The fake problem with fake news


Political lying is as old as history. The real problem is the utter inadequacy of today's political lingo and concepts, stemming from a lack of global vision in the US and the West at large. A grand bargain with China is needed. Without it, chaos and war are ahead.

The problem of “fake news” tormenting the public debate of our times and blamed for some “political disasters”—such as the Brexit vote in the UK or the election of Donald Trump in the U.S.—is not really new at all. It is actually borne out in the birth of philosophy.

Plato, in his 360 BC Sophist, was concerned about it. Sophistry, popular at his time, is “appearing and seeming but not really being.” And he went on, “Sophistry is a productive art, human, of the imitation kind, copy-making, of the appearance-making kind, uninformed and insincere in the form of contrary-speech-producing art.” His solution was to define the being and the not-being.

At about the same time, on the other side of the world, Confucius grappled with the same thing. He was worried about the collapse of the old moral, social, and political order. Concepts, embodied in words, no longer meant what they used to mean. A father was no longer a father, a son no more a son. His proposed answer was to “rectify names”: correct them according to present reality and thus make possible mutual understanding in discourse and accomplish actions.
In Greece the challenge was the rise of the new mercantile class that was destroying the old aristocratic order of a city once centered on the ancient gods. In China, it was the ascent of individual states breaking off from the organization of the Zhou Empire and creating new centers of power in competition with one another.

In both cases, sophistries and wrong names accompanied and encouraged the fall of the previous order.

And in both cases, the solution was eventually the establishment of a new imperial order. In Greece, the Macedonian conquest and the founding of Hellenistic kingdoms stretching all the way to India quashed the bickering and infighting of the independent Greek cities, with the new knowledge based on Aristotle's organization of the world. In China, the unification of the Qin Empire, based on Hanfei Zi's massive systematization of knowledge and bureaucracy, for centuries put an end to the lively debates of the time.

It is about the failure of old media, and the old order.

Today perhaps we are in a similar situation. The real issue is not that names are wrong and sophists peddle their verbose wares; it has been like that for centuries. The real issue is why the mainstream media, the old conduit of the “true,” accepted vision of reality, has lost traction.

The short answer for this is the same as in ancient times: wrong names are used, and sophistic speeches are believed because the old names and speeches do not represent reality as it is. Mainstream media were against Brexit and Trump, yet they both won. This is evidence of their failure in being credible. Of course there is also the issue of their loss of a monopoly on information. Internet platforms provide new instruments for communication apart from the old tools, TV or newspapers.

A new world has erupted. With the globalization unleashed since the fall of the Soviet Empire, billions were taken out of dire poverty, and those billions and more from the developed world have flown into the realm of the internet. The new “non-poor” of the developing world are already the new middle class that is changing the consumption and production patterns of the planet. This unprecedented mass of individuals is being sucked into the new internet-connected universe, where a few companies, mainly from US (Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple) or China (Alibaba and Tencent), dominate the field and are generating a new industrial revolution. Data, willingly provided by buyers, creates new consumer goods that are revolutionizing everything: driverless cars, intelligent drones that bring online purchases to one's doorstep, 3-D printing that is relocating factories into one's office, et cetera.

This is not simply an issue of tools. It is an issue of reporting reality. Those in the mainstream media talk to one another often forgetful of the new flows in the new media. Here new people find a voice in communication instruments where the entry barrier is lower or nonexistent. But the new voices represent a new reality that has escaped detection by the cultural radar for some 25 years.

The end of the Cold War didn‘t bring about a unified world, all under the flag of the victor America and its ideology of free trade. It brought about a chaotic world where right and left distinctions, harking back to the French Revolution, were no longer valid. The first signal of this was the rise to power of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. At the time, in the early 1990s, he was considered an oddball, but now after the precedent of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand a decade later and the election of Trump in the US now, it is clear Berlusconi was the first signal of a new political direction for the world that nobody at first took seriously.

The collapse of the Soviet Empire, it is now clear, didn‘t bring about the unchecked expansion of the Western world, and the US's primary competitor was not Europe and its ambition to become a unified political entity. The new reality was the rise of Asia, led by the new dynamism of China; and the spread of Muslim extremist violence, marked by terrorist acts imitating Western radicals of the previous century. In both cases the West had spread its ideas—entrepreneurship in Asia and terrorism in the Islamic world—but had not understood that these developments, once put in other people's hands, would take a different shape and possibly be turned against the West itself.

This is not just an international issue; it comes down to the lives of common people in every country and especially in places like the US or Europe that directed the world according to the old rules. It influences daily life for instance because of immigration or terrorism coming from the Muslim world and because of imports of cheap goods or foreign investment coming from China and Asia.

A new order will come, like it or not.

In this situation, as in old times, either a new order is established with new powers on top; or the old order finds the strength to deeply renew itself. A drastic overhaul of the present order would be more dangerous and costly in terms of wars and destruction than reform of the old order, so perhaps a conservative attitude would be the least costly for everybody.

In this the US needs to rebuild its position and universal values as a benign superpower reaching out to all and reset the global view. It doesn‘t make any sense to abandon the Wto (the World Trade Organisation) in exchange for a crowd of bilateral agreements after having pushed free trade all over the world and championed it for two centuries. (see also this).

