganda unit. The Arab spring has led to a democratic winter. “Alternative media”, sometimes lavishly financed by foreign governments, floods the web with imaginary stories that are shared virally — because they reinforce the mistrust of a supposed “establishment”. Classic media sources like the German SPIEGEL are falling for swindlers such as Claas Relotius (which is certainly not an isolated case). Less dramatic, but just as remarkable, is the extent to which the beauty ideals of young people are inspired by channels such as Instagram with its styled set ups and photo filters. Think of Amanda Cerny in the USA, Becky Li in China, or Lisa and Lena in Germany. Reality becomes Disneyland. Everything is both real and fake at the same time.
My personal favourite fake of 2018 follows suit: Unknown US rocker Threatin convinced audiences that he was a superstar with bought followers and booked himself a complete European tour (which ended after a short time due to lack of resonance). The stunt made him famous all over the world. Satisfied, he writes on his website, “I turned an empty room into an international headline. If you are reading this, you are part of the illusion”.
The longing for the real
But when we can no longer judge whether something is just an illusion, then our basic trust falters. We distance ourselves as human beings, as society, step by step from ourselves. This in turn fuels certain longings: for the “good old order”, for less complexity in everyday life, for professionalism, politics, and orientation. And so, paradoxical as it may seem in view of the triumphal march of the liars, a longing for authenticity ensues.
Our excessive occupation with Fake News alone (Google News provides 250 million German search results for this term) demonstrates how we apparently so desperately miss out on the opposite. It is well known that we humans are primarily concerned with the things that we lack. He who truly loves does not speak of love. He who is healthy, does not obsess over health. If he who does not miss the real thing, won’t complain about the fake.
The longing for the real therefore explains the rise of those influencers who film, photograph, and write “like you and me” about their everyday lives. The ones that explain the success of pseudo-documentaries and soaps on TV. The ones that also explain the long-lasting, almost religious transfiguration of Steve Jobs or multi-entrepreneur Elon Musk whose tantrums over the net may have been problematic for the SEC but fans appreciate the unfiltered comments.
Unparalleled in this area is Donald Trump. His ranting tirades in the TV debates preceding his election seemed refreshingly unadulterated compared to the subject dodging of professional politicians – which many people often distrust. Even though Trump is spreading all kinds of lies, he expresses pipe dreams, delusions, and fantasies (which differ only slightly to those expressed by other republican candidates in 2016 Candidate Ben Carson, for example, said that the Holocaust could have been avoided if German citizens only had enough weapons), that position him as authentic as any other professional reality TV star.
Authenticity is not an attitude, but an observation
Authenticity does not outright describe a system of set values. . It is not the opposite of a lie, but rather an unquestionable reality . To be authentic, one must remain true to oneself and, in the best case, practice what you preach. This instils respect, as Goethe already made clear: “He who does not command himself, remains a servant.” In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius advises his son Laertes: “This above all: to thine own self be true / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man.” So be yourself and be the one who tells others who you are.
Authentic people and organizations led by them stand out in a fragmented, high-speed world. They create the impression of self-determination and self-motivation. Their actions are not influenced by others. But with this, opportunities emerge for narcissists, manipulators, and conspiracy theorists.
The supposed victory of the “dark side of the web” is merely a reading of the events — perhaps as a counter-narration to the naive ideas of salvation of the beginning. First of all, attempts at manipulation during our time are not new. Napoleon himself was of the opinion that it wasn’t the truth that mattered, but what people thought was the truth. In a great essay for the American literary magazine The Paris Review in early 2018, Nina Martyris explained how Napolean spread lies using notices posted on the walls of churches and doors and thus — beyond the press — spoke directly to his subjects. About 100 years later, H.G. Wells summarized in the New York Times: “Modern means of communication carry power. Print, telephone, radio, and so on allow strategic considerations and technical instructions to be transmitted to a large number of associated centres. (…) Thoughts and opinions now have an effect greater than the power of any individual personality.”
In this way, the net helps to uncover even the most sophisticated manipulation — as shown, for example, by the research on Football Leaks. The Washington Post can now publicly count the lies of politicians and document them for a worldwide audience. Social media is essential for rapid communication in the event of disasters. Despite all the data scandals, billions of people still happily use WhatsApp and WeChat etc. to keep in touch. Hierarchies and the authority of officials in society is coming under attack: Heroes are falling from pedestals. And this is a good thing. Nonsense becomes more visible, and decision-makers must constantly justify their actions publicly. If Ronald Reagan had tweeted, we would know more about his astrologer and his constant fear of the biblical Armageddon — the historical picture would probably be different. It would be the same with Konrad Adenauer’s Facebook account. And of course, young people always orient themselves to the beauty ideal of their time. What used to be teen magazines like Bravo, is now Instagram. Just faster, louder, more short-lived.
We have more in our hands than we think
The healing promises of the social, mobile web may not have been entirely fulfilled in the past ten years. Manipulators have realized that the presentation of honesty and authentic behaviour on the public stage brings them enormous advantages, combined with the boundless dissemination of information and an obviously crazy media system. Internet companies have changed from saviours to technocratic monopolists. The revolution was followed by a counterrevolution. But don’t panic: This has also been the case for the French since 1789. As we know, France has long been a democracy (and Napoleon died lonely from stomach cancer at the age of 51 on St Helena).
There is therefore no reason for a swan song in 2019 either. We live in a world that has always been dominated by freedoms AND constraints. We can choose our friends, but not the country we are born in, nor the market environment of our industry, nor the conditions for communication. But we design our spaces, our relationships, and our contact with the media and its content. With our head and our hands. Be it privately or on the job, as an entrepreneur or politician, as a company, brand, or institution, as a marketing manager or agency employee. It is up to all of us to do this creatively and responsibly, even under the certainly tougher conditions. By finding our own way and not copying the success formulas of others, by acting in line with our inner selves and thus remaining authentic.