If anyone is looking for a broadly philosophical perspective on the fake news scandal currently gripping the worlds of mainstream media, new media and social media, one ought to turn to the 1941 cinematic masterwork of Orson Welles, Citizen Kane.
In a specific sense, the film shows Welles chronicling the life of American newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst (remained Charles Foster Kane in the film), down to nearly every explicit detail. But in a broader sense, the film tells a tale of fortune smiling on an idealist whose ideals become too big for their own ambitions. Consequently, the idealist ultimately succumbs to corruption, fakery, disillusion, professional and moral downfall and ignominy.
This applies not only to the lives of newspaper barons of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it applies to all idealists, but particularly those who seek to change minds, both in media and in politics.
Take for example the great revolutions of the late modern age. The French Revolution of 1789 began with the purpose of throwing out what was seen as a corrupt, privileged ancient regime to be replaced by one which would live up to the seemingly noble principles of Liberté, égalité, fraternité as defined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Soon however, the Committee of Public safety turned against its own, and a death machine – the guillotine – became the symbol of a revolution which was supposed to be based on high principles. By 1815, the very Bourbon dynasty the revolution sought to supplant, was back in power and with more international support than it had prior to the revolution. The revolution failed.
Consider the revolutions of 1848, whose penultimate goal, nation-statehood for the peoples of Europe was broadly realised after 1918. These new nation states quickly turned against each other and themselves as far-right and fascist regimes consumed most of these new states including Latvia, Hungary, Lithuania and to some extent Poland, Czechoslovakia and Estonia. This was a proximate cause of the Second World War. So much for the idealism of nationalist revolutions.
The October Revolution of 1917 set out to change not only Imperial Russia but the world. Yet many of the original goals of the Bolsheviks either failed or backfired. The Communist economic programme of the early Soviet Union was tempered by Lenin’s New Economic Plain at the end of the Civil War. Gradually, Trotsky’s idea of world revolution was abandoned. This became ultimately clear when Stalin introduced the concept of ‘socialism in one state’ and shortly thereafter saw that Leon Trotsky could never live to tell his side of the story.
By the 1960s, the Soviet People had weathered two blood-soaked revolutions in 1917 and the tumult and triumph of The Great Patriotic War, all three events caused by idealism. Under the steadfast, wise and moderate leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union found peace as Russians enjoyed their highest standards of living in history, up to that point.
The state remained stable and strong, Soviet prestige and power abroad reached its zenith and daily life improved for ordinary people throughout the USSR in every sense. Brezhnev brought an end to the mania of idealism through his pragmatism and intelligence.
Even Iran, whose Islamic revolution of 1979 was fanatical and often frantic in its early days, has relaxed quite a bit. Under Hassan Rouhani, there is talk of pragmatic solutions to the crises of the Middle East rather than revolution. There is talk of international cooperation based on respect for sovereignty rather than talk of great Satans.
Iran is opening up to opportunity without sacrificing its laws, principles or independence. Iran remains one of the safest places for Christians in the middle east along with the Syrian Arab Republic and Lebanon. This is thanks to pragmatic leadership which has stemmed the tide of idealism.
In each of these instances, idealism is either abandoned by leaders with enough foresight to understand that pragmatism brings ordinary people bread and peace or it comes crashing down in a sea of blood, only to be replaced by systems similar to those which the idealist initially rebelled against.
These same patterns exist amongst the mainstream media. The often impossibly high standards, which the mainstream media set for itself many decades ago, have since been transformed into intricate methods used to silence or discredit the opposition.
However, as these methods become more coarse and consequently more apparent, the credibility which the mainstream media have sought so hard to preserve, has been exposed as an elaborate hoax; an exercise in fakery.
This is why the Charles Foster Kanes of this age are seeing their empires fall, just as he saw his fall.
New media has risen to the challenge, but it will only be able to sustain its position if it doesn’t succumb to the wild idealism that has broken many states and many media outlets.
The leaders of many social media networks have already taken the road of Citizen Kane. Twitter deletes popular accounts which do not follow certain ideological views and Facebook is beginning a censorship drive against what they consider fake news, the clear implication being that Facebook’s users are not intelligent enough to understand what Hemingway meant when he said, “The truth has a certain ring to it”.
Who will be the next idealists to fall on the sword they once dipped in others’ blood? Time will tell.