How much of this is fiction. poses challenging questions about the relationship between truth and politics. As my colleague Dr. Andrew Crines noted, ‘fake news’ is not new: misinformation and misdirection are as old as politics itself. Nonetheless, recent political events have prompted the suggestion that we are living in a ‘post-truth’ era in which appeals to evidence and to verifiable facts no longer play a meaningful role in political debate.
Some have seen these developments as the result of new technology and the rise of social media, which allow untruths to spread rapidly and support the formation of echo chambers in which individuals only encounter information that reinforces their own worldview.
Yet, perhaps as important, are long term political developments. In the US, a gulf has gradually opened between Democrats and Republicans. After the success of the Civil Rights movement, the Republican party sought support in the South, building a powerful grass-roots movement of social conservatives. Although decidedly ‘old media’, talk radio has played a key role in the making of ‘movement conservatism’, mobilising the support of white evangelicals in particular. In conjunction with cable news and newer forms of online media, talk radio helped create a parallel public sphere in which it became plausible to discuss whether President Obama was secretly a Muslim socialist sleeper agent born in Kenya.
Nations at war seek to control the narrative of events. Yet after the 9/11 attacks these efforts became so crassly manipulative that they may have damaged the democratic public spheres in Western countries. The attacks themselves were the subject of delusional conspiracy theories, whilst the misuse and distorted presentation of intelligence during the build-up to war with Iraq in 2003 by the GW Bush administration further harmed public trust. Under considerable pressure, the media in the US and the UK performed poorly and did an inadequate job in scrutinising decision-making.
In terms of popular culture, the War on Terror generated paranoid and prejudiced flights of fancy such as Homeland. In the exhibition’s Homeland Is Not A Series, Amin, Kapp and Karl puncture the unreality of the show’s distorted representation of the War on Terror with their own messages. By taking the claims of the gun-lobby at face value, the Yes Men’s Share the Safety says the unsayable by revealing the improbability of the lobby ever supporting gun ownership among the residents of America’s ‘urban centres’. In contrast, Zone*Interdite and Operation Atropos are not fake but virtual and re-enacted respectively, taking us closer than we are actually able (or willing) to be to rendition, interrogation and detention as ‘enemy combatants’ in the War on Terror.
Yet although in many respects extremely timely, events have moved rapidly over the past year and, unavoidably, alter how we appreciate the works composing the exhibition. Many of the artworks, working within the tactical media tradition, seem to celebrate the ‘post-truth’ era as liberating. But, given recent events, perhaps living in a democracy without a professional, reliable media is no longer so appealing. Certain positions seem less invitingly radical when endorsed by Kellyanne Conway. At the present conjuncture, the question arises of how artists might speak truth to power, without retweeting what those in power are already saying.
For more more posts on politics with commentary from Nicholas and other politics experts and students at University of Liverpool, visit their blog.