In recent months, there has been a massive backlash against “fake news”. The “fake news”, many speculate, may have influenced Britain’s exit from the European Union and the U.S. presidential election. Possibly, fake news has ushered us into a “post-truth world”. After all, “post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year, and fake news articles are the PolitiFact “2016 Lie of the Year”. However, are fake news and a post-truth world really new phenomena, or are we only just noticing them?
“Symbolic inflation”, writes Wolfgang Schivelbusch in The Culture of Defeat, “refers to the grandiose theatrical representation of empire and nation common under Wilhelm II.” “The ruling elite,” he continues, “were loudly proclaiming Bismarckian Realpolitik to be the guiding spirit of their global ambitions [but] were essentially acting symbolically… Realpolitik was no longer understood as action on the basis of a realistic calculation of one’s strength as well as that of the enemy but instead as the drive towards complete subjugation of the enemy.” (pages 195-96) Schivelbusch’s book, published in 2004, speaks of events that likely occurred sometime in 1890s Germany.
Over a century ago, long before “fake news”, there was symbolic inflation. Even if it wasn’t recognized at the time, symbolic inflation may have been representative of a different sort of “post-truth era”. The propaganda campaigns of World War I and World War II may also exist in “post-truth” spaces. The definition of propaganda, “the systematic dissemination of information, especially in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view,” sounds like an accurate definition of fake news. Perhaps, we should wonder not why we haven’t we noticed “fake news” until now, but instead look into what other assumptions, both historical and current, we hold that might be a result of “fake news”. It might be useful to take a cue from Schivelbusch and question the political “ruling elite” he mentions, instead of blaming new technology and journalism itself for news reports of questionable truth.