The wealth of information available at our fingertips and the constant stream of global news, allow us to be a more conscious and informed society than ever before. While many of us correctly use this extraordinary opportunity, to marvel at pictures of dogs dressed as Pokémon and analyse the symbolism of Taylor Swift’s latest music video, we should be more aware of all the main global issues of today.
The trouble is that this overload of information has led paradoxically to the proliferation of conspiracy, disinformation and entrenched partisanship, in lieu of consensus and rationality. The schism of the neo-liberal consensus into traditional far left and right, has meant that each faction of political debate can hand-pick the relevant narrative which supports their cause from the mass of information available.
It is often said that Twitter is an echo chamber and this is indeed true, as people do prefer to see their views reinforced rather than challenged. People can choose the data which supports their position and discard anything to the contrary, and this data often begins as a fabrication. There is a large and growing political movement in western politics with whom this practice is particularly associated.
On the Brexit campaign trail, Michael Gove, an expert in gauging public sentiment, famously declared that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’. Of course what he really meant here is that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts saying things they don’t like’. Gove here is articulating the anti-elitist rhetoric associated with the so-called ‘alt-right’, a nascent political movement that operated until recently in a murky corner of social media. Dismissed by the media as the plaything of disaffected teenage trolls whose outreach was confined to its small number of faceless followers, this is now a thronging and oppressive group that can claim at least partial responsibility for the two biggest political stories in recent memory: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Twitter is its political forum, where anyone can be a self-proclaimed expert, and where controversy guarantees retweets, retweets accrue followers, and followers confer influence and power.
With the advent of Twitter, the distributor of information passed from authority to individual, from accredited media to @iluvbeanz96. This democratisation brought with it a completely unregulated and unchecked forum for the exchange of ideas. Yet the hierarchy of authority is not, however, based on journalistic reputation and quality, but on the number of followers which translates to power. It seems that Spiderman’s adage that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ is lost on these people.
A recent Twitter spat regarding the ethnic diversity of Roman Britain pitted acclaimed academic Mary Beard OBE, Professor of Classics at Cambridge and published author on Roman history, against Paul Joseph Watson, the editor of Infowars. Watson boasts nearly 700,000 followers, as opposed to Beard’s paltry 150,000, and his legion of devotees descended upon the professor after she challenged Watson’s assertion that there were no black people in Roman Britain. Beard even went on to demonstrate that there were black people in positions of authority at that time, which was evidently not well-received by the alt-right.
Watson’s brand of jingoistic and racist conspiracy could not tolerate the idea that black people have been on these shores and part of British culture for millennia, and any attempt to claim this would be indicative of the liberal agenda that so threatens his followers. These are the sort of people who don’t believe in climate change because they can’t feel that it’s getting warmer; the kind that believe that all Muslims are trying to bring Sharia law to the UK because they’ve never spoken to one; and the type that believe that Nadiya won Bake Off only because it was politically correct.
Whether the leading alt-right commentators on social media know that what they are peddling is untrue, is irrelevant. Incessant tweets promulgating their Islamophobic, (ironic) anti-elitist and anti-PC agenda are received as gospel by their loyal disciples, and anything that disrupts this narrative is dismissed as ‘fake news’. Their followers eat it up and blindly accept this as truth. There are many appalling instances of users juxtaposing horrific terrorist attacks with images of Muslims celebrating Eid so as to perpetuate the mythology that all Muslims are anti-West. These often gain thousands of retweets because unfortunately many people see it as validation of their anti-immigrant stance. Even though these images are widely discredited, the correction won’t appear on their timelines.
Both mainstream and alt-right are crying ‘fake news’ at each other and both are certain that they are right. Once you disavow structures of power, as the alt-right have with their globalist conspiracy, truth becomes obsolete within that framework. If they believe that there is an agenda behind the media, government and financial institutions, then of course everything within those structures or disseminated by them becomes untrue. Any contrary information derives from that suspect power, so nothing could ever challenge their belief. If they believe their narrative to be true, it is their truth.
Michel Foucault discussed how truth derives from power throughout his works, believing that power creates ‘regimes of truth’, conferring knowledge through structures and norms to which we the public unconsciously subscribe. This leads us to reimagine this current era as one of alt-truth rather than post-truth. This is not a euphemism for falsehood, as the opposition believe their version of events just as ardently as we do. Their version is their truth, and our knowledge is our truth.
In this way, the alt-right have unknowingly come full circle, creating their own ‘regime of truth’ and slavishly following their established authority figures who have the power to spread their doctrine. Despite all the rhetoric of doing away with elites and bringing power back to the individual (or more specifically, the individual white working-class male), the alt-right movement have created their own infallible paragons of political insight, their own elite, whose word is truth.
These apparent anti-establishment figures monetise this influence through books and advertising and the result is a simulacrum of the establishment hierarchy between the elite and the public. People will always believe what they want to believe, they just need someone else to confirm it.