As the battleground for truth spills out from the internet message boards into mainstream politics, Craig G Pennington looks at what lessons can be learned from the tactical media movement.
On 26th January 2017, Stephen Bannon – Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist – labelled the mainstream media “the opposition party”, proclaiming it should “keep its mouth shut” and that “they don’t understand this country”. Less than a month later, Trump delivered his Maoian depiction of the media as “the enemy of the people”. It can be baffling to reflect on how such provocative, inflammatory and wildly-unhinged statements have become a daily occurrence since Trump embarked on his campaign trail – and equally terrifying to see ideas considered peripheral and divisive only a matter of months ago weave their way into the mainstream.
It is important to consider the fact that this media assault isn’t a phenomenon reserved for the US. Before Bannon took up his position as Trump’s chief lieutenant he headed up Breitbart News Network, a far-right ‘news’ website in the US which has managed to normalise and mobilise much of the ideology and support which propelled Trump to the White House. Taking divine inspiration and a heavy dose of mentoring from all this is chief UKIP funder and pug-faced Brexiteer Arron Banks, who recently launched westmonster.com – a thinly-veiled attempt to dress hate and intolerance with some form of legitimacy, inspired by the ‘successes’ of Breitbart. To Trump/Bannon/Banks et al the media is the “enemy of the people”, unless, it seems, that media is crafted in the image of themselves.
But, what does this all-out assault mean for the media as we know it? As an independent media platform ourselves, at Bido Lito! we’ve been forced through a period of self-reflection by events over recent months. What role do we play? How can we play an active, meaningful part in a response? How does the creative community we are a part of come together with an alternative view of the world? How do ideas of tolerance, community, pluralism and respect counter the extremes that seem to become more normalised by the day? How do we counter fake news and post-truth with our own Alternative Facts?
An indication of a potential route forward could well sit within the idea of ‘tactical media’, an influential movement that flourished in the 1990s that fused art, political campaigning and an experimental use of the media itself; manipulating media platforms and turning prevailing messages on their head for artistic and political purposes. The tactical media movement has inherently embraced the idea of ‘fake news’ for decades, but with a very different purpose than Bannon and co.
With impeccable timing, How Much Of This Is Fiction? – an exhibition which explores the idea of tactical media and the fake news phenomenon – opens at FACT on 2nd March. One of the exhibition’s curators, Professor David Garcia, has been active within the tactical media movement since the 1990s. He co-founded the award-winning Tactical Media Files, an online repository of tactical media materials past and present, and is currently Professor of Digital Arts and Media Activism at Bournemouth University. It seems that the idea of fake news has a much longer history than we may initially think, as Garcia tells us. “Fake news in the form of fake newspapers have a long history. For example, there are newspapers declaring allied victory in the Second World War before it happened by the Flemish resistance. Or Polish Solidarity, who faked a national newspaper announcing the end of Marshal Law.” A quick visit to tacticalmediafiles.net also throws up an interesting local example of such an intervention; in April last year, mocked-up parodies of The S*n’s infamous front page from 1989 declaring ‘The Truth, We Lied’ appeared in newsagents across the city.
Away from newspapers, there are other marquee examples of artistic hijack. “The example I would give is the Kissing Doesn’t Kill campaign from ACT UP, who fought against fear and ignorance of Reagan’s inaction and silence,” says Garcia. The campaign, which centred around a nationwide run of billboard adverts, aimed to combat the public indifference towards AIDS and highlight the complex issues associated with it. “ACT UP was a critical reference as it was a campaign that combined fine art, the PR industry and ferocious activism. The PR connection plays out in its clear relationship with United Colors Of Benetton’s use of multiculturalism in their marketing campaign at the time.”
Evidently, the idea of manipulation of media is not a new phenomenon. But, what can we learn from the practice to help us navigate the new realities of today? According to David Garcia, there is a much deeper shift at play. “I would argue that what we are witnessing is the demise of [Walter] Lippmann and, later, [Noam] Chomsky’s paradigm that established media combine and contrive to ‘manufacture consent’,” he says. “This is no longer possible, as one of the consequences of the new dominance of social media platforms as primary news sources is that the big broadcast and print media outlets have lost their role as gate keepers, determining what it is possible to think and say. The term ‘post-truth’ can sometimes sound like the howl of pain from the status quo lamenting the loss of its ability to dominate the agenda. Steve Bannon and the insurgent right have captured the social media platforms to do the opposite; they specialise in manufacturing dissent on an industrial scale.”
