The concept of ‘the Big Lie’—a brazen untruth pushed so relentlessly in mass media that it’s eventually mistaken for truth—is hardly novel. As is the case with so many other wretched stratagems of its ilk, capitalism got there first with the PR technique known as FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. FUD campaigns disseminate plausibly deniable aspersions on, say, the safety of a competitor’s products.
Such a tactic works because the advent of mass media flooded public discourse with info gluts, bubbles, and echo chambers that can overload a person’s capacity to sort fact from fiction. Contrary to all the Luddite wailing about our social media insularity, biased news streams date back at least to the storied yellow-journalism career of William Randolph Hearst, and have been a fixture of salons and coffeehouses since Gutenberg. After all, there’s a reason some particularly venerable American newspapers are called the X Republican or Y Democrat.
So why has ‘post-truth’ only now become the OED word of the year? Without question, something has shifted in our ever more postmodern world. What the KGB once called dezinformatsiya, and the Reagan administration named ‘perception management,’ has now come to dominate public life. Everywhere we turn in the aborning age of Trump, we see the deliberate spreading of contradictory, misleading, and outright false ‘news.’ The ceaseless fount of counter-information creates a general climate of mass confusion, causing even the most resolute auditors to doubt their senses.
This increasingly influential phenomenon is strangling both the internet and liberal democracy. What separates our brave new world of counterfeit information from the ideologically driven news outlets of the past, or even the late Cold War propaganda initiatives mounted by the United States and the USSR, is that this time, the Big Lies are bubbling up from grassroots internet cesspools—though these are increasingly in cahoots with powerful moneyed interests.
Donald Trump stumbled down his golden escalator at a particularly congenial historical moment. Fake news—the original, Facebook-enabled variety, not the casual slur trotted out against the press on a near-daily basis by the Trump White House—effectively dominated news cycles the week before Election Day, steeped in the same ethos that innervated the alt-right Nazis: chan culture. ‘Trolling’ and online harassment campaigns rely on a brand of perception management that would have made Reagan’s State Department proud: targeting individuals or groups, causing them to doubt facts and reality, or even doubt their senses, but leaving them in a constant state of unknowing terror.
These tactics, bred in a nihilistic and proudly apolitical world, were folded back into the realm of activism, absorbed into right-wing media, and have now made their way into the White House.