Sembra trascorso un millennio da quando negli Stati Uniti scoppiò lo scandalo Watergate, classico esempio di uso distorto dell’informazione, e del tentativo di nasconderlo. Eppure il valzer delle notizie del diavolo continua come prima: ne sono riconosciutio professionisti Vladimir Putin, con il suo sforzo costante di impaurire i suoi concittadini di fronte al pericolo dell’inquinamento occidentale, e anche in forme diverse Donald Trump. Ciò che è cambiato, rispetto al passato, è la velocità di trasmissione delle notizie, a partire naturalmente da quelle false. Ma anziché spaventarci per questo, e invocare giustizieri, dobbiamo apprestare le nostre difese culturali e morali per discernere il vero dal fittizio, e prendere di conseguenza le nostre decisioni.
Cows will still give milk!
In 1839 the first train went in operation in The Netherlands. The steaming and puffing concoction drove not more than 30 kilometers an hour, but there were massive protests. It was considered mortally dangerous, farmers complained that cows stopped giving milk watching the monster and thus it should be banned.
This is now laughable, as today some trains go up to 300 kilometers per hour or more and cows watch trains, cars and airlines without any emotion, spilling out such a quantity of hectoliters of milk that the European Union needs a milk destruction program to deal with it. The point is that innovation, novelty, is scary and our first human reaction is to reject it and look at the dangers and downplay the positive side.
In 1972, a Watergate Scandal erupted in the United States, which engulfed a nation that at that time was waging a hopeless war in Vietnam and had a President that was mostly known as “tricky Dick” because of his inability to say the truth. He ordered a burglary in the headquarters of the Democratic Party, and subsequently spent most of his Presidential time covering it up, without success however. In 1974 he had to leave office to avoid impeachment, and became part of history in the most negative way possible.
There was no social media in Nixon’s time, nor was there Internet, wifi, or any of the advances of modern technology. We still had fixed phones with a dial plate, and instead of internet or the now also outdated fax we used telex, a big machine that ate up a long piece of paper with holes in it which were transformed into text while shaking like a feverish rhinoceros. Yet in spite of the absence of modern technology, Nixon’s lies were uncovered, and he lost his job. And all the years in the White House he disseminated what is now called “fake news”, trying to fool his opponents, sabotage the attempts to get him out of office, and create a positive imagine of himself.
The bottom line is that what is happening now is not so much different. We are inundated with doctored information, “fake news”, a notion rather controversial since Trump started using that term when referring to real – yet for him uncomfortable – news. We are made to believe stories that turn out to be totally invented, and there are processes in our societies that the direct result, not based on reason but by people suddenly locking up to something and joining “the movement”.
History is full of such movements. Remember Iran, 1979. The Shah has been deposed, and Ayatollah Khomeini is welcomed in Teheran as a liberator. Even Western intellectuals like Foucault laud his revolutionary fervor, and the Iranian nation seems to be collectively behind his call for a return of Islamic values. Within years, Iran has turned into a bloody dictatorship where women become second-rate citizens and anybody who thinks different is arrested, tortured and quite often killed, sometimes by public hanging. Yet there was no facebook, no social media, and fake news was disseminated through very old-fashioned means. And of course Foucault quickly shut up and pretended he never said anything positive about Khomeini.
In the 1990s I visited almost every state of the USA. What surprised me most was the number of people who believed all the nonsense that was spilled over their heads by the media. They actually bought and read publications like “News of the World”, a pseudo-journal sold in supermarkets that was full of nonsense stories about aliens, disfigured people and other invented “weird stories” that help Americans feel encircled by ‘Sodom and Gomorrah” and enemies from outer-space (by the way, the same photos of “weird people that really exist” now appear on websites of American pseudo-news agencies). It is not so different than the stories that Putin tells his citizens about the encirclement by the West, the enemies of Russia, the “aliens amongst us”. The big difference is that he doesn’t use “News of the World” that can be foundin the racks next to the cashier at the supermarket; he uses modern social media, and just as effectively. Rather, he and his FSB specialized in that, waging a hybrid war against Western pluralist democracy.
When David Bowie told a BBC reporter back in 1999 that the Internet would change everything, the man looked flabbergasted and told Bowie that surely Internet was never going to be a big thing. Well, wake up, it did, and it dominates our life, and most of the nonsense that enters our ears and heads comes in via this medium. However, I am convinced it didn’t change very much, because in the past the same nonsense entered our heads, either via our eyes through journals like “News of the World”, or though social environments, such as on Sunday by the priest or pastor in Church. Nowadays, not one month passes without a scandal that is related to one or another church, and it all comes down to a small group of clerics that several decades ago thought it had the right to fill people’s heads with an overpowering sense of guilt, total servitude to the church and its dogma and fear of eternal damnation. The result is endless series of scandals that continue to rock the Western world.
I am quite relaxed about this “fake news”. Usually, the people who shout about “fake news” (and one of them happens to be the President of the United States) are the origins of such, and have a high level of allergy towards real facts. Like before, it takes an effort to shift through the news, understand what is true and what is not, and above all use one’s own sense of realism. Sure, modern technology has made things more complicated, but kids do not become crazy when using tablets, we do not grow demented because we use computers too much, and cows still give milk, even though trains flash by so fast that they do not even manage to chew once on a new chunk of grass before the train disappeared beyond the horizon.
What has changed is the speed of things. There is this wonderful classic British film where a landowner has breakfast with his wife and two daughters at their mansion, somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century. While relishing his bacon and eggs, he tells his family: “Three weeks ago I received a very pressing letter from my friend, asking for my intervention on his behalf. Today I urgently sent him a response.” Three weeks is now a lifetime, and when I don’t get an answer to my e-mail to somebody I know within 24 hours, I worry whether everything is all right or the person is dead. Speed has changed, but the essence is not: we are inundated with nonsense and false information; it is us who need to have the skill to discern the difference and make a proper selection. That has never changed, and will always remain the same.
di Robert van Voren