The world right now is gripped, entangled in mishmash of narratives and counter-narratives. The propounders of both the sides deem the other as “Fake News.” But since the groups propagating these news are bound to gain from the success of the same, their intentions are well understood. Like Kellyanne Conway, when she declared Sean Spicer’s defence of inflated crowd size at Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony as “alternate facts.” Or when Burkha Dutt describes Burhan Wani, a commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, as “son of a school principal.”
But shouldn’t the larger question here be why and how, a large, sizeable part of the populace is not only okay with such fabrication of facts, but even digests and readily defends these arguments as mere differences of opinions and perception? And is Fake News all that new agency for spreading propaganda?
Yuval Noah Harari, a noted professor in Department of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has the answer to this question in his book, Sapiens. Harari claims that Homo Sapiens as a specie is predisposed toward fiction. He notes how the better storytellers have ruled the roost throughout human history. He quotes various examples of fiction and fake news from history that not only created waves in contemporary times, but survive and thrive to this day. Creating fiction was an art from days of Cicero and Aristotle, to heyday of Nazi propaganda under Goebbels to now in the rule of Donald Trump.
The first example of fiction that sells he gives is religion. As per Harari, religion was a tool used by leaders to increase the size of communities and thereby led to development of cities and civilisations. Cities and urban population could only rise when an authority was recognised to collect agricultural surplus produced in rural areas. This authority also adjudicated matters so that people could live and work together. But what would be the source of this authority? Strength, personal or based on military, was not a permanent solution as it led to insecurity and instability. As an atheist, Harari points out that, here the divine stepped in to fill the lacuna. Hence, the worldly authority was claimed to be based on divine intervention.
Therefore, all royal power was supposed to be derived from Divine Right to Rule. Religion, God and his Word were further used to gain legitimacy for social customs and traditions. Thus, to solidify male control over female sexuality, Deuteronomy in Old Testament Bible instructed Jews and Christians to kill all brides who were not virgins on their wedding nights by stoning them.
But, well, a lot of readers might say that religion and God are not fake news. This argument is countered by asking the readers to imagine if, in this day and age, they would accept a man’s story about how he found Angel Gabriel in a cave and the Angel told him His Word, or would they consider him a schizophrenic.
But, at the same time, religion provided a sense of belonging to people and allowed trust to develop, providing the most rudimentary form of morality for interactions between humans to succeed.
The second brilliant piece of fiction, as per Harari, that has helped our specie thrive is how we divided the land into nation-states. This fiction was written after Enlightenment and found fertile ground in empires that were being formed consisting of different cultures. This idea was used to create a fervent congregation of people based on nationalism. United States of America is a relevant example of a nation based on inclusivity and displaying an almost unhealthy level of love for their flag. Trump in the recent elections used this nationalism to his advantage.
Ultimately, nation-state system too is fake news, nations being mere lines on paper or at most fences on land. My question to the reader is how a Pakistani born in Lahore, is considered to be almost an enemy by an Indian born in Amritsar, just 50 kms away.
But, at the same time, though that Indian has culturally more in common with that Pakistani, his idea of nation makes him feel closer to another Indian living in Guwahati, nearly 2300 kms away. This false sense of proximity results in unity among people belonging to different religions and cultures.
According to Harari, the third fiction we weave, sometimes to our advantage, is the government, which includes the legal justice system. After nationalism of early 1800s reached zenith, the next stage was to create a set of rules for governance. Hence, governments, almost always based on principles of welfare, wrote constitutions. The major tasks for such a government were more equitable wealth redistribution, better security and a neutral, fair justice system. This fiction needs no example to make itself clear.
But, Harari points out to those sceptical of believing that governments are not real, that governments are not tangible. You can never see the government; you can never hear the government. It’s always an individual, who for all practical purposes represents the government. And few individuals, when they gain control over the government, usually misuse and abuse the rules for personal, monetary or ideological gains.
Yet, governments, especially modern ones, are the cornerstone of every functional society. The government, among other things, creates the laws (both civil and criminal), implements polices to ensure the enforcement of the same laws and adjudicates disputes over breaking of these laws.
Fourth in this list of fictions are corporations and the financial world. Birthing at the same time as nationalism, another phenomenon that has survived and helped bring prosperity to its beneficiaries is capitalism. Corporations, forever competing to increase profits and decrease losses, are another set of fiction that the people and the state believe to be true. This is even more the case in United States, where after Citizens United case, corporations are treated as individuals with fundamental rights.
Again, to naysayers, I will ask have they ever seen a corporation. Unlikely. Corporations, too, are intangible and one can only consume a product or interact with a representative, in this case, an employee.
But, this intangibility and the need to pay dividends to their shareholders, creates enough reason for the employees of these corporations to indulge in corruption and force the government into cronyism. The best example would be the magnum of money that corporations pour into elections.
Yet, capitalism has been a boon like no other. Capitalism has led to another revolution in the form of consumerism, which in turn through positive feedback mechanism, has led to increased employment, standard of living and prosperity.
Obviously, this article and Yuval Harari in Sapiens, do not morally judge the fictions nor condone the act of lying itself. Nor, does the article further the case for more Fake News for the echo chambers of people. One also has to also acknowledge that there are certain fictions that have been discarded or need to be discarded almost immediately. Casteism, for example, should find no space in 21st century India, where there are far more diversified jobs than the 4 Varnas to divide the society. Another anachronistic fiction is populism, which is ignoring the future for temporary joy in the present, yet as popular in United States and India today as was in the Roman Republic.
But, to say that Fake News is a new, that is a far stretch. Fake News is just quicker at spreading and easier to spread, especially with the advent of digital medium and social media. The virtual world, long heralded as the most open market of ideas, has been used by certain self-serving Homo Sapiens to hyper-accelerate and widen the horizon for penetration of fictions they want to peddle.