Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex provides a framework for examining the rise of “fake news” in America as a stand-alone complex. The show starts off with the case of The Laughing Man. This Salinger-obsessed terrorist hacker makes Major Kusanagi go undercover, both in person and on the net, to catch him. The Major is arguably more intrigued by his motivation than by the case, though, as he doesn’t seem to be at all like the typical terrorists Section 9 hunts down. When the Major reveals why he’s doing what he does, the Laughing Man gives a crash course in Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and how it serves power structures to keep the masses ignorant of their ability to break free into independent thought.
When the Major finally corners him, she discovers that the Laughing Man uncovered correspondence between pharmaceutical companies and the Japanese government. These communications detailed their concerted effort to cover up an inexpensive cure for a disease that affects a large population to promote micromachine treatments, a lengthy treatment regimen that keeps their profits high.
Though he committed several crimes to release this information to the public, the Major and Aramaki eventually decide to let the Laughing Man go. He’s ultimately rewarded, not for being a terrorist, but for being a journalist that outed government corruption, for doing the job the news media refused to until he deceived them with his hacks.
The real-world equivalent of the Laughing Man’s case is the emergence of “fake news.” What was once relegated to check out magazine racks is now competing with fact-based news coverage for the attention of millions, working hard to erase the defining borders between news, entertainment, and propaganda. It defined part of the 2016 election. Talking heads couldn’t figure out how to handle it, as they were overwhelmed with fatigue between doing their jobs and fighting back allegations from viewers that they weren’t covering stories that never took place. Unlike the Laughing Man, however, the American news media hasn’t been successful in helping the public better discern truth from lies.
Political partisanship contributes to this, pushing readers and viewers to outlets that promote their ideological leanings, regardless of the veracity of the stories presented. This biased media has had an effect, intended or not, to make reporters, pundits, and analysts into celebrities. They can be found on streaming sites, cable news, in print, and they are all active and accessible on social media. This accessibility undermines the agenda of educating the public to think critically since their audiences can observe their talking head of choice on a daily basis, allowing them to determine their ideological purity. Anyone who delivers the news, regardless of medium, will be ignored for another that fits the views of a particular partisan outlook. This cherry-picking makes the facts of a story less important than the quality of a celebrity selling it and the manner in which they sell it. This salesmanship lengthens the life of a “fake news” story, as a “trusted source” shared it. The talking head becomes the authority that gives a “fake news” story its truth value.
The Laughing Man’s nom de guerre comes from a J.D. Salinger story of the same name. Likewise, the Laughing Man is a fan of The Catcher in the Rye. One of Salinger’s main themes in that book is the lack of authenticity. He sees places and things as artificial and incapable of living up to their intended purpose, but it’s disingenuous people that seem to bother Salinger most.
“That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you.” I’m positive, in fact.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
The Laughing Man refused to become a public figure with whom people could interact. He went so far as to edit his face out of every video he appeared in by hacking viewers’ cyber brains, meaning all they could see was his iconic logo. This anonymization made the story of the Laughing Man one about a government selling out its citizens to corporations for profit; and by sticking to his methods that was the entire story the public received. By denying the public the ability to turn to a particular figure or news outlet, the Laughing Man killed any expectation of dialogue, meaning they had to take the factual data presented to them and determine the truth for themselves. This motivation is backed up by the quote that circles the Laughing Man’s logo.
“I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
What Salinger and the Laughing Man were disheartened by when observing the world was the ubiquity and permanence of Baudrillard’s orders of simulacra as defined in Simulacra and Simulation.
First-order simulacra are as they exist in art; a faithful recreation of something, such as a landscape or a person’s profile, for being regarded thoughtfully. These simulacra are the supposed realm of art and entertainment, which allow for new perspectives on life and reality. It’s a boon to society. Second-order simulacra are where society begins to spiral out of introspection and into madness.
Second-order simulacra reference nothing. It is a symbol that’s, from its inception, perverse because it’s false, and knows itself to be false, but presents itself to its audience as authentic. Under this premise, “fake news” exists and spreads. Right now there are writers hard at work crafting a story about how the media ignored a massacre carried out by Iraqis in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Another is alleging pedophiles have stashed children in the basement of a DC pizzeria. A third is inventing a terrorist attack that took place in Sweden last week, which Swedes have yet to experience.
These are baseless lies that would be acceptable in the realm of entertainment, even if considered tasteless. The given site or media figure sharing these stories might inform their audiences that they’re just that, false (and this is not isolated to conservative outlets, liberal outlets also suffer from “fake news” syndrome). More often than not these stories are pushed across social media as true events suppressed in the established news media by shadowy masters with an agenda no one seems able to coherently articulate. That sets the stage for the final form Baudrillard’s simulacra takes.
Third-order simulacra, what the Laughing Man and the Major dub a “stand alone complex,” are disingenuous symbols accepted as fact. In this case, “fake news” is simply another symbolic layer placed over our physical reality which we are expected to consider to make sense of “truth.” These simulacra are on display when “fake news” is seen as not just comparable to actual reporting but is given special consideration by an existing power structure or a vulnerable audience in an attempt to replace the real thing it’s mimicking. In the case of “fake news” there is an obvious power player making the most of a gullible audience.
