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 A and B 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.