19 January 2018

Everything you know about Fake News is wrong

Aside from Singapore, other far more democratic countries are considering or have already passed laws against fake news. When the inevitable accusations of authoritarianism and censorship are made by the usual quarters, all Singapore's minister for communications and information (or his permanent secretary needs to do is to point at France and Germany, which have just recently enacted them, and Canada, which has had them for decades. Even the UK has begun the process of studying whether it needs a fake news law.

If the minister and his permanent secretary are competent, they will point out that these laws have been passed in the "liberal West" even in the face of criticisms about the chilling effects on free speech, and promise to be responsible and circumspect with their new powers.

But that will still not detract from the elephant in the room: Fake news is fake.

To clarify: yes, deliberate falsehoods masquerading as news does exist. But no, it doesn't exist in the form of the fake news panic that is peddled globally by the print media (the greatest perpetuators of manufactured consensus) and governments (the greatest perpetuators of propaganda and spin) in what can only be described as an ironical fit of self-unawareness.

How many ways can we get Fake News wrong? And how wrong?

We at Illusio put it to you, Dear Reader, that almost all fake news is indistinguishable from opinion-shaping and consensus manufacturing by the media, propaganda and spin by the government, and political engagement by parties and people alike. Some idealists will argue that propaganda and lies are bad. We at Illusio are not media illiterates. All this activity is in fact necessary to the normal, basic functioning of society and state. But how essential? And how basic?

On the most practical level, the concept of fake news is a profound misunderstanding of journalism. News flash: No one reads the news to find out facts. News is written, packaged, and consumed as News That Matters. Out of a universe of uncountable facts happening each day, an infinitesimal fraction gets reported as Newsworthy and taken seriously by readers who trust the value judgement the media places on it. Journalism 101 helpfully explains that News is based on facts, but is far more than facts: relevant facts (but never the inconvenient ones!) are curated to fit into a story, which is buttressed by contextual background, made newsworthy by (commentary masquerading as) analysis, and polished off with a kicker.

(Noam Chomsky explaining for the Nth time how the media manufactures consent)

A naive consumer might believe they are reading authentic facts; what they encounter is always already mediated, always already interpreted through the media. Pace Merleau-Ponty, our perception of the world is already structured by language. Reported fact is already organised, structured, and laden with meaning. To ignore the discursive formation of knowledge is a profound misunderstanding of ontology.

Let's walk back from the basics of journalism to the basics of communication itself. Facts do not exist in and of themselves. When presented with a fact (say a black soldier saluting the tricolour), the human mind searches or invents a context to it. The author carefully constructs a system of signs to signal a mythology. The ideal reader sees the denotation, and commonsensically, quite naturally deduces the connotation (say the greatness of multiethnic French imperialism). To insist on an ideal model of journalism as just reporting the facts would be a profound misunderstanding of communication.

But signs are polysemic. There is a surplus, an excess of possible signifieds to any given sign. To delegitimise, criminalise all oppositional readings, declare on one orthodox fact and interpretation, to close all possibilities of questioning, critical reading, to deny there are different ways to frame an argument using the same facts, to declare all these as "fake news" would be not just an outdated totalising project for the modern age but a profound misunderstanding of semiotics as taught by de Saussure, Lakoff, and even Peirce.

What price do we pay for getting fake news wrong?

But what happens when signs collapse through legislation into a singularity of meaning, when orthodoxy of thought and interpretation takes hold? Pierre Bourdieu argues that the social world becomes taken for granted as a natural phenomenon. People become blind to the competing possibilities and sum total of alternatives not chosen that the established order implies. In the short run, this might sound like a good thing. People start to mistake the signified for the signifier, narrative for narration, interpretation for fact. In the long run, society runs into groupthink, stagnation, and policy failure precisely because people lose the ability to question, to see different, competing possibilities, to disagree.

And as it turns out, a goal of education is to help students move beyond memorising facts, identifying what is true and false to developing lateral thinking skills, i.e. to question, to see different competing possibilities, to disagree. Higher education occurs when faced with a provocative statement whose truth value is deferred, deserving of further deliberation, a student decides to exercise their creativity to entertain a myriad of responses. Edward de Bono would probably argue that any panic about fake news is a profound misunderstanding of education, and any step promoting journalism as a collection of factual reporting, a regressive step towards cultural, social, and media illiteracy.

If you stick purely to facts, you end up with the opposite of education, the opposite of news

Let's put together all the basics that we've learnt so far.

To call fake news dangerous because it is untrue is a profound epistemological mistake. Whether one is on the left or right, when someone objects to fake news, they aren't making a statement about the veracity of news, but really object to how certain facts are packaged and marshalled to provide a moral for a story or narrative pushed by the media, government, or other people that they don't agree with.

To call fake news dangerous because it is divisive is a profound misunderstanding of sociology. Society is always already divided by class, race, status, what have you. The logic of any social or cultural field tends towards differentiation, distinction, position-taking. Society does not, has never, and will never exist in a cohesive, united state, and hence is never in any danger of having its unity threatened by "fake news".

Society is always contentious. Yet civil society arises because different groups with differing positions, ideals, interests agree to disagree. Civil society arises when these groups agree everyone is free to engage in non-violent, non-totalising competition, coalition-building, negotiation, and compromise. The existence of fake news is by and large irrelevant to the health of civil society and what it needs to thrive.

From a Bourdieuan angle, fake news is merely an encounter with stories propagated from a social, cultural, or political point alien from one's position in society. Hence, the accusation by Democrats that conservatives peddled Russian fake news to win the election as part of a war on liberal values, and the Republican accusation that the liberal media is peddling fake news to undo the results of the election as part of a war on Trump and conservative values.

To legislate against "fake news" would not make society any less divided, politics any less contentious and divisive. This legislation will inaugurate an open season where groups in society that already work at cross purposes with each other attempt to delegitimise each other by accusing each other of fake news.

Is this a Fake War on Fake News?

Fake news is not a threat but an extension of how at a basic level people perceive the world, form knowledge, communicate, and socialise. We at Illusio caution against branding this as a perversion of an ideal form of communication, learning, etc. In a broad sense, fake news is not that different from the family of necessary tools (manufactured consensus, propaganda, and spin) that are employed by civil society, the media, and government to keep society and the state running normally.

(In this video, Sir Humphrey Appleton teaches that facts can be selectively generated and chosen to manufacture any consensus the government wants to show any any issue)

To claim that nation-building by the media, and spin and propaganda by the government are both dangerous, is a profound misunderstanding of government and statecraft. And to raise the alarm on fake news without discussing how media manufacture consensus and how governments spin is a profound misunderstanding of politics.

Identifying "fake news" as "deliberate falsehoods masquerading as news" is a profound ignorance of its historical and social context. The phenomenon has its roots in the legitimacy of attack campaign advertising as a political took, and most importantly, the increasing amount of political campaign funding over the years. It is these factors, added to the very recent coarsening of political engagement, that combine with the politically partisan nature of the newspaper industry and their online affiliates and competitors in the United States to produce "fake news". Fake news, as contentious or somewhat untrue to completely untrue political news stories, was published by not just "Russian bots" but also the mainstream and online media, and shared by the general populace.

While the dimension of foreign political interference and manipulation is cause for concern and probable reason for action, none of these are in fact sufficient to enact new legislation, especially in a country like Singapore, which has a far different political, media, campaign culture, and much lower media literacy and awareness.

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