“Game of Thrones” showed the enormous power of fear-mongering and fake news

The Queen of Misinformation.
The Queen of Misinformation.
Image: HBO
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The word of the year in 2016 was “post-truth,” according to Oxford Dictionaries. Politifact’s “lie of the year,” meanwhile, was not one lie but a class of them: fake news, the deliberate trafficking of misinformation that rose to infamy during America’s recent presidential election. And now, it’s infected Westeros too.

On last night’s Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister, the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, delivered a persuasive, highly misleading screed to a group of potential allies that put US president Donald Trump’s early-morning tweets to shame. She appealed to their deepest fears of otherness, claiming (with no actual evidence) that a foreign army commanded by a rival throne-seeker, Daenerys Targaryen, would rape their women, enslave their children, and burn their villages.

“She’ll destroy the realm as we know it,” Cersei said, as the lords looked on in tacit agreement.

Cersei also relayed the “fact” that Daenerys had crucified hundreds of noblemen, neglecting to mention that those noblemen had enslaved children, and that Daenerys, “breaker of chains” both literal (she’s freed thousands of slaves) and figurative (she’s taken the phrase as one of her many titles) has, in fact, been Westeros’s greatest abolitionist.

Cersei’s monologue was reminiscent of Trump’s 2016 Republican national convention speech, in which the then-candidate massively distorted American crime statistics in an attempt to paint the US as a nation in chaos in need of saving. “Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” he said. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.”

In both Trump’s speech and Cersei’s plea, there were kernels of half-truth—just enough to make the other claims seem plausible to an audience susceptible to deception. Of course there are illegal immigrants in the US who have committed crimes (though there are data to suggest they commit crimes at a rate lower than legal citizens), just as Daenerys’s army, the Dothraki, have raped and pillaged innocent people (then again, who on Game of Thrones hasn’t?). Both politicians knowingly distorted the truth in order to convince a large group of people to pick a side. Both were light on facts, and heavy on xenophobic innuendo.

Trump harped on the number of illegal immigrants entering the country, contending that they were “roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.” He told the story of a young woman who had been killed by a drunk driver—an illegal immigrant who was arrested, released on bail, and is now at-large. His example was an outlier made to look like a harbinger of chaos, just as Cersei’s broad-stroke painting of Daenerys was meant to instill fear in the hearts of her listeners.

And not only was their information itself fallacious, but both Trump and Cersei claimed to be the only ones to fix their made-up problems, a sort of fear-mongering unto itself. “I alone can fix it,” Trump said in his convention speech, promising to restore law and order to a country he portrayed as under siege. Cersei’s address wasn’t far off: ”It is my solemn duty to protect the people, and I will,” she said.

In the real world, fake news is so difficult to counter because of how quickly it can spread on the internet and drown out the truth. In Westeros, it works for the exact opposite reason: There’s no internet, or any other way, for the general public to turn to find corrections to the falsehoods and misleading information. Daenerys can’t hop on Twitter to correct the record, or send surrogates to CNN.

Even if she could, it’s unclear if the people would believe her. For Cersei is persuasive, and she already portrayed Daenerys as a murderous savage. Daenerys, like the real victims of fake news and political fear-mongering, might soon find that it doesn’t matter one bit to have the truth on her side.

We discussed Cersei’s deception, among other things (including the history of Direwolves and Game of Thrones fashion) on this week’s episode of Joffrey’s Place, Quartz’s Game of Thrones Facebook Live discussion show: