The Ontology of Fake News

What we are seeing with the growth of ‘fake news’ is perhaps the weaponisation of epistemology. In other words, ‘fake news’ as a construct is becoming a discursive component of our repertoire of contention. Far from entering a post-truth era, we are seeing truth becoming a mobilising device in a new way, encouraging ‘us’ to defend ourselves from ‘them’ predicated on the absolute falsity of their worldview. It’s the playing out in an epistemic register of what Chantal Mouffe, drawing on Carl Schmitt, describes as a friend/enemy distinction. Rather than the political other being an adversary to be struggled against, nonetheless regarded as legitimate, they are cast as an enemy to be destroyed. Rush Limbaugh offered a pure expression of the epistemological logic of the friend/enemy distinction in this 2009 rant:

What this fraud, what the uncovering of this hoax, exposes,” he said, “is the corruption that exists between government and academia and science and the media. Science has been corrupted. We know the media has been corrupted for a long time. Academia has been corrupted. None of what they do is real. It’s all lies!

We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.

The origins of this can be understood agnotologically: neo-sophists, with corporate funding, seeking to manufacture doubt where none previously existed. What’s being described as post-truth emerges at the intersection between corporate agnotology, political polarisation and post-democracy. The possibility to weaponise epistemology emerges coterminously with the breakdown of social solidarity. Agnotology contributes to the erosion of shared certainties in cumulative ways. It creates the conditions for what David Roberts calls tribal epistemology:

Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.

Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House.

What I’m suggesting is that at this point we see epistemology move from being an elite weapon of war to part of the repertoire of contention. Once Trump begins to seriously struggle, how easy is it to imagine Whitehouse statements being dismissed as ‘fake news’ by the grassroots they used this notion to mobilise? How effectively could a nascent leader use this epistemic playbook against those who have brought it into the mainstream? As Roberts points out, this is a cultural tendency which has been present in American politics for quite some time:

That is the classic, some might say naive, view. But there has always been a powerful strain in conservatism (think the John Birch Society) that resists seeing itself as a participant in the game at all. It sees the game itself, its rules and referees, as captured by the other side, operating for the other side’s benefit. Any claim of transpartisan authority is viewed with skepticism, as a kind of ruse or tool through which one tribe seeks to dominate another.

That’s the view Limbaugh and others in right-wing media have consistently articulated. And it has found an increasingly receptive audience. Over time, the right’s base — unlike the left’s fractious and heterogeneous coalition of interest groups — has become increasingly homogeneous (mostly white, non-urban, and Christian) and like-minded (traditionalist, zero-sum values).

The friend/enemy distinction is, for lack of a better term, viral. At least under current conditions. Once people begin to think in these terms, it’s hard to counter it. Not least of all because reluctantly accepting the ‘rules of the game’ inevitably comes to be coded as either giving up or buying in. The reason for this is in part epistemological because tribal epistemology destroys the possibility for syncretism: people can no longer see A and B as elements that can be combined, even if unstable and contested ways. Instead and become an absolute disjunction. One sees the social world in terms that allow for no choice other than to choose between positions. The playing out of this, in the digital capitalism of 2017, rather terrifies me.

2 responses to “The Ontology of Fake News”

  1. Mark Carrigan reply

    The issue scares me as well – to my very core, but perhaps through a different means. The dynamic that you describe was a process, and not an event; and a very long, 40-year process at that. We (in the academy) have to shoulder a large proportion of the blame. This is the basis of my insistence that Sociology is in need of an identity crisis.

    For 40 years, post-modernism (mainly à-la Nietzsche and Foucault) have told us, and we have thus told the world, that reality is relative; that what is morally good doesn’t matter; that man has no essence of substance; that the only knowledge there is, is the knowledge of power; that truth is unknowable.

    In essence, the death of metaphysics at the hands of Nietzsche & Foucault told people that their lives didn’t matter. It literally took away the essence and substance of what it means to be human. We no longer needed to inquire, we only needed the axiom of the invisible “apparatus of power” which is all-hegemonic, and will alway prevail. We assumed that truth lay in truthlessness; that morality lay in anomie; that there were meaningless social structures and stratifications in creating chaos.

    I wasn’t just enough to consider this aspect of philosophy, but we had to put it into practice in the Social Sciences as a whole. We started telling people what their social, economic, and psychological condition were instead of inquiring. Suffering from exploited labour? Here’s a pill for anxiety. Jobless? Well, that’s the fault of [fill in the blank]. Reality is relative in post-modernism. Truth does’t exist as an object of inquiry anymore.

    And now we complain that the world has heeded our teachings. In addition, those “elites” that the populous is complaining about are us – us academics. While we sit scratching our heads on the ontology of relative truth, it turns out that reality really is real. People really do suffer and die en mass. It turns out that suddenly truth matters. It turns out there is such as a thing as knowledge beyond power. It turns out that the lived realities of everyday people in everyday life really does have essence and substance.

    This British philosopher seems to agree with me, though I don’t think he goes far enough.

    For 40 years we have largely supported the idea that there was no philosophy before Bentham. Aristotle may have come up for discussion during a graduate seminar on Marx, but no one is really required to dig that deep. I am moving into my 50s, and I may have been the last generation required to take well-grounded philosophy courses as a young undergraduate. Many of my younger Sociology Ph.D. cohorts have never read Kant, Locke, Aquinas, Descartes, or even know that Adam Smith wrote that “other book.” Today, people can hold a “Doctor of Philosophy” degree without ever having picked up a philosophy book.

    When I was working on my first undergraduate degree, all majors were required to take not only an Intro to Philosophy course, but also an entire year of Philosophy of Ethics, Philosophy of Logic, and something along the lines of a Philosophy of Religion (I took comparative religions).

    Yet we wonder why post-truth has become a culture; an essence and substance unto itself in a world that no longer believes in essence or substance because we told them that they don’t exist.

    My apologies for the long response, but the ontology is us (the academy). We are guilty. What scares me deeply, is wondering if we will ever have the humility to look in the mirror – before the masses with torches and pitchforks rushes the Ivory Tower.

  2. I think the backlash will be organised rather than aggregative. Do most people really care that much? But a crisis in another institution, particularly one filled with liberal elitists, could be very useful.

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