The mainstream media (MSM) played a significant in the role 2016 US presidential election. While the role of the MSM and especially television has played an increasingly important role in American elections since the 60’s, the cumulative changes in degree may have resulted in a change of kind as evidence by the recriminations of “fake news,” information operations carried out by third-party states designed to influence the election. Specifically, Hillary Clinton’s campaign accuses the Russians of unfairly helping Donald Trump, while Donald Trump accuses the MSM of unfairly helping Hillary Clinton.
While this debate is essentially unresolvable, what is more known is the influence of the media on the American political process itself. Early on in my study of politics, my professors didn’t believe that more information would have a large impact on politics. However, Bill Moyers’ The Public Mind: Image and Reality in America told a different tale, of a media society that was being impacted by images in a way that was profound, hard to control, and hard to predict.
Moyers introduced a range of intellectuals who thought deeply about media and symbols—that is, semiotics—and two are addressed here. First Stuart Ewen is a communications at Hunter College in New York and discusses meaning and advertising. The key difference is that scholarly political studies around 1990 concentrated on rational arguments, and assumed that political actor were rational. However Ewan points out correctly that the pervasive visual language of advertising is driven by emotion and that emotion makes the sale.
Second, Neil Postman in his Amusing Ourselves to Death makes the point that there was a divergence of opinion in the 20th century about how society would evolve in the 21st. George Orwell envisioned a dystopian future while Aldous Huxley a too-Utopian one—almost to the point of dystopia—in which the market sought to provide all manner of pleasure to the market. In Huxley’s future, truth and tradition are replaced with popularity and consumption—rationality and reason with emotion and affect (gemeinschaft with gesellschaft). As Moyers says, Huxley should see us now because he would by fascinated by and would have something interesting to say about so-called “fake news.” .
These authors do not answer the questions, “What is fake news?” or “Did fake news influence to the election?” But they do provide a vocabulary to talk about fake news as well as a set of insights to talk more knowledgeably and productively about it.