In the space of six weeks, the phrase “fake news” went from media-crit lingo to a pop-progressive virtue signal to an utterly meaningless throwaway line. After all, what do we mean by “fake news?”

“Fake news” isn’t fake news — it’s just lying. Some of the worst fake news that shaped political events this year was not even specifically about the election. Or, rather, it wasn’t a partisan phenomenon. Instead of fake news in the sense of untrue content, our political futures were shaped largely by fake news in the form of statistical misrepresentations, or unrealities repeated with such fervour that they ended up making actual facts irrelevant.

This sounds dramatic, I know. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s what I mean.

Doing Data Wrong (or, One Reason Why Clinton Lost)

Hillary Clinton's campaign relied on big data that refused to integrate new or local information into their strategy.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign relied on big data that refused to integrate new or local information into their strategy.

In the days since the election, most mainstream politics writers puzzled over the same question — what the fuck happened? The question isn’t just one of liberal frustration. It has significance for the way we think about data and the way we think about truth. Because on November 8, 2016, almost every major data model was wrong. Clinton’s campaign was a victim of a particular brand of the untrusting of truth that characterized 2016.

Now, bear in mind that this isn’t exactly new, and there’s a lot written about how statistics and quantitative knowledge can sometimes obscure a full picture of the world, and misrepresent its authors and subjects. I’ve linked to a few at the bottom of this post.

However, the Clinton campaign’s battle with their “should be” idea of the world, even as the real world was giving them totally different information, is a telling example. You can read more links at the bottom. The Clinton campaign guilty of fantasizing their own rationality. They relied on a fantasy version of truth instead of the truth that was right in front of their eyes, because they believed what they wanted to be true to be more “real” than actual, qualitative, empirical reality.

This trend seems fitting to our historical moment of constant documentation and information-sharing, and it’s one that goes beyond the immediate question of Clinton and everything else awful to do with the election I’m doing a terrible job of pretending never happened (though that’s the example I’m focusing on here).

Responding exclusively what “should be,” instead of lived realities and grassroots experience, has big consequences. In 2016, we are seeing the full-blown political consequences at every level that politics is performed of a trend where knowledge is limited to certain speakers and certain forms of knowing.

There is no one who understands the political climate for Democrats in Michigan towns better than the Democrats who have spent the last decade living in Michigan towns. But somehow their lived experiences could not be imagined as significant enough to matter to a campaign that believed it knew how to win. Yet their opponents, the folks in the Trump camp, participated in a different form of fake news that may have fucked things up even further. Trump’s supporters threw themselves behind a candidate who repeatedly lied to their entire base for literal months, but somehow was taken as a voice of truth.

When we experience the dismissal of evidence as simple opinion, what is left for us to say? What else can we do when facts become fictions, and knowledge is delegitimized?

Sounds Fake But Ok (or, Why I Don’t Talk to People at Bar Mitzvahs)

The Fight for $15 movement has been mobilizing for years in attempts to raise the American minimum wage
The Fight for $15 movement has been mobilizing for years in attempts to raise the American minimum wage

Our political landscape is obsessed with a fantasy of rationality, especially through popular media. This is the same discourse that creates space for violent racism by citing anthropologists from the heyday of British colonialism. This is the same discourse that demands “innocence until proven guilty” by assuming that women are always liars and must fit into a cookie-cutter victim trope to be telling the truth — that everyone can and should be submitted to repeated questioning and “reasoned debate” in order to suss out the truth on the witness stand. Meanwhile, there’s an abject refusal to hold up a similarly critical lens to the men in our lives, let alone to the systems that continually prioritize men’s peace of mind over women’s basic safety.

And yet even as we adhere to a logic that demands the free market of ideas to rule the day and discern absolutes from shades of grey, we stray from it when it is convenient. About a month ago, I had a conversation at a bar mitzvah about minimum wage where the other guest’s entire argument was based on him assuming that I’m a socialist and thus could not be trusted (he thought that minimum wage should be lowered, which just strikes me as profoundly and unnecessarily evil).

This is a really specific example, sure. But it’s also not that unique. We’re seeing similar example of totally irrational claims and actions being taken in the name of rationalism. Anyone who’s had to insist upon gender neutral pronouns has encountered it as well, including university professors on law, gender, and linguistics who are somehow being forced to smile politely when met with vitriolic arguments about how the world “really” works from teenaged strangers. I’ve linked to some articles about this below.

In the same way that folks on the right claim that leftists use identity to invalidate other peoples’ opinion, you can just about dismiss anything — even if it is a cold hard fact — by reducing your opponent to an “SJW” or their argument to “political correctness.”

