Five days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, George Orwell’s nearly 70-year-old 1984 climbed to the number one slot on Amazon’s best-seller list. Pundits and journalists alike attributed the novel’s rising sales to comments made by Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, following the Trump administration’s first official press conference. Asked to account for White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statements about the size of inauguration crowds, Conway toed the administration’s line by claiming that Mr. Spicer merely presented “alternative facts.” To many, the explanation sounded decidedly and alarmingly Orwellian. Jill Abrahamson, former Executive Editor for the New York Times, characterized alternative facts as “Orwellian newspeak” and “just lies.” Alternative facts, however, have more insidious implications than the overt government lies against which Orwell rails in 1984. While false from an empirical standpoint, many of Trump’s statements resonate with Americans because they speak an emotional truth. To combat the rise of alternative facts, therefore, journalists need to balance coverage that condemns their spread while also identifying the causes of their proliferation and acceptance.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “but not to his own facts.” Many Americans, having witnessed the rise of sensational news stories and alternative facts, may conclude that they can tailor their own facts in addition to their own opinions. Alternate facts appear to be an outgrowth of an election that witnessed the spectacular rise of “fake news stories.” Social media sites provide viewers with easy access to limitless “news” stories ranging from Pope Francis’ endorsement of Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton’s sale of weapons to ISIS. Fake news became ever more ubiquitous during the recent presidential election. According to BuzzFeed, the 20 top-performing fake election news stories received more shares, comments and reactions in the final three months of the campaign than the 20 top election stories from 19 major legitimate news sites.
Fake news stories, in addition to gaining an increased audience this election cycle, maintain greater credibility among some voter segments than conventional news outlets. According to a recent poll conducted by Emerson College, 53% of voters dub the media “untruthful” and a mere 39% believe it to be “honest.” The poll further found that 69% of Democrats think the news media is truthful compared to 9% of of Republicans. Significantly, 17 of the top 20 most shared fictitious stories were either pro-Trump or anti-Clinton.
The Trump administration, through its outrageous policy statements, may appeal to Republicans who believe that traditional news outlets fail to capture the depth of their anger and despair. The poor, disaffected white men and women who voted for Trump see truth in fake news and the alternative facts that Trump promulgates. Trump’s false assertion that he turned out “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration” speaks to an emotional truth. Millions of Trump voters, dubbing themselves the “silent majority,” have long believed that they and their needs have been neglected. In portraying his crowd size as exceptionally large, Trump characterizes his voters as members of a movement that is finally being heard. The sentiment behind Trump’s statement, rather than the words themselves, rings true to many. Fake news stories that falsely claim Pope Francis endorsed Trump’s presidential run, for example, hold a similar appeal to voters. Facing criticism for supporting policy proposals with racial undertones, die-hard Trump voters found moral credibility in the voice of the Pope. The story holds emotional truth: Trump was a legitimate candidate and, by extension, his constituency had justifiable policy priorities.
Decades prior to his 2016 Presidential run, Trump presciently predicted the complex narrative that surrounds the alternative facts in our so-called “post-truth” era. “I play to people’s fantasies,” he claims in his well-known book The Art of the Deal. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
In so many words, the description of truthful hyperbole fits with alternative facts. While certainly not an “innocent form of exaggeration,” Trump is correct that hyperbole improves a politician’s sales pitch. Playing to the emotions of voters, Trump communicates that he understands the pain of his constituency when he promotes alternative facts. While a useful reference point, 1984 fails to capture the nuances of Trump’s communication strategy. Alternative facts, unlike Big Brother’s propaganda, are not aimed at convincing voters of a specific truth. Rather, they encourage voters to question the very nature and concept of truth in the context of today’s divisive political reality. •