T. S. Eliot explains fake news

"Fake news" is all the rage. This isn't about the various news outlets getting gamed about the motivations for the Iraq War, or any of the other way reporters get misled. This really does seem a type of precisely machine product intended for a specific use.

But what is that use? One of my favorite podcasts, Planet Money, recently had a segment about fake news. They tracked down and interviewed a guy who seems to make his living generating fake news, employing a number of freelancers. He invents plausible sources, and makes stories up out of whole cloth.

But the stories clearly fit a narrative, and create a vision of the world. Some people are absolutely convinced these are true, but "true" in what sense? I've always been puzzled by this need to believe the patently untrue to justify why you don't like something. Why can't you just dislike it on the merits?

There were plenty of reasons to find fault with Obamacare, for example, but "death panels" wasn't one of them. There are perfectly sensible reasons to oppose Obama's programs in general, but that he is a Kenyan Muslim is not one of them either.

People are feeling an odd disjuncture between their reasons and their emotions. They hate Hillary Clinton. Hate, hate, HATE her. Again, there were fine reasons to oppose her and her policies. But that she commits murder and participates in a pedophile ring operating out of a pizza parlor are not among them.

Clinton, now history, is a normal politician. She has her unpleasant personality traits, cuts corners, dislikes it when people try to ask her questions, likes getting paid a lot to deliver anodyne speeches, scratches backs and has her scratched in turn, whatever. There is really nothing much unusual about her as a politician, except that she is a woman (and that's not relevant to the point I am making here).

So people need to explain to themselves why they hate her so much. Her position on daycare? Her policy toward Brazil? Her tax policy? No one even knows what any of those are.

In his essay Hamlet and His Problems, T. S. Eliot popularized the concept of the "objective correlative", much loved by writing teachers. An objective correlative is something that is physically present in the story, but represents certain otherwise inexpressible ideas or emotions that otherwise could not manifest themselves.

As Eliot said

 The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion...Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.

These fake stories of murder, sexual deviancy, assumed identities, and dark conspiracies that are nevertheless openly signaled as a form of arrogant contempt, these stories are the objective correlative of these people's hatred. Their emotions are expressed through these stories, through reading them, liking them, linking to them, commenting on them.

Don't ask me why they hate Clinton this way in the first place, rather than just resolutely opposing her and her policies. I don't follow sports team, don't go to church, don't join fan clubs. I'm not a team player--I lack the joy of partisanship. There's a lot I don't really get about my fellow humans. But these people's emotions are in excess of the facts as they appear, and it makes them uncomfortable.

So a market has developed, to provide them with the objective correlatives that make the invisible visible, and the senseless make sense--it provides the chain of events that is the formula of their emotion.

Now, I have no idea of what to do about this politically or practically. But I think it's worth trying to understand what problem this type of "news" is solving (we're going to have to travel through this upcoming era armored in ironic quotes).

One possible conclusion is that fake news does not create people who hate Clinton, or Obama, or whoever is going to come next, but just provides them with fact-free stories to support what they already feel, but I suspect that is too optimistic.