John Broich is a British Empire historian. He has written on environmental history, the history of race and empire, Royal Navy history, and WWII history.
Earlier this spring Americans made George Orwell a bestseller again after a few weeks in which White House representatives offered “alternative facts” about the size of Mr. Trump inaugural audience, how the president received the most electoral votes since Reagan, and about the Bowling Green Massacre. Americans reached for Orwell’s 1984 in droves sensing that something fundamental had changed in their country.
In 1984, Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, spends his days at the Ministry of Truth re-writing the historical record to conform with the needs of the single-party, totalitarian state. Big Brother’s state maintains control of people like Winston by telling them precisely how to think over the ubiquitous telescreens that are everywhere the citizens turn. And it polices thought by watching them through the same screens.
When Winston starts keeping a diary—starts recording unapproved facts, that is—he runs afoul of the Thought Police.
Orwell couldn’t have imagined that some day people would carry around Telescreens in their pockets in the form of smartphones, nor internet and its role in distributing alternative facts. There is no Ministry of Truth distributing and policing information, and but? in a way, everyone is Big Brother.
It seems less a situation that people are incapable of seeing through Big Brother’s big lies, than they actually embrace “alternative facts.” Researchers have found that when some people begin with a certain worldview – for example, that scientific experts and public officials are untrustworthy – they believe their misperceptions more strongly when given accurate conflicting information. Indeed, research has shown that arguing with facts can backfire.
Having already decided what is more essentially true than the facts reported by experts or journalists, they seek confirmation in alternative facts and distribute them themselves via Facebook, no Big Brother required.