Lies don’t fact. On voices and fake news

Fake news is, by all means, nothing new—in other words, the term might be, not the phenomenon. One historical example in which word of mouth, media, fake news and (the newly gained) freedom of speech combined inextricably to set the basis of a young democracy (marred as it was, and is, by all possible faults and hypocrisies) were the events of the Romanian Revolution which broke out between December 18th and 25th 1989 and eventually released the country from communist dictatorship. Ironically or not, it started with a small protest against the arrest of László Tőkés, a reverend of Hungarian ethnicity who had made anti-government comments and was deemed a dissident and anti-Romanian. The protests started on December 16th in Timișoara, a city in the Western part of the country, located in the vicinity of the borders to Hungary and what was then Yugoslavia. What began with a small group of ethnic Hungarians protesting against Tőkés’ eviction, grew into a united mass of citizens protesting against Ceaușescu and for their right to freedom of opinion and expression. Despite violent official reprisals resulting in hundreds wounded and dead within the course of two days, the unrest crept over to Bucharest and other major cities. It all built up to the beginning of a chaotic turmoil on December 21st during Ceaușescu’s first failed demonstration of authority in 25 years in front of live broadcasting cameras and what used to be a robotically cheerful and docile mass of people. The official broadcasters had been silent until then, but the cracks in the picture couldn’t be hidden anymore. People started taking to the streets en masse, police and the army intervened, violence escalated, and the dictators fled by helicopter from the roof of their palace, the grotesquely named “People’s House.” Three days later, after a brief show trial with an implacable ending, the captured dictator and his despotic wife, who while being handcuffed cried to the young soldiers “I raised you like a mother,” were executed by a firing squad on December 25th. Some shuddered, most cheered at the abject sight of the shortly thereafter televised tyrannicide that promised change and a new beginning. Some others believed the execution was a hoax and that the dictators got away. The initially broadcasted footage was lacking the actual moment of execution, but, later, the images of the two wretched corpses were burnt into the collective memory of the nation. Even though I was a child back then, I remember those violent images of the famously televised revolution.

I was five when the revolution broke out in my hometown Brașov, and I remember the whole situation as kind of cozy. My father was called to work on those nights preceding Christmas, so, with no protection around, and herself being summoned to work for unexplained reasons, my worried mother brought me to the neighbors, our friends across the street, where I would usually spend much time anyway. Three generations lived in that house. There were the grandparents, their daughter, her husband and their child, a boy only two years older than me. So, while my friend and I knew something was cooking, and while there was a certain sense of danger that we, as children, could only guess at judging by the worried faces and whispers of our parents, we had a ball. I remember a tent being built and cocoa being drunk with an extraordinary set of straws, each with little faces bulging out in the middle, that my friend had miraculously received along with a set of Lego (something unseen and unheard of until then), probably from acquaintances living in Germany or maybe through some charity from the German church (my neighbors were Romanian Germans). The highlight of one of those days were the Disney (!) cartoons the national mouthpiece of the government and sole TV channel broadcasted instead of the regular daily two hours of orchestrated newscasts. I think it was Bambi or Snow White—saccharine and mesmerizing, and it took quite a few more years until I understood it as an almost comical, had it not been a wicked, last attempt by the crumbling power to silence what was going on in the streets. But then again, nobody really understood what was going on, or very few did, and, to a large extent, that which is considered to be the truth still escapes us. Confusion reigned while people rebelling on the streets or even just going about their business were being shot at by unidentified shooters, and others hit by random bullets in their very homes, in what was the bloodiest revolution from the string of revolutions that put an end to the Eastern Bloc.

Everyone has their own story of how they spent those days, what they saw, and perhaps most importantly what they believed had happened during the revolution. Due to the either unlawful and / or immoral participation of some of their leaders, governments until today have been sluggish or downright reluctant to process the 1989 events, leading to an extreme politicization—and relativization—of justice. The different voices of those who lived through those days testified and transmitted their stories in interviews, documentaries, trials, or simply at home. They contributed to either the reconstruction or the falsification of history, leaving their legacy for future generations. The media helped perpetuate facts, myths, and lies. The supposedly final statistics of the wounded—over 3,000—and dead—1,166 citizens, many of them youth, even children—were only established a few years ago. One thing especially needs to be said here about the nature of the revolution. It was everyone’s, but it was perhaps, in a certain sense, the youth’s revolution most of all. Freedom of speech and expression had been reduced to a bare minimum up until the moment when the revolution broke out; people were scared to talk and were generally used to conforming to rules and enacting immaculate, salubrious wholesomeness. There was basically no subculture in Romania during communism. Even members of the existing rock bands of the time attested to the fact that on their tours there was some sex, basically no drugs, and sure, rock’n’roll, some alcohol. The control over the citizens’ bodies, most specially over women’s bodies, was pervasive. Women were forced to undergo regular gynecological check-ups in order for the power to monitor and prevent any attempts to perform abortions which were illegal: Ceaușescu was planning to double the population. So, under these circumstances, there was virtually no culture of opposition (with few exceptions). The important early literary and artistic avant-gardes had been eliminated or sent into Western exile by the fascists, then by the Stalinists and finally, to be sure, by the nationalist communists. Later, the few representatives of the neo-avantgarde of the 70s–80s were only acting privately, or most boldly in gatherings of a handful of close friends.