And this is something that maybe hasn’t been touched on in reflecting back on this year enough. Even as claims are being made left, right, and centre about “telling it like it is” in the face of censorship, those same proponents of rationalism and free debate are perfectly willing to silence any conversation that questions their perceptions of the world.

None of This is New (or, The Truth is Literally Right In Front of You)

Rumours of a definitely fake "freedom concert" attempting to draw attention away from Trump inauguration are really scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Rumours of a definitely fake “freedom concert” attempting to draw attention away from Trump’s inauguration are really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

For generations, minority communities have been clear and vocal when it comes to the injustices they face. And they have been silenced based on their tone — too loud, too angry, too emotional. It’s only just now that these injustices are being articulated through the detached lens of statistical facts.

But when the majority is called upon to answer for them, any basis for that claim to rationalism flies right the fuck out the window. We see men blatantly lie in the face of video evidence and purple-faced pundits screaming about Jewish conspiracies. Suddenly, the liberal obsession with rational debate has been replaced with a reactionary panic when some of their most tightly held dogmas are called into debate, while minorities have been subjected to the same unkindness for years at every level of society. You can Google this stuff, but I’ve linked to it below.

Meanwhile, the proponents of a liberal rationalism have fallen into fantasy. A star-studded concert claiming that “love trumps hate” won’t lift anyone out of poverty, just as asking us to “wait and see” what Trumpism means for LGBTQ youth of colour won’t stop Black trans people from being abused in shelters or subjected to disproportionate levels of unemployment and police brutality. Folks can attest to those realities by turning to multiple data sets as well as by hearing from people who have actually lived those experiences firsthand.

There is no precedent or evidence to support a thesis of “wait and see,” or “love trumps hate.” It’s a storybook fantasy. It makes sense in a world where we can always unplug, log off, and step away from violence, where oppression is a spectacle being performed for entertainment and not a fact that real human beings experience every single day. Even as we demand a caricature of rationality from the oppressed, we cling to our own fantasies and fictions when presented with hard truths.

I have nothing to add to the existing literature on fragility and the politics of reaction; everything worth saying about this has been said by folks more qualified. I’ve included some links at the bottom of this post.

Instead, what I can speak to is this idea of rationality and fantasy. They live in the same world — sometimes they speak in the same voice. When we come face to face with hard truths, we have to resist defaulting to fantasies. They cannot help anyone. They are immobilizing. The stories that we dismiss as fake, and the knowledge that claim as irrelevant, are the prime victims of violent fantasies. The suffering that comes from these silences are empirical facts, but somehow we’ve managed to ignore them whenever it’s convenient for us.

Our world is feeling less like actual real-life events and instead more like someone is directing a ridiculous play or a dramatic storyline. But when faced with this kind of absurdity, the answer isn’t to fall back into the trap of responding with more fantasy. The answer isn’t denial — it’s resistance.

Works Cited (or, See I Wasn’t Lying)

Doing Data Wrong

How Clinton Lost Michigan — and Blew The Election, Edward-Isaac Dovere, Politico, 14/12/2016

Making Democracy Count: Opinion Polls and Market Surveys in the Chilean Political Transition, Julia Paley, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 16 (2001)

The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Harvard University Press, 2010

Light a Fire Under the DNC, Peter Moskowitz, The New Inquiry, 30/12/2016

Sounds Fake But Ok

The Government Finally Has a Realistic Estimate of Killings by Police, Carl Bialik, FiveThirtyEight, 15/12/2016

UBC Prof Mary Bryson Receives “Violent Threats” After Debate on Gender Neutral Pronouns, Samantha McCabe, The Varsity, 3/12/2016

Free Speech Rally Devolves into Conflict, Outbursts of Violence, Jack O. Denton, The Varsity, 12/10/2016

Pitting Free Speech Against Trans Rights is a Toxic Debate, Ido Katri, Huffington Post Canada, 15/11/2016

None of This is New

White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo, International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol. 3 (2011)

Right Wing Watch: Alex Jones

Politifact: Donald Trump

These Are the Trans People Killed in 2016,  Advocate.com Editors, Advocate, 10/14/2016

When Your Friend Is On the Stand at the Ghomeshi Trial, Stacey May Fowles, Canadaland, 4/2/2016

Amanda Palmer’s rose-colored glasses: Don’t bet on Donald Trump making “punk rock great again”, Scott Timberg, Salon, 30/12/2016

What’s The ‘Middle’ Between White Supremacy and Equality?, Robert Jones, Jr., The Establishment, 8/30/2016