Alternative Facts & True Lies

Alternative Facts and True Lies
It's all in the narrative

By Gautam Adhikari

The media are dishonest, says the new president. He accuses journalists of going all out to challenge his assertion that millions of illegal migrants voted in the presidential election to give his opponent a wide margin of victory, whereas he believes it is true, says his press secretary. It's because there are alternative facts to what the media may put out, says an aide to the chief.

Some say the president is delusional or an incurable egotist. But there might be method in the madness. Is it possible most of us are completely misinterpreting an astute tactic devised by smart strategists in or close to the White House? The more this kind of fact-dilution continues, the more the possibility looks likely. After all, President Trump has a few smart people around him, notably Steve Bannon. He is by all accounts an intelligent, highly educated adviser who has been part of the media and may have a long view on how to disrupt and recreate public opinion. In which case, welcome to politics infused with postmodernism.

'Alternative facts' may seem an affront to common sense as well as a blatant attempt to delegitimize evidence-backed journalism. But it fits in with a postmodernist interpretation, prevalent in many liberal arts campuses, of history, or rather of 'narratives'. There are always alternative narratives based on different readings of facts, which may all be equally valid. Thus, scientists may pursue objective efforts to understand reality; but reality, in the postmodern view is relative. It is constructed by the human mind as it tries to comprehend particular and personal realities. Facts, therefore, can always have alternatives.

The modern mind believes in scientific and existential truth. A postmodernist mind denies the validity of ultimate principles. All experience is relative and all interpretation is fallible. When inducted into the political world, a postmodernist communications strategy can work brilliantly to erode trust, whether it be in the credibility of the media or in researched opinions of experts.

For planners of Trump's communications strategy, eroding the credibility of the media and professional experts is probably crucial to their longterm objective. Which seems to be to ensure a conservative dominance of socio-political America in the foreseeable future.They already have the famed checks and balances of the US constitutional structure tilted in their favor. The executive is in their control; the two houses of Congress with Republican majorities are likely to remain deferential to the needs of the president in the foreseeable future; and the judiciary, with numerous vacancies in federal judgeships waiting to be filled and a soon-to-be conservative majority in the Supreme Court, is also taken care of.

It's the fourth estate that's the problem. As Bannon bluntly declared, while asking the mainstream media to keep its mouth shut, the media is now 'the opposition party".

In the media, too, there are convenient divisions. Fox News and and the overwhelming majority of radio talk shows, along with outlets of ethically unrestrained social media, can continue to ensure that the executive branch's view prevails. The rest of the media, the allegedly 'liberal' part, can be aggressively challenged on factual reporting and evidence-based opinion by promoting alternative narratives that can chip away at the credibility of newspapers, TV and policy experts.

Two or three years of incessant alternative chatter can award, say, the improvement of the economy to a change in presidential leadership overshadowing the fact that the US economy, by conventional yardsticks, has been doing well for at least three years. In post-modern style, you come to believe whichever narrative suits your preset inclination. Facts no longer form the foundation of truth; it's all up for debate. The idea is to sow doubt in the minds of a critical mass.

In such a strategy, facts are overrated. What matters is what you can make a decisive number of people believe through deft manipulation of the media, mainstream and social. Lies become true. Facts become debatable. Positive can be turned into negative and faith can trump reason if enough people are seduced. Politics becomes a stage for salesmen of competing narratives.

Vladimir Putin of Russia is probably the current world champion in this sport of how to manipulate the media narrative. Donald Trump's team, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Narendra Modi of India are not far behind. They all wear hard nationalism as their ideological cloak. And more such leaders seem positioned to ascend to power....

Gautam Adhikari is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and a former newspaper editor.