The revolution was the moment of revival of a dormant subculture or at least of its possibility. It was when millions of voices finally spoke out against oppression. The revolution had its many martyrs, brutally killed, the archives show, often by multiple shots to their heads, limbs, torsos, mostly by unidentified shooters. First born into and subjected to a rotten, tyrannical system, then, the victims of lies. Yes, it was “fake news” that the new (in reality, factions of the old) power spread via the newly liberated Romanian television channel which they had co-occupied while heinously mingling amongst revolutionaries—students, actors, poets—who spoke to the people in agitated, hoarse voices announcing in a live broadcast the people’s victory over the dictators: We won!

There are all sorts of theories that to this day have remained open questions regarding who shot at the people. While some say it was the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, others say it was the army, yet others claim it was an orchestrated coup with some police and army handing guns to rebels. Rumors of terrorists, of poisoned water supplies and foreign secret services, were widely spread, causing a general state of paranoia that seemed to be the natural extension of the distrust and suspicion against virtually anybody, that the power had already successfully instilled in the population. The revolution, judging by existing footage and documents, was surely a people’s revolution, but it had indeed also been infiltrated. In 2018, twenty-nine years after the event, prosecutors opened a case against the now 89 year old Ion Iliescu, two-term former president of the free democratic republic of Romania, honorary president of the current social-democratic party—and one of those who had mingled amongst the revolutionaries and seized power in 1989. Evidence shows that he had in fact been part of a secret group with links to the KGB that was planning to topple the dictator, and that he orchestrated the false—fake—news, disseminated by television and radio, that led to a generalized psychosis amongst civilians and military, causing so many deaths. Iliescu is currently being tried in front of the national Supreme Court for crimes against humanity. The social-democratic party, at least on paper the only visible party of leftist orientation in the country, a brainchild of Iliescu and other former communist activists, has done immense damage to the idea of a left in Romania.

A story can have many voices. But does the truth have many voices too? From the viewpoint of what is commonly understood as media ethics within a democratic society (indeed with all the latter’s inherent faults and hypocrisies), there are a couple of known facts about fake news and media today. One is that within the above mentioned value system the designation “fake news” enforces the definition of news as something that is genuine, the former being an anomaly, a reversal of what news is supposed and expected to be, which is a factual and objective rendition of (what is considered as relevant) events. Another is that the paradigmatic shift in technology and media, especially social media, shapes not only the production, delivery and reception of news, but also its content and the range of its producers. While power uses widespread control of information and its dissemination (different models of various intensity can be found in all political systems) social media has on the one hand given the less powerful the ability to speak out, and on the other, it has created a cacophony of voices, all claiming their opinions, individualities and “their truths.” The phrase “speaking one’s own truth” has recently become popular perhaps mostly in connection with the #metoo movement, but it did so at a time when the notion of “fake news” was already ravaging the media landscape. Initially empowering victims to speak out by suggesting a safety-net of solidarity, this phrase is easily abused in a variety of scopes ranging from trivial to malignant. In a peculiar way, both phrases—“speaking one’s truth” and “fake news”—challenge the notion of objectivity, but only one stands in necessary opposition to the notion of truth. However, while “speaking one’s own truth” confronts an individual, possibly oppressed narrative with the narrative of power, it also bears the danger of contributing to a current that undermines (our) sameness. Leo Bersani observed this current in identity politics in the mid 90s when he noted: “I think right now we are trained to valorize difference above sameness. This is part of the surface of the culture of tolerance, and tolerance of diversity, but in fact, I think it is a way of keeping the antagonisms of society intact. And I think it is really a power strategy. (…) Each group gets fascinated by its own identity, which I think serves the hegemonic culture very well.” In an article titled “The Difference Between Speaking ‘Your Truth’ and ‘The Truth’,” published on January 8, 2018 on the The Atlantic’s website, the author, Conor Friedersdorf, comments on Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. In it, Winfrey invokes the notion of “truth” several times, but in two different guises: as an encouragement to share and fight for what she calls “one’s [own] truth,” like Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks had done decades earlier, and as a call to speak “‘the truth’ to power.” Naturally, one asks, doesn’t this make us vulnerable to what the so-called “alt-right” will call their “truths,” or to the climate change deniers’ “truths”? Where do facts stand in this equation? Friedersdorf concludes his argument about Winfrey’s (at least apparently) arbitrary use of terms: although Recy Taylor did speak “her truth,” she was first and foremost “speaking ‘the truth’ to power—and (…) her unpaid claim to justice is inseparable from that fact.” I would further add: if justice is defined by its respective political framework, as the cases of state racism and the obstruction of the revolution trials ostensibly exemplify, justness, however, should still bear a common meaning for us all.

Clearly, not much is to be done with regard to the rapid circulation of fake news. Concerning the use, misuse and abuse of language, perhaps more effort should be put into avoiding formulae and constructions that undermine its substance, thereby serving power, as Bersani analogously argued. In the sense given to it by Walter Benjamin—language as a sphere of communicability and understanding that denies access to violence—we should seek to maintain the fragile integrity of language as a guideline for civil practice. Whether or not the next revolutions will be televised, to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics from 1971, we shall see.

See Leo Bersani quoted in “Interview with Leo Bersani, Berkley, Oct. 1995, Katja Diefenbach.” In: Starship No. 16, Spring 2017, p. 7–8.

01/the-power-and-perils-of-speaking-your-truth/549968 (status: 21.1.2020).

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