Moreover the US needs to redraw the political boundaries of the world to face the new reality. To face the growth of China and Asia, it needs small and big allies, and the most natural—and biggest—ally is Europe. The US needs to support the EU's political reunification, which cannot be a counterbalance to America (Europe as a political unity was invented by America), but it is a necessary support vis-à-vis the rest of the changing world.

Russia can‘t be included in Europe, too large for it, but it needs a role as a land bridge between Europe and America (it borders Alaska after all), and also with China, the single largest new element in this world.

China in particular perhaps should be the object of a grand bargain, which takes up the growing concerns of many Asian countries. China must be included in this world, and its One Belt One Road initiative could be a way. America, as an Asian power, should play a pivotal role in OBOR and help other countries in the region—like India, Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia—to have a place in this new political geography.

Here, it is not only about economics or political geography, but about different visions of the world, different philosophies that have to be reconciled. This again blurs the picture. It proves that old “truths” don‘t hold much water and naturally opens the way to some easy replacements with conspiracy theories and “fake news.”

The Chinese side for the US's bargain.

Because of China's special role in all of this, perhaps it is worth delving into it more. Chinese president Xi Jinping's challenges are unprecedented. The whole world looks at China with fear or admiration. A similar situation occurred in the middle of the 19th century, when China was facing attacks by foreign powers. But then it was by far the richest country in the world, a position that presently doesn‘t hold, and similarly it is perhaps underestimating the gravity of the situation around it.

The US, while resetting its political vision and global order, needs also to think of a grand bargain with China based on three layers:

“In the short term, there are issues such as the US trade deficit with China, which is costing jobs in America; issues such as cybersecurity; American companies‘ access to the Chinese market; intellectual property protection, and so on. There are also risks arising from China's positions toward North Korea or the South China Sea, or even the most delicate issues, such as Taiwanese events or the democratic future of Hong Kong.

“In the medium term, there is the fear that China's economy may overtake that of the US in a few years and, if that happens, it could force the US into a strategic competition until it is expelled from Asia. Against this possibility, many countries near China also feel attacked, threatened, or trespassed on by an increasingly assertive and arrogant China. All this is exacerbated by the fear of a country governed by a non-transparent and non-democratic system, which has the largest population in the world. If China is an obscure and authoritarian system, it may also affect the rest of the world.

“Long term there is perhaps the end of a phase of about 500 years, in which Europe and its extension to the American continent have dominated the world with its rules and ways of thinking. Chinese development, with its very ancient and very different civilization, is pulling the rest of Asia with it and objectively threatening to change the way of thinking from the West.”

This redefinition of values and political boundaries is difficult in America, where public opinion is extremely divided. Yet it is necessary and urgent. Here the trend must be also to include in the debate some of the “fake news” and their producers, which have to be taken seriously and not just mocked. Besides, one has to remember that historically stamping out sophistries may bring about the great work of Aristotle or Hanfei Zi, but it kills the life of debate that would generate in turn more of the great ideas that are necessary for world development. The problem is not to eliminate “fake news” but to open old media, and ideas to the issues that are generating “fake news”.

In America while debates over international affairs may be difficult, the sense of what the economy should be doing is clearer. The country needs more infrastructure projects and better schools, yes, but its industries and innovation are still leading the world. All new technologies and developments are coming from America.

Reforms, and performance, come from a liberal market.

In China, the “challenger”, things are very different. While the political and cultural leadership is clear, with a mandate for growth and expansion, its economic model is sputtering.

Behind the old issue of reforming the State-Owned Enterprise (SOE), there is a deeper question: can bureaucrats turn the economy around? Deng's reforms basically came from the acceptance of Reagan's Chicago school of economics: allow liberalization and give the market free rein. It went against the failed Soviet principle of government-centered planning. Things got shaky after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, when the leadership lost faith in the free market, but then after the coup in the USSR and its failure in August 1991, the economy was again given free rein. Yet since the late 1990s the free market has been gradually cornered and hijacked by changed SOEs, and now the country is confronted with the problem of the excesses of corrupt officials and capitalists plugged in with SOEs and their corrupting influence on the structure of the state. Therefore, the party basically is back to the resolution applied at the 13th Party Congress of 1987: separation of government and enterprises, which now means the drastic privatization and break up of SOEs.

Only 30 years later, China is very different. Its bureaucracy is no longer insecure and uncertain; its reforms are no longer viewed with enthusiasm and support from America. Xi is in a uniquely difficult position. Mao had support from abroad, Russia; or he and China were economically very small and isolated, thus it didn‘t really matter what he did.

Xi has no support from abroad and his country's GDP is not small or isolated: what China does in any field has enormous impact everywhere. Moreover there is widespread internal opposition because Xi's anticorruption campaign has radically changed the layered interest groups that came to dominate the country in the past 30 years. Therefore things are difficult for China, too.

In this ocean of uncertainties, it is easy to look for shortcuts. In the West, fake news can seem to be the answer, when old answers do not work and new real answers are unavailable. Or in China, where the party has close control, the answer might be to just muzzle everybody. They are two sides of the same coin, and we know the coin is a bad, dangerous coin.

(I am grateful to the works of or exchanges with Michael Pillsbury, Angelo Codevilla, David Goldman, Charles Freeman, Edward Luttwak, Donald Keyser, Robert Kapp, Gianni Riotta, and Fabio Mini.)


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