Lessons from Orwell: Fake News and Alternative Facts Threaten Free Society
George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (or 1984 for brevity) is a masterpiece in political satire and science fiction. Orwell’s final work, the novel encapsulates the goals of his short political and literary life: resistance to authoritarianism, clarity of language and honesty in journalism, and the seamless blending of social commentary with literature.
The protagonist of 1984 is everyman Winston Smith, a resident of a bleak and gritty Airstrip One - the name of a Britain which has become a region of Oceania, one of the three political divisions of a global dictatorship ruled by mass surveillance and absence of civil liberties, symbolised by its iconic figurehead Big Brother.
Most thematically significant is the regime’s ideology, known in Airstrip One as Ingsoc, a shortening of “English Socialism”. Central to Ingsoc is this corruption of language, a lexicon known as newspeak - a dialect constructed to destroy the meaning of words and speech to limit the citizenry’s range of thought.
Until this destruction is accomplished, the regime controls society through the principle of “thought crime”, which represses opinion that dissents from that of the state. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, the arm of the state which disseminates propaganda and erases and modifies history to control the very definition of truth.
Demonstrating the timelessness of the novel, 1984 has seen a 9,500 percent rise in sales following US President Donald Trump’s brazen untruths about the size of crowds at his inauguration, and their surreally newspeak description by senior counsellor Kellyanne Conway as “alternative facts”.
It might be cliché to label Orwell prophetic, but 1984 does seem eerily prescient in the era of fake news. And Trumpism, a movement headed by a Big Brother who deals in lies and vitriol as his political stock and trade, is the clearest manifestation of the Orwellian nightmare in post-war Western society yet.
He rose to political prominence by promoting racist falsehoods about Barack Obama’s citizenship, and as a Republican candidate even implicated opponent Ted Cruz’s father in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Rebecca Solnit compares the venom Trump stirred up against his election opponent to the Two Minutes Hate in 1984 - the compulsory public frenzy against Emmanuel Goldstein, the figurehead of the shadowy Brotherhood who apparently conspires to destroy the Big Brother state.
“I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened!” a bemused Hillary Clinton suggested at the first presidential debate last September. “Why not?” replied Trump. He really meant it.
Any deviation from Trump’s version of reality is thought crime
Trump’s most apoplectic cheerleader is veteran conspiracy theorist and broadcaster Alex Jones, the founder of InfoWars, a longstanding bulwark in fake news. In the style of an evangelical huckster, Jones has long predicted the imminent end of days at the hands of a sinister New World Order.
Jones styles himself as an Orwellian “thought criminal”, but ironically he more resembles a propagandist at the Ministry of Truth’s fiction department, who produces yellow press and pornography on behalf of Ingsoc - or in this case Trumpism.
During the presidential campaign Jones seriously suggested that Clinton smelt of sulphur due to demonic possession, and accused her of heading a satanic child abuse and sacrifice ring coordinated from a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant. This led to a man turning up at the restaurant with his assault rifle to “self-investigate” by firing shots before the police intervened.
While Trump lavishes praise on Jones, he labels any outlet that dares to scrutinise his absurd statements as “fake news”. In a political strategy built on deception, the fact checkers of CNN and The New York Times are deemed the “opposition party”.
Any deviation from Trump’s version of reality is thought crime. To quote another senior counsellor, Stephen Bannon: the media should “keep its mouth shut.” The way Trump uses social media invokes 1984’s telescreens, which never-endingly bleated propaganda and inflated statistics favourable to Big Brother.
Trump couldn’t stand losing the popular vote to Clinton, so tweeted false statistics about millions of illegal voters tipping it to her. Trump would have probably done this had he lost the Electoral College. Given that he predicted Clinton would “rig” the election and encouraged gun-toting “second amendment people” to deal with it, it’s frightening to contemplate the consequences.
Trump’s first major act as president has been a travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the United States, including discrimination against dual American citizens.
Sean Spicer, the spokesman who began the “alternative facts” charade, lambasted the media from describing it as a ban, even after Trump himself described it as one. Yes, journalists are banned from calling a ban a ban. If Big Brother decides to change the definition of ban, that is.
Over 40 years, zero American citizens were killed in terrorist attacks by persons from the seven countries. But as Muslims are deemed the “enemy” and a collective threat to national security, in Trumpism’s version of the Two Minutes Hate, refugees fleeing genocide in Syria and toddlers from Iran are treated interchangeably with ISIS and al-Qaeda. As are the innocent relations of militants who Trump wants “bomb the shit” out of.
human rights can only be eroded through the debasement of humanity itself in the minds of a society
As 1984 has been extensively used for political parallel by both the political left and right, it’s important to emphasise the ideological context in which Orwell wrote the novel: as an avowed democratic socialist and anti-fascist.
Orwell took up arms against fascism in Spain during the civil war of the 1930s, and though he was an anti-Stalinist, he joined Michael Foot and Aneurin Bevan in vehemently criticising appeasement towards Nazi Germany, especially that on the pacifist left.
The aftermath of the Nazi era and the Holocaust must have been lingering in Orwell’s mind when he wrote 1984, and the novel echoes the “banality of evil” conceptualised by Hannah Arendt in her 1951 thesis on the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals.
In Arendt's view, the Holocaust was driven by the passive acceptance of wider society and the bureaucrats that efficiently carried out its machinations - the “little Eichmanns” who only followed orders. But how did German society descend to this state?
In 1984, Orwell described not just authoritarianism but totalitarianism, the mode of tyranny dependent on psychological manipulation, cults of personality, hatred and chauvinism - which reached its apex with Nazism.
Only through propaganda that promoted a black and white, us versus them mentality could a genocidal state take its grip. Nazi fake news and caricatures forged the path to Kristallnacht and the gas chambers. As Orwell warned us, human rights can only be eroded through the debasement of humanity itself in the minds of a society.
Trump signed off his Muslim ban on Holocaust Memorial Day, and the White House’s statement on this commemoration failed to even mention the Jews as the central victims: probably because failure to erase the history of a scapegoated minority’s persecution would have shown up the ban’s moral hypocrisy.
These are ideologues who deliberately seek, in a manner similar to the Big Brother state, to misinform citizens and demonise entire peoples in their ruthless abuse of power. We cannot pretend that those promoting Muslim bans and “alternative facts” have an agenda compatible with a free society. Trumpism doesn’t lead the “free world” - it poses a profound threat to it.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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