The context behind the phrase ‘alternative facts’ began on the 21st of January when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer came under fire for describing President Trump’s inauguration crowd as the largest in history, despite various crowd comparison photos and subway passenger data to suggest otherwise.
Spicer’s comments were defended by Kellyanne Conway, a Trump counsellor, who in a heated debate with NBC’s Chuck Todd described Spicer’s claims as “alternative facts” in defiance of an accusation of falsehood. When Todd attempted to draw attention to Conway’s unusual semantic description of what is more commonly known as – y’know ̶ lies, he was immediately shutdown by Conway who provided the so-called facts regarding the failure of the Obama administration.
Despite its rather innocuous and entertaining origin as well as its now cemented position in the election meme hall of fame, the notion of alternative facts has sparked a huge debate about the role of truth and fact in political discourse. When defending the claims made my Spicer, Conway teetered on the brink of blaming US media coverage and their presumptive left-wing agendas for the gross misrepresentation of information, which would make her just about every spin doctor’s worst nightmare. Conway defended her position by claiming that Time had committed a falsehood when they claimed that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr had been removed from the Oval Office by the Trump administration. This was later reported as incorrect. However, Conway made an interesting point when she described the report as: “That falsehood that spread 3,000 times before it was corrected.” Conway’s issue with this piece of false reporting is not its lack of credibility, but rather the extent at which it was exposed to the masses.
What we once saw in the past as the rhetoric of a skilled orator, or a clever piece of spin has recently evolved into a phenomenon that is now commonly referred to as ‘fake news’. The term in addition to alternative facts is used almost interchangeably despite Conway’s refusal to associate falseness with the term ‘alternative’. In the most basic sense, to be alternative implies change, and change implies something different from the political shit show we’ve become accustomed to. Phone hacking, Russia, the NSA, Chilcot – the ongoing breakdown in trust between ourselves and politics has created a smokescreen where the line between what is considered true and false has become blurred. This confusing muddle of information, alongside the huge increase in the accessibility of news for everyone with access to the internet means that we have become highly susceptible to clickbait style stories where the facts are indeed ‘alternative’ to truth – Hillary Clinton and pizzagate scandal that never was is a prime example. The dystopic reality we seem to be living in, concocted of disaster upon disaster twinned with the uprising of intolerance seems to create the perfect environment in which fake news can flourish, whether it be for individuals to aid their own agenda or seek the escapism many of us are probably yearning for.
When Conway notoriously coined the term alternative facts, it wasn’t merely brushed aside as a poor choice of rhetoric, purely because it so accurately encompasses how we are now accessing and interacting with news. We used to turn to broadcasters for sources of no nonsense, credible information but recently it has become apparent that even the most squeaky clean news sources have agendas, and when they’re not flexing their agendas they’re covering up something nefarious that happened during the 1970s. As individuals with access to social media, we now have the ability to make news our own – news may be tailored to content you want to see and you can virtually block out the things you wish to avoid. This is a highly precarious position to be in – on one hand we can receive short, snappy and unrefined updates by removing the middle man and leaving 140 characters to your own analysis. On the other, there is far less opportunity for somebody to say “hold on just a hot second, I’m not sure that is correct”, meaning false facts leading to false conclusions and ultimately false beliefs. As the saying which has been misattributed to several dictatorial figures goes – if you repeat a lie enough times it will start to sound true. The very basic logical contradictions of the term alternative facts do not seem to be recognised when it has been parroted enough times – Conway has succeeded by ignoring credibility in favour for outreach and thus both fake news and its rhetoric trundles onwards.
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Words by Niall Flynn