But who gets to decide which news is fake? Adorno would probably cringe at the very term “fake news,” with its implication that most media outlets present news that is, in a distinct and meaningful sense, “real.” In fact, the main takeaway of Adorno’s famous “culture industry” theory is that mass media doesn’t lead to critical thinking and resistance — on the contrary. Every song, every movie is embedded in ideology, the cookie-cutter frame of our thoughts that shapes our interpretation of events and restricts our ability to think beyond what we believe exists.
“Film, radio, and magazines form a system,” he and Max Horkheimer write in their canonical Dialectic of Enlightenment. “Each branch of culture is unanimous within itself and all are unanimous together. Even the aesthetic manifestations of political opposites proclaim the same inflexible rhythm.” All “news” is, in a way, fake news — not because a bunch of entertainment execs are conspiring to brainwash us, but because we all make sense of the world through stories that are always partial and never complete. No matter how accurate we think our perspective is, in structuring our experience ideology inevitably leaves something out.
Chief among Adorno’s concerns is that in the culture industry, what gets left out is an understanding not only of the real mechanisms of power in society, but also of the possibility that those mechanisms could be changed. Submission in the realm of culture prepares us to be submissive in the realm of politics.