Fake Democracy, Bad News

Natalie Fenton, Des Freedman

Abstract


The central issue for us is not that we are suddenly surrounded by what is described as ‘fake news’ but that we have been living with fake democracy. This takes the form of a democratic facade that promises much but delivers little, leaving its citizens confronted by what Raymond Williams described as ‘the coexistence of political representation and participation with an economic system which admits no such rights, procedures or claims’.  The media themselves are partly to blame: their attachments to power and their use of sensationalism and soundbites ‘degrade the quality of political discussion and reduce the competence of citizens’. This sham sovereignty is not incidental to, but intertwined with, the liberal capitalism of which our mainstream media industries are very much a part. The real problem isn’t the Macedonian cottage industry churning out pro-Trump messages, but the fact that in equating liberal democracy (and a liberal media) with meaningful control of our collective lives, we have been swindled.

Actually existing democracy (rather than its utopian ideal) – both in its rhetoric and its political routines – has very successfully used discourses of equality and autonomy to commodify individualism and constrain freedom. And in doing so, it has given us nothing more than the illusion of democratic communications: a media where editors and top politicians dine at the same tables, are educated at the same institutions, and share many of the same corporate values and ideological agendas; a media that is disaggregated in theory but centralized in practice; a media where the tools may be open source but where the most powerful networks remain closed. This is a media marked by commerce, complicity, and caution rather than critique, creativity, and a journalism of conscience.

Media institutions are massively implicated in fake democracy as both subject and object of a socio-economic restructuring that favours the upward transfer and concentration of property and wealth. Mainstream media outlets have failed to use their symbolic power to challenge this shift to offer alternative visions and truly representative narratives, serving up instead an anaemic diet of stories that are frequently shallow, decontextualised, misleading, or downright biased – for example the economics journalism that assumes the ‘expertise’ of financial commentators and the legitimacy of austerity policies,the reporting of ‘terror’ that marginalizes geopolitical tensions and inequalities, the negative coverage of progressive movements and leaders, and the popular representations of welfare claimants as ‘revolting subjects’ that seek to mobilize a sense of disgust towards the ‘unproductive’ and ‘undeserving poor’ in the contemporary world.

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