Fake News and the Nation as Imagined Community

One of the things I touched on during my portion of the "Champions of Truth" workshop at #CPRS2017, put together by myself, Heather Pullen and Terry Flynn, was Benedict Anderson's idea of the nation as imagined community - and how these communities are built, in part, on the vernacular that our officials and representatives use.

I first encountered Anderson a dozen years ago in grad school, and his work has continued to be a touchstone for me, during my time as a theorist of literature and media and then as a professor of communications, marketing and public relations. (Because ultimately, these fields are all related: they're about the stories that are told publicly, how and why they're told, and how they are received and re-told.)

The crux of Anderson's argument is this: nation-states are not inherent, naturally-arising structures, but are rather collaborative constructs upon which we all collectively agree, according to a version of a social contract (underpinned by a literal contract, i.e. laws), and maintained by various collective social actions and representative symbols: language, media, pledges, monuments, etc. These things can be, and are, wielded as the weapons of nationalism, but that's another post.

I also touched on Jason Stanley's definition of propaganda in his exceptionally good book How Propaganda Works: "the employment of a political ideal against itself" (viii).  And here's how they fit together:

The "fake news" phenomenon turns the democratic national ideal of a free press against itself, by claiming that the press is free while fomenting the conditions that limit press freedom, in particular, discrediting truthful reporting. This is done in concert with more brutal methods of suppressing press freedom, like denying access to mainstream media outlets, arresting journalists who are fulfilling their job duties, and supporting violence against journalists.

When a leader lies, and when a leader redefines words as their own opposite (for instance, by calling mainstream media outlets "fake news" while asserting that demonstrably false information is in fact true), this becomes part of the vernacular of the nation, by which it is governed and by which the nation is imagined by its citizens. An attack like this on the vernacular of the nation is an attack on the nation itself.

I would argue that this dynamic doesn't just apply to nations, though. The deleterious effect of a dishonest leader who seeks to redefine vernacular is the same in any organization. Think about the downfall of American Apparel, in large part due to the actions of its founder, Dov Charney, who allegedly sexually harrassed female employees under the guise of an "unconventional" management style. 

If the head of an organization - political, social, business or otherwise - actively creates and fosters a culture in which falsehood is acceptable and truth is unwelcome, the organization will become unstable. The vernacular itself becomes vertiginous.

And this is where literature becomes relevant: because Orwell knew this as well as Anderson and Stanley do. 


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983

Stanley, Jason. How Propaganda Works. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2015.