As many commentators have begun to notice, the current global crisis triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has enabled and empowered an extraordinary proliferation of pure propaganda, far exceeding that Americans were exposed to during the Cold War. Today, propaganda dominates every news cycle and, though many lucid commentators have seen through it, their voices have been carefully excluded from legacy newspapers and the airwaves.
This is not a new phenomenon. We have been living in hyperreality ever since the dawn of the consumer society in the early 20th century. When news itself becomes a commodity, hyperreality is destined to thrive. Hyperreality nevertheless requires a sophisticated infrastructure to produce its desired effect: replacing our perception of the real world by the illusion of a more sophisticated order. Journalism can thus design relaity to better satisfy our needs and desires. Once that infrastructure is in place, hyperreal content becomes the easiest product to create and disseminate. And the most profitable.
Journalists at The New York Times and The Washington Post and most other popular media understand that. In times of conflict, they seize the opportunity to elevate war propaganda to the summit of hyperreality. It is a chance to please the authorities concerned with managing the government’s role in the conflict and to entertain a public that responds to simplistic narratives focused on winning and losing. War itself has become entertainment, especially when no one in one’s own community is a victim of that war. The fact that it is entertainment makes the journalists’ job easier, since the message can be repeated day after day. The game then becomes one of adapting the facts to the message rather than letting facts reveal the much messier truth.
Having been tried and tested for the better part of a century, hyperreality in the news has become a wonderfully efficient system. For the public, propaganda is the most effortless news to consume. It generates emotion while stifling thought. It answers questions even before they are formulated, dispensing the public from wondering about what the shape of truth might look like. But like so many other products of mass consumption, propaganda tends to be fattening, starting with a permanent tendency of propaganda to bloat itself to the point of totally obscuring any clear view of reality itself.
In times of peace, hyperreality can exist without obvious propaganda. But the hyper-simplistic logic of war propaganda always helps, which is why today’s bloated, and indeed obese consumer society in the US requires either forever wars or, at the very least, when the old wars begin to fade, successive wars. War and the propaganda it generates serve the goals of the commerce that sits at the core of all modern media, including social media.
In our review of hyperreality in the news, this week we will feature five stories. Today’s article analyzes the rich hyperreality that emerges from a lengthy interview with hyperreal hero, Elon Musk. The next one will explore two examples of hyperreality: Andrew Yang’s initiative to launch a third party in the US and an astonishingly inappropriate photo shoot for Vogue in Ukraine.
Later in the week we will look at the surprising transformation of a long-running Al Jazeera program focused on analyzing the news that unwittingly reveals its own commitment to hyperreality and the shocking injustice visited upon a peace-loving Russian citizen by her autocratic government.
Elon Musk is still the beating heart of hyperreality
Last week Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the Axel Springer group interviewed the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. Reporting on the interview, Business Insider highlighted Musk’s claim that “the world cannot let Russian President Vladimir Putin win in Ukraine because if he can get away with it, this will be a message to other countries that perhaps they could get away with it too.”
Some – though probably not very many – may remember that Musk is the man who two years ago, referring to the coup that sent Bolivian President Evo Morales into exile, tweeted: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” Neither Business Insider nor any other publication reporting on Döpfner’s interview with Musk appears to detect any contradiction between those two assertions by the great (i.e. wealthy) man whose advice everyone seeks for the betterment of the world.
There’s a good reason for this. As an agent of hyperreality, the media’s job is to erase contradiction by carefully excluding reality from the public’s line of vision. Hyperreality must always appear as smooth, seamlessly consistent and readily consumable, requiring no deeper analysis. Reflection and the construction of perspective are far too time-consuming for the average consumer of the news.
In the interview, Döpfner described the CEO of Tesla as “a strategic weapon in modern warfare.” In response, Musk modestly explained: “I do whatever I think is most likely to ensure that the future is good for humanity.” Döpfner uncritically accepted as unambiguously truthful Musk’s proclaimed interest in ensuring humanity’s future. He doesn’t wonder for a second about another fact, that the bulk of humanity lacks any power to “ensure” that its own future will be good. For Döpfner as for most commentators in the media, the message is: In Musk we trust.
Reporting on the same interview, The Street reveals another facet of the modern hyperreal worldview. “During the same interview,” it reports, “the tech tycoon explained that someone of his rank had a responsibility and should therefore use the power and influence that is his to influence the conduct of world affairs.”
The key word in this observation is “rank.” In a world that presumably believes in democracy and equality, a class system exists in which it is implicitly acknowledged that one caste is not just allowed, but even expected to dominate. Musk has never been elected to anything, but he has been selected by the capitalist economy and welcomed by other members of the superior caste as one of their own, and now the richest of them all. That caste includes Axel Springer’s CEO, who clearly expects the unelected Musk to “influence the conduct of world affairs.”
As every “influencer” on Twitter or TikTok now knows, influence has become the quintessential fuel of hyperreality. It was formerly left to Hollywood and Madison Avenue to influence our minds and our very perception of the world. Now the task falls to anyone with the chutzpah to impose their personality on the world and create the belief that what they think is not only important and worth listening to, but in quasi-religious terms, the light and the truth. Money, of course, helps. A mere two years ago, Elon Musk’s net worth was evaluated at around $20 billion. That afforded him a lot of influence and scope to impose his contribution to hyperreality. Now it’s close to $260 billion. The Axel Springer’s CEO laps up that hyperreal vision and builds it into his own vision of the world.
Whether exerted by the thousands of social media influencers, dispensable pawns in a volatile marketplace, or the king himself, Elon Musk – the world’s wealthiest human being – the point of influence is to craft the kind of illusion the mass of consumers will believe in.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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