Death to the fact check.
(Top photo of Milo Yiannopoulos: Official Leweb Photos, via)
I hate to say it, but Steve Bannon was right.
Trump's right-hand man – the former head of the far-right Breitbart News, and the man who reportedly masterminded Trump's travel ban – was actually right. Speaking to the New York Times last week, Bannon was criticised for telling the media to "keep its mouth shut" – a demand that caused a fair amount of outrage. However, it was the second part of his sentence that was actually more interesting: "They [the media] still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States."
Since Trump's election, media outlets across the western world have been in a frenzy trying to figure out what the hell went wrong. Russians. Fake news. Russian fake news. But as the post-mortem rolls on, members of what's now considered the "alt-right" (in reality, loosely banded groups of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, internet shit-posters and suburban fathers) have consolidated. They threw accusations of "fake news" back at CNN until the term became meaningless. So when mainstream media pundits had to abandon the phrase, they ran to the second fail-safe of modern journalism: the fact check.
For the modern pundit, fact checks are a virtual safe space and a comforting reassurance – so much so that whole news organisations are built on the premise that liberal ideas are default by their very nature, and "facts" alone can reinforce that. In the run up to both the EU referendum and the 2016 US election, pundits – both professional and those dumping their views on your timeline – placed their faith in data: extrapolated polling data, weighted surveys, obscure IFS reports. In their minds, reams of obscure data sets would drown out the voices of populist neo-fascism.
Although this clearly didn't work, it's done little to quell the fetish of combative fact checking. Almost every news website continues to publish fact checks of Trump's obvious lies – from inauguration crowd sizes to the potential effectiveness of the travel ban when it comes to terrorist attacks on US soil. In all cases, this has done little to no damage to Trump, the monsters of his administration or the base that cheers them on.
Part of this failure lies in the mainstream media's search for new tools to take on Trump. Where, just a few years ago, it relied on data journalism, infographics and fiddling with Twitter's API to convince the public to fund it, 2017 has presented a new – and more daunting – challenge for the MSM: getting the public to trust it in the first place.
For anyone who spent much of 2016 online, all of this was inevitable. For years, the authority of raw data has been a contentious battle sprawling through social media accounts, reddit threads and Facebook chats. Spend five minutes searching "Islam" on Twitter and you're bound to find at least one Pepe avatar account posting "proof" that 80 percent of Muslims want to implement Sharia law in the west, according to data commissioned by a British tabloid newspaper – data that is plainly ridiculous and untrue.
It's not just religion, either; last week, a veteran investigative reporter was accused of reporting "fake news" about homicides in Chicago, despite the fact that: a) he didn't actually report anything, and b) he just tweeted some raw data. Contesting facts online has become so messed up that even the Auschwitz memorial – the actual Holocaust museum, for anyone who needs context on this – had to reassert its authority on Holocaust history when challenged on Twitter.
In all these cases, presenting factual evidence does little, if anything, to promote nuance, or to shut down those manipulating data for their own ideological ends, while accusing others of doing the same.
And this is where I think Bannon was onto something. Under Bannon, Breitbart was less of a media organisation than a crusading movement – one that very explicitly, according to Bannon himself, aimed to fight for the Judeo-Christian values lost in Western decadence. For Bannon, use of "facts" and data wasn't about proving people wrong, but rather giving legitimacy to Breitbart's overall cause. It's why characters like Breitbart's technology editor Milo Yiannopoulos prove to be so effective in talking about data compared to academic speakers: it's less about how accurate the facts are, and more about how the data fits into Breitbart's narrow view of the world.
Liberal mainstream media can learn from this, as Breitbart, Infowars and other renegade alt-right sites continue transform themselves into government mouthpieces. To be effective at a time when everyone is being pummelled with "facts" day in, day out, providing rigid ideological narratives that are easy to understand is essential. Furthermore, human interest stories that explain the narrative are needed to disseminate the messages the facts present. What's reported must still be factually correct, of course – we can't hop on the bandwagon of simply making things up – but it has to be delivered in the same kind of packages that appealed to all those previously undecideds ahead of the EU vote and the US election.
Though all this could be achieved in plenty of new and innovative ways, one thing is for certain: fact checkers are terrible at telling stories, and in this dark new age can cause more problems than they solve.