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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXVI–On Narrative Control and ‘Fact Checking’

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXVI

December 21, 2021

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

On Narrative Control and ‘Fact Checking’

One of the areas of interest for me as I weaved my way through my ten years of formal post-secondary education (yes, I spent the entire decade of the 1980s pursuing four degrees at several different universities; some of it part-time as I waffled between education and full-time work for relatively good pay in a grocery store) was that of epistemology (the nature and origins of ‘knowledge’). It was likely the result of some of my required readings: Stephen Jay Gould’s Ever Since Darwin, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Clifford Gertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures. Regardless, I ended up exploring (outside of my regular classes) such topics as deconstructive criticism, hermeneutics, and philology; interesting topics for someone who ended up teaching elementary school students (10 years) and as a school administrator (15 years).

Upon reflection, this exploration of how humans come to ‘know’ what they know (or at least what they believe) has led me to be rather skeptical of dominant narratives, especially of ‘authority figures’. My challenging of ‘authority’, as it were, may have come somewhat ‘naturally’ given I grew up in the household of a police officer. Not that I consider my dad to have been ‘authoritarian’, not at all, but the somewhat ‘natural’ pushback children can give to parents was slightly coloured in our household by the simple fact that my dad was a sociocultural authority figure on top of his role as a father.

Anyways, I believe I have always questioned to a certain extent the ‘popular’ stories we are exposed to. And as I’ve read more widely over the years, I’ve come to hold that these stories tend to always play to the pursuits of the people that dominate society’s economic and power structures. Reading Edward Bernays’ Propaganda, Murray Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State, and Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance has certainly solidified that feeling. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the primary motivation of our ruling elite is the control/expansion of the wealth-generating/extraction systems that provide their revenue streams. Everything they do serves this purpose in one way or another. Everything.

As Chomsky makes clear in Hegemony or Survival, one of the dominant concerns of the ruling elite is controlling the masses. Without such control, their power and privilege is at risk since the masses far, far outnumber the elite.

Rothbard argues in Anatomy of the State even just simple, passive resignation by the people that the status quo structures are inevitable is enough to sustain them. To ensure such acceptance, the State employs ‘opinion molders’ to justify/rationalise/persuade the population of the beneficence of the ruling elite and that some alternative is far worse.

In Propaganda, Bernays sets out arguing that democracies being so complex require an unseen group of people to guide their ideas and beliefs so as to ensure cooperation. It is this special cadre that directs what stories/narratives are to be believed that is the real ruling power in a society, not its politicians. And, of course, Bernays became an important part of the US Empire’s storytelling to market geopolitical ‘interventions’ as adventures in nation building and spreading democracy.

So, narrative control is essential to maintaining power and privilege. One of the growing ways of controlling the narrative in a world of social media and non-mainstream/corporate digital news is to ‘disprove’ alternative stories. One of the more recent forms of such control has been the phenomenon of ‘fact checking’. Fact checking has been marketed as a form of objective and investigative research into claims disseminated by others. If one can ‘check’ the ‘facts’ and show them to be biased, prejudiced, misinformed, misguided, purposely false, etc., then one’s own narrative can be shown to be ‘true’ and ‘factual’.

It would appear, however, that the ‘fact-checking’ narrative itself is beginning to fray quite openly, perhaps reinforcing the accusation by some that the process of ‘fact checking’ is far more about giving the appearance of objective support for dominant/mainstream storylines (virtually always in favour of the power and economic structures that favour the ruling elite) rather than actually providing ‘factual’ buttressing of well-documented and evidentiary arguments.

Although you will have some difficulty finding the following stories in most (all?) mainstream/corporate media outlets (this is one of the ways legacy media censures stories; they simply don’t report on them at all or very marginally— see the organisation Project Censored for ongoing examples), there is increasing exposure that ‘fact checking’ is nothing more than another tool in the toolbox of narrative control/propaganda used by the ruling elite.

In a lawsuit by journalist John Stossel, Facebook has defended its ‘fact checking’ by claiming that the third-party fact checkers it uses are merely the ‘opinion’ of the fact checkers it depends upon and thus protected under the U.S.’s First Amendment. It’s ‘opinion’ not actually ‘factual’ so the lawsuit is frivolous.

In another accusation of wrong-doing, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook/Meta calling the censorship and flagging of some of their work very problematic. In fact, the editors of the journal called Facebook’s fact checking: “inaccurate, incompetent, and irresponsible.” Facebook/Meta has yet to reply.

We have a long-time journalist standing up to the fact-checking process and Facebook defending itself by stating these ‘fact checks’ are really just the opinion of others. Followed by a well-respected medical journal challenging Facebook’s fact checking as completely off-base and unfounded. Two pretty strong strikes against a powerful media’s supposed objective ‘fact checking’ and increasing censorship of non-mainstream stories.

I could go one with example after example of such blatant manipulation of narratives by our ruling elite and their so-called ‘fact checkers’ but what else is there to say? Except, if the mainstream/corporate media and/or government/politicians are pushing repeatedly a narrative (or purposely censoring one), then it likely serves the purpose of manipulating what you believe so as to maintain/expand the status quo power and/or economic structures of our society. Their stories, no matter the rationalisation/justification for them, should always be viewed critically and questioned. Chances are they are serving their narrow purposes, not the wider society’s.

I see this all the time in many of the energy/resource stories I read and the domineering economic paradigm through which the ‘facts’ are viewed at the expense of an ecological lens. And while there has been a growing incorporation of environmental/ecological concerns in the energy/resource narratives, it seems to me it’s more about crafting storylines that serve to leverage concern about natural limits to further expand wealth and control, and certainly not to address the notion that we can’t continue to pursue growth in any form in perpetuity without doing irreparable damage to the natural systems we depend upon for our very survival.

No, we can chase growth, employ everyone, and forever raise our standards of living by constructing ‘Net Zero’ buildings and electric vehicles, all powered by ‘clean/green’ energy, and living happily ever after. Comforting stories to be sure, but also ones that feed the insatiable profit-seeking of the ruling elite at the expense of the natural systems that provide our ability to be alive.

Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong?

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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