In what appeared to be a campaign stop for the 2020 election, President Donald J. Trump met with approximately 9,000 supporters in Florida. The rally wasn’t to shed light on a particular piece of legislation in need of a vote or an event unique to Floridians as would be expected of a President addressing a crowd. It seemed he was there solely to converse with an audience he knows sees him as an authority figure.
During this rally, Trump decided to attack the established news media, something he’s been doing since stepping on the political stage. In his remarks, he regarded the established media as “fake news” that was willingly covering up a terrorist attack in Sweden which would’ve taken place on Friday, February 17th. His speech reiterated a charge the Trump administration made about a week earlier when they released a list of what they claimed were terrorist attacks that were under-reported or ignored by the news media. Numerous outlets debunked that list, and those same reporters and analysts couldn’t make sense of this supposed Swedish tragedy. What is beyond dispute is Trump’s propaganda campaign against independent media from the office of the president, which is succinctly summed up in a tweet from his personal account where he called the news media the “enemy of the American people” the day before his rally.
Trump has kept a faithful audience hanging on his every word as he slowly bypasses independent media and places himself, and his team, as the sole source of fact for the American public. This narrative is backed up by White House representatives continually lying in interviews about things Trump has said and critiquing how other branches of government have checked his actions or how the news media have investigated his claims. This narrative was perhaps most alarmingly put into words by one advisor who claimed Trump’s power is beyond reproach and is “substantial and will not be questioned.”
The focus is always his audience, who received a link to the Mainstream Media Accountability Survey from the White House. It was replete with leading questions like “On which issues does the mainstream media do the worst job of representing Republicans? (select as many that apply.),” “Do you believe that contrary to what the media says, raising taxes does not create jobs?” and “Do you believe that our Party should spend more time and resources holding the mainstream media accountable?” The intent of this survey can be gleaned from the first question, which asked: “Do you Believe that the mainstream media has reported unfairly on our movement?”
“Our movement” is a phrase popular with Trump and his White House, and in the case of third-order simulacra, it’s particularly effective. Not only does Trump continue to spread “fake news” and generate some of his own to push his agenda of replacing news media with his own mouthpieces, but he started out that way. In an interview from December 2015, Trump drew some bad press for sharing a video he claimed displayed a protester pledging allegiance to ISIS. Once debunked, Trump coyly remarked: “All I know is what’s on the internet.” Since becoming a politician, he has cemented his place in the news-consuming public as one that follows partisanship past facts straight into the realm of lies, giving him credibility, like no other politician, with a select group of people.
These third-order simulacra he promotes are congealing into an entity known as state-run media. It’s what the Laughing Man seemed to fear more than dying of cyber brain sclerosis.
When the Major finds him, he’s hiding out in an abandoned library filled with paper books, an extravagance in this future Japan where everything is digital. This representation of history on paper, in physical books, in a place forgotten by everyone but him, has more in common with Baudrillard than Salinger. Baudrillard remarks that history is a victim of second-order simulacra and beyond. State-run media has been effective in not only eliminating events for future generations to learn from but to also manipulate unreliable memories of eras they experienced. With non-events placed in an arena that legitimizes it against actual events, who’s to say that in 2025 there won’t be people who “remember” the vicious attack in Sweden on Friday, February 17, 2017?
Alongside the loss of reliable records of current events for the future to reference, people become victims of third-order simulacra. The Soviet Union’s and Asia’s state-run media has notably distorted history and memory; China has a recent example of actual “fake news” destroying their understanding of the recent past. In what NPR dubbed “25 Years of Amnesia,” they explored a media blackout over the student protests at Tiananmen Square. Reporters asked educated Beijing millennials if they recognized an iconic image from the Tiananmen Square protests; they had no idea what reporters were talking about. These were students studying for their master’s programs, starting their careers–these were learned middle-class college students that had no idea that more than 150 colleges in their city were emptied out for a year while students and faculty protested their government.
By controlling the narrative with non-events and suppressing real ones, the Chinese government had effectively removed a critical event in the nation’s history from an entire city. An entire generation will now go forward in life after having a piece of history robbed from them. The cost of that ignorance was the erection of a censorship apparatus that regulates China’s media and the internet to this day.
The pacification of a population with third-order simulacra makes them conditioned to consume lies without question because they fit a false narrative they, at some point in their lives, decided to accept without question, without facts. They absorb images, video, and data passively, losing any ability to discern or question.
What’s lost in the event of “fake news” rising to such a prolific level is people’s curiosity. The Major was the one to figure this out, and remarks to the Laughing Man that it is the sole thing that restores individuality so people can step out of the passive audience, and thus be able to discern the real from second and third-order simulacra. It’s through curiosity that people learn to think critically, to be independent, to tell the true from the false. Lose that, and there’s no incentive to question anything, leaving one stuck in a passive state of absorption.
Even if some in the general public reclaim their curiosity, the systems, and attitudes that allow third-order simulacra to rise above fact, manifesting in physical spaces, able to reintroduce themselves, again and again, persist. If that is the state of play, can the individual ever truly escape the lure of disingenuous realities and passive audiences? Even with constant vigilance, one can never be sure.
If you want to delve into Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex or any of the texts we mentioned, you can find copies via the links below:
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Simulacra and Simulation
The Catcher and the Rye
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