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Philosophizing Fake News

In the theory of hyperreality, fake news is the most aggressive and apparent symptom of a society forging away from its access to base truth.

Nov 10, 2018

When the term fake news rose to prominence in 2016, it seemed to strike a chord with national political climates around the world. The term was popularized to describe small websites intended to game social media ranking models for profit, but has since been used to describe political criticisms in the media. While political disagreement is a constant in any system, the concept of fake news differs from traditional disagreement. It suggests that what the media says is not just arguable, but outright false. In the era of the internet, with information more available than ever, why do people across the political spectrum seem to believe that what they are being told doesn't add up?
Academics have quickly moved to obtain systematic understanding of this trend through the tried-and-true methods of their respective fields of research. Psychologists have sought out the core of what makes people believe falsehoods, political scientists have attempted to explain what has changed in the political sphere to encourage polarization of beliefs and media businesses have tried to understand how their profit models were exploited. In philosophy, however, the concept of fake news has caused a renewed look toward a somewhat unusual place: the work of Jean Baudrillard, a French postmodernist from the 1980s.
Baudrillard’s works can feel more like science fiction than philosophy at times, even having served as the philosophical underpinning of “The Matrix”. For fans of the film, his seminal work “Simulacra and Simulation” may sound familiar as it describes the stages of a society consistently marching away from reality and into a simulation of its own creation. Baudrillard’s core thesis is simple — the human obsession with abstraction has over time generated a reality which exhibits all the features of being truthful only to mask the lack of reality behind it. Baudrillard argues that “[s]imulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” Hyperreality, in Baudrillard’s terms, becomes the core theme of eras of society where the line between truth and falsehood becoming increasingly blurry as the human ability to create abstraction becomes more advanced.
In recent philosophical analysis, some have pointed to the entire postmodernist school of thought as the ideological basis of the fake news and alternative facts epidemic, citing the ability to question reality as the beginning of the end. “I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts,” said Daniel Dennett, an American philosopher and cognitive scientist to The Guardian. But as Baudrillard’s career progressed through the 1980s and 1990s, he centered much of his work around media studies and the aspects of media that enabled perceived hyperreality, rather than justifying it philosophically.
In “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media”, Baudrillard describes how mass media in combination with the hyperreal models of society create “a state of suspense of definitive uncertainty about reality” for the individual. “It is a question here of a completely new species of uncertainty, which results not from the lack of information but from information itself and even from an excess of information.” In addition, he describes this as a vicious cycle: “It is information itself which produces uncertainty, and so this uncertainty … is irreparable.” In the face of insurmountable uncertainty, the masses seek their own truth and in the vast expanse of media they will find the truth that validates themselves. “This is our destiny, subjected to … statistics: constantly confronted with the anticipated statistical verification of our behaviour.” In this way, the simulacra provide an element of comfort to the masses, allowing each individual to justify their beliefs via the vast expanse of information available to them.
In modern times, while many other fields have attempted to explain what has changed in recent years to elucidate the spread of fake news, Baudrillard's work offers a lens which instead focuses on the constants. In the theory of hyperreality, fake news is only the most aggressive and apparent symptom of a society forging away from its access to base truth. Baudrillard’s work is admittedly pessimistic about human history, but in a time where many seem to think our best days are behind us a consistent pessimist can feel ironically optimistic on our ability to improve.
William Held is a contributing writer. Email him at feedback@thegazelle.
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