A few days ago (January 22, 2021) we marked the fourth anniversary since world audiences were first exposed to the idea of “alternative facts.” That anniversary came two days after President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took their oaths in a socially distanced inauguration in front of 400,000 flags. Four years ago, on January 22, 2017, Donald Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway used the term “alternative facts” to describe the false statements made by press secretary Sean Spicer regarding the attendance numbers of Trump’s inauguration. Spicer had claimed that Trump’s inaugural ceremony had drawn the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.” But an aerial image that was circulating at the time showed large amounts of empty space in the crowd, clearly undermining Spicer’s claim, particularly when compared with similar images from the inauguration of President Barack Obama eight years earlier.
Of course the copious lies of the Trump administration are now well-documented, and the true or false answer to the question of whether his inauguration attracted the largest crowds in history is inconsequential in comparison to the more serious falsehoods that he has since perpetuated. However, the observation that the idea of “alternative facts” was first introduced in relation to a picture that the whole world was able to see speaks directly to the political and performative power of images, their uses and abuses. When The Washington Post asked 1,388 Americans to look at two photos, one taken from Trump’s inauguration and one from Obama’s, and indicate which of the two showed the largest crowds, Trump supporters were much more likely to choose the one from Trump’s inauguration. Did Trump supporters simply give the wrong answer to support their leader or were they actually “seeing” larger crowds? Several neuroscientific studies suggest that our beliefs and political attitudes bias our perception. For example, even when watching the same news clips, people of different political ideology will “see” them differently and change their attitudes accordingly. Believing is seeing, rather than, as is most commonly assumed, the other way around.
Images in their many different forms, from paintings and icons to photography and beyond, have always been powerful cultural agents. Photographs especially have substantial political power precisely because we tend to think of them as truthful witnesses of reality, an authentic representation of the world. As such, they appear to frame reality with the help of the lens, and this has long been well-understood by politicians and media organizations.
In the past, numerous political regimes have doctored images to make them fit with their propaganda. But we now find ourselves in a radically different visual landscape. One that is not simply photographed by professionals, because for better or for worse, photojournalism has been “democratized” to the extreme, such that anyone with a smartphone can be a photojournalist – as the selfies taken inside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, show. One that is not simply documented, but can instead be deep-faked. One that does not even need to display real people, as generative algorithms can create highly realistic-looking faces of “people” who never existed and will never exist. One that is driven by polarization, stoked by emotions and amplified by digital echo chambers where our beliefs trump our eyes and ears.
On many occasions during the last four years we were reminded of George Orwell’s famous lines from “1984”: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” In a sense, Conway was suggesting to Trump supporters not to believe in what they see, and to the rest of the world that it doesn’t matter what they see. If only it were that simple. Now, we don’t even know whether we should trust the evidence of our eyes and ears, or not.
When Biden took the oath as the 46th US president, the images from his inauguration were startlingly different from all past inaugurations. Where thousands of people used to assemble on that day every four years in front of the Capitol, now there were too few to mention, replaced by 400,000 American flags, a consequence of four years of alternative facts. Every presidency or government produces its own visual culture. The empty space in front of the Capitol as Biden and Harris were taking their oath may provide the opportunity for reflection on why the visuals this time round are so different. Out of fear for US democracy. Because too many Americans have died during an ill-managed pandemic. We shouldn’t just trust what our senses are telling us; not because our sense organs are unreliable. But because far too often our beliefs will make us see things that are not there, or turn a blind eye to things that are there, such as the 2 million people who died from coronavirus. Because nowadays we often suspect that what is out there may not be real, especially if it does not fit with our expectations. This widespread erosion of trust preceded Trump, it will outlast him and will mark Biden’s presidency and its visual politics. All we can hope for is that the Biden presidency and its visual framing will replace anger and fake news with empathy and scientific facts so that our beliefs about what we see can become more aligned with the facts of the lived experience of as many people as possible. Or as Amanda Gorman so poignantly stated the heart of the matter : “[…] that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect, we are striving to forge a union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.”
Manos Tsakiris is professor of psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London and the Warburg Institute, School of Advanced Study, University of London.