As an artist who has been working within the field of tactical media, Garcia represents a view from the inside of the practice. I’m intrigued to know how much of a threat to public life – and society more broadly – he believes the fake news and the post-truth idea to be. “I would argue that there are two tendencies at least as worrying as the fake news panic,” Garcia laments. “I am more worried about the shameless fake outsiders; Farage, Trump, Johnson and Le Pen, all wealthy insiders masquerading as the authentic voice of the people. I see this as a battle between ‘hyper-rationalism’ and ‘authenticism’. The hyper-rationalists – for example the flawed Remain campaign and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign – pretend they are in control. They adopt the faux scientific language of ‘management speak’. They seek to explain and then fail to persuade. They lack impact; theirs is an affectless language. The inverse is the authenticist; typically they pose as outsiders and adopt the guise of truth-tellers who claim to represent the ‘authentic’ voice of the people, ‘telling it like it is’. Even their gaffs and flaws are seen as demonstrations of authenticity. Their blunders and lies are overlooked in the belief that they are right about the ‘deep truth’. As tactical media artists, we begin by un-masking both the authenticist and hyperationalist as the rhetorical poses of two elites fighting for control of the social mind.”
While Garcia offers a somewhat chilling and poignant assessment, it seems to me that there is also a distinction to make between disruption and deception: is there a moral question to consider when adopting tactical media tactics? Are there questions of morality behind the deliberate political use of fake news and tactical interventions, whatever your motivation?
It is a reality Garcia is acutely aware of. “Yes, an uncritical avant-gardism is continually at risk of complicity with unfettered capitalism’s ethos of ‘creative destruction’ [the inevitability of new products constantly replacing outdated ones]. Even our fetishisation of the ephemeral and our frequent preference for the event over the artefact mirrors the famous description of capitalism in the communist manifesto: ‘all that is solid melts into air’. But I would still resist making any equivalence between what we are celebrating in How Much Of This Is Fiction? and the alt-right. The troll farms and meme-wars of the alt-right do not use fiction as a method to raise awareness by un-masking the workings of power; they are exclusively about seizing power by any means and all media. And, worryingly, it may not just be the temporary power of a single election victory. Evidence is mounting that Bannon is even questioning the value of democracy itself. Our true weakness may be less one of complicity than an addiction to the spectacle of protest rather than actually working for the realities of power.”
Ironically, it is this idea of an ‘addiction to protest’ which seems to be neutering the leadership of the left in the UK. This is not something Farage/Banks/Johnson and co. have struggled with and, furthermore, it seems Donald Trump has been only too keen to embrace the idea of tactical media, as his seemingly nightly Twitter-gasms would suggest. “We have learned that tactical media still works, but the bad news is it has been captured by the far-right,” says Garcia. “The midnight tweets are just the tip of a far-right tactical media iceberg. A powerful grassroots network that has evolved over 20 years under the radar. It connects white supremacist websites – the real Nazis here – to the meme-wars that flowed from the message boards such as 4chan. This is a space which also gave rise to Anonymous at the other end of the political spectrum.”
We began this piece looking to consider what independent media platforms can learn from the tactical media movement in order to play an active, dynamic role in the discourse of today. How can we, as a collective community, work together to provide a counter-balance to the alt-right and the Breitbart set? Garcia presents a practical call to arms: “squat the message boards and steal their memes,” he says. “Independent media platforms should participate in the ID of the internet that are the message boards. We should draw on the rich and strange irrational energies from these meme cultures. This is where the tactical media of today lives and thrives. The initiative in this realm needs to be taken back from the far-right who are rampant. As the last unregulated spaces, the message boards can shock and outrage us. But outrage and distaste is from where their sub-cultural energy is drawn.”
Such a rallying cry from Garcia is welcome and may well be precisely what is needed; a tactical media protest movement from the bottom up to contest the ideas of the alt-right, taking a radically different view of the world to the breeding ground of the alt-right movement and utilising tactical media avenues to spread the message. It is a movement which will depend on a new form of positive collectivism, a do-it-together culture to counter today’s rampant right-wing populism.
“Fact checking and truth telling are important”, concludes Garcia, “but insufficient to deal with the threat the alt-right pose. As, in the words of Stewart Lee, they are not just post-truth, they are post-shame.”
Join Bido Lito!, Professor David Garcia and special guests at FACT on 5th April for a special discursive event exploring Alternative Facts and the role of Independent Media in the post-truth world. Free to Bido Lito! Members