The spectacular meta-lie
What fake news about Snopes.com reveals about the alt-right’s view of itself
I was searching for analysis of Assata Shakur’s guilt or innocence (watching the film 13th, I was reminded of how interesting and disputed her history is), and I came across this disturbing search result:
Peep the third result.
This takes you to this completely false and slanderous story, which I immediately suspected was biased, but which I didn’t realize at first was totally made up:
Especially interesting is the clear political angle:
I think it’s clear that this article is something its author wanted to both seem true and to raise, and echo, suspicions that Snopes is being systematically unfair to right-wingers when it calls their theories false. In that sense, it is a meta-lie: a knowing lie which attempts to perpetuate an alternate reality of truth in which other knowing lies are validated, and shame for spreading them is absolved.
One theory I have is that in a story like this, a sprinkle of absurdism serves to provide an out for people accused of spreading lies. The story has it that when an antique player piano started playing “Dixie”, the Snopes editor:
…became violent. He started grabbing various antique objects from the vendors’ tables and throwing them at the antique piano in an attempt to silence the music.
That’s just absurd enough so that you can roll your eyes at someone who believed it — but not so absurd that it’s obviously untrue, a balance that I think is a carefully calibrated.
Contrast this with the staid passages that pretend to reveal information which pierces Snopes’s veneer of independence and fairness:
The list of groups and individuals paying to use the website’s clout ranged from local politicians to transnational entities to foreign governments, including Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Palestinian Authority. None of the specifics or individual names are being revealed while the investigation is still ongoing…
This is a brilliant gambit, from a propaganda standpoint, in part because these passages are so quotable out of context. And the story itself, even if more than one paragraph is read, seems designed to make a significant percentage of people not realize at all that it’s fake. The original story carries no disclaimer at all, and even the republished story I found saves the only disclaimer — the single word “satire” — for a separate section at the end of the column. (The story is tagged at the top in tiny print first as “Commentary”, and secondarily as “Political Satire”.)
What are the author of this piece, and its reposters, thinking? It is not flattering to the right that they would gleefully desire such a story, while the reality is that Snopes has every sign of being independently minded. This story, in effect, only works as entertainment or propaganda if you first acknowledge how much right wing claims truly do need debunking, and how disappointing it is that reality has such an anti-right bias.
The left does not circulate similar stories for entertainment because there are really no voices that the left must begrudgingly respect like the right must begrudgingly respect Snopes. It wouldn’t be fun to entertain fake news that Sean Hannity is in the pocket of corporations, because we already know he is a craven hack — and so does everyone else who could possibly care.
The closest figure I can think of to playing this role is someone like Sam Harris, a smart iconoclast who is critical of the left and whose voice is hard to dismiss. With Harris, you do see hysterical takedowns that often take his words out of context and inflate claims against him (as well as much more fair criticism, like Glenn Greenwald’s condemnation in the Guardian, which calls out Harris’s blindness to the full weight of America’s atrocities).
Whether exaggerated or not, these pieces sell relief from the challenge that Harris’s cogent arguments present; there’s a market for anything that will pierce his respectability and restore certainty to the assumptions and pieties of the left. Similar work is done by centrist liberals to attempt to deflate the most difficult to ignore critics from the left, such as Greenwald, Edward Snowden, Noam Chomsky and Edward Said.
Liberals and progressives happily pass around quotes of what Sean Hannity has said and done, such as his continued refusal to honor his promise to be waterboarded for charity to prove it’s not torture. But these are emphatically in-context quotes. False Hannity satire and exaggerations make for less valuable and attractive memes than reality does, because it’s Hannity’s actual moral distance from us that makes him dangerous, not some uncomfortably close moral proximity to us.
Hence the legions of attempts to deflate Snopes you will find on the right. It’s Snopes’s potency to them, its proximity to their professed values and its clear moral weight, that is the problem.
Reality is unsettling to the right, and they know it.