I watched CNN news when the second plane hit the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. I had just come into my hotel room in Kampala, Uganda around 4:20pm and thought I was watching an apocalyptic movie. It took a few minutes to realize this was a real time event.
The covid-19 pandemic and environmental disasters in the last few years (forest fires, hurricanes, snow storms) also seem so mammoth and consuming they could only be Hollywood movie scenarios.
Recently I have been watching Youtube clips of President Trump and Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and experiencing the same confusion. It feels like I’m watching a political thriller, not real time events. Their outrageous defense of lies or vicious attacks on opponents sound like the script of cheap fiction, possibly a 1984 knock-off.
Over the last three years it appears there are more events that seem to be so outrageous or horrific, so unimaginable they are more fiction than reality. It appears there are so many events taking place that only novels, movies or paintings can rationally portray. And underlining these portrayals is the terrifying awareness that human beings are responsible.
Carole Cadwalladr summarizes this moment when she writes, “We have already been through the equivalent of a social media pandemic – an unstoppable contagion that has sickened our information space, infected our public discourse, silently subverted our electoral systems. It’s no longer about if this will happen all over again. The question is whether our political systems, society, democracy, can survive the age of Facebook.” (Weekly Guardian, July 31 2020)
Russian and fascist leaders have certainly realized the political value in distorting and disorienting our basic thinking on major issues. The social media manipulation of the US 2016 election and Brexit referendum fostered confusion rather than promoting particular candidates or issues. The Trump presidential campaign has already hired principles from Cambridge Analytica because of their success in 2016.
We are truly living through the anthropocene epoch but we need to expand the scope of this definition to include human manipulation of social thinking, perceptions and values. Humans are responsible for the changes in our climate and environment, but also in reason and logic, truth and ultimately of reality. With the spread of communication technology and social media the means for mediated interaction has changed dramatically. With the failure of global capitalism and the rise of fascism, public relations have more aggressively attacked truth, facts and honesty. The very building blocks of reality are being manipulated and distorted for political ends. Much of this phenomenon has been around for centuries, but now more pervasive and consuming.
While this manipulation seems apocalyptic there is still the opportunity for personal and social resistance. We do not have to accept the distortions, lies and misrepresentations. For example, let’s watch Trump and McEnany on the internet with a critical responsibility to separate truth from their propaganda. When we make consumer choices, let’s remember the hidden environmental and human costs. Instead of fearing or lamenting environmental destruction let’s do what is possible to minimize our energy consumption. Subliminal and overt efforts to marginalize women and people of colour can be counteracted by invitations that narrow social distance, help us empathize and build solidarity.
The manipulators do not own truth or reality. But it is up to us to challenge them and consistently confront their distortions.
Adjective – relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
Noun – the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.