Disinformation and fake news threaten our institutions and destabilise our democracies. So let’s avoid disinformation and fake news! Is it that simple?
This paper looks at the systemic and psychological undercurrents of the phenomenon of disinformation. It concludes that it is pointless to brand disinformation as immoral behaviour that needs to be stopped. For disinformation is a symptom of the zeitgeist. It is pointless to moralise symptoms, just as it is pointless to moralise colds, or loneliness.
It makes more sense to ask: does this symptom point to something? Could disinformation also be a symptom of a collective leap in consciousness?
Who does not seek the truth?
“The truth will set you free”. These words of Christ were the theme of a speech by Pope Francis on World Communications Day 2018. Fake News, he said, was the work of the devil. Francis equated disinformation and fake news with the serpent who tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. But even in 2022, the Pope has spoken in this vein around Corona.
Despite the tarnished image of his institution, the head of the Catholic Church is still a widely recognised moral authority, even beyond church circles. When he says fake news is the devil’s work and spreading disinformation is a grave sin, this represents an explicit moral predicate for these phenomena. Like all moralism, the Pope’s wake-up call is a call to decent behaviour.
Countless heads of state, politicians and academics are taking the same line. We will have to be resilient and intervene and censor if necessary. The call is to write laws to curb fake news and disinformation.
The Pope’s point of view concerning disinformation is remarkable because after Nietzsche’s “God is dead” in the late 19th century, the prevailing view was “man proposes, AND man disposes”. Since then, “social engineering”, the belief in the malleability of society and social orders, has been one of the essential features of modernity, i.e. the period from the 1960s onwards. The modern world now has technocracy to solve its problems. Why does it need religion-like moralism for?
A phenomenological zeitgeist diagnosis
Disinformation is not culpable behaviour but an independent symptom of the zeitgeist. That is the thesis. Disinformation is a phenomenon that does not disappear by moralising it into distinction. Just as it makes no sense to moralise a cold or loneliness. Moralising reveals, above all, the impotence of modern social technology.
Let’s examine the zeitgeist and its phenomena to justify this thesis. The problem with looking at the zeitgeist is that we áre the zeitgeist. After all, a fish doesn’t notice that the water is wet either. And we don’t need science if we simply observe what everyone can see – a phenomenological zeitgeist analysis of five phenomena and their consequences.
1. The erosion of authority and the dictatorship of the individual
Since the 1960s, many authorities have been toppled or pushed off their pedestals. The legitimacy of the remaining authorities, whether teachers, mayors or doctors, is questioned daily. So there are fewer and fewer recognised authorities and external sources of meaning and purpose. Moreover, we increasingly think of ourselves as an authority. Unfortunately, the masses of self-appointed authorities do not readily agree among themselves.
As a symptom of modernity, individual freedom led to the fragmentation of truths and opinions. And that was indeed a liberation from the chains of the group. But the joy of individualisation threatens to turn into the opposite. For if everyone is right, is there such a thing as truth at all? If everyone is right, are there any boundaries or lies at all? If every joke hurts someone, what is there left to laugh about? The hypothesis was that the dictatorship of the group would turn into the freedom of the individual, but the reality looks less pretty. It seems that the dictatorship of the individual is replacing the tyranny of the group.
2. The ambivalent individual, the anxious self
Baby boomers will recognise the euphoria about the new freedoms in the 1960s. Individualisation promised that everyone could be themselves, although it was unclear what that was exactly. In any case, we had great expectations of our freedoms and of all the individual views that would replace authoritarian frameworks. And how does it look now?
We are bombarded with advertising daily through television, social media and sports competitions. Our peers tell us how we should be: unique and special. Since everything is measured and compared, there is a social compulsion to always be better, more beautiful and more successful than others, leading to stress and division.
The consequence: there are many losers of individualisation. And many cannot stand their uniqueness and hide in identity groups. There, we don’t look unique but the same, whether we’re Antifa activists or football hooligans. A very concrete example: the colours of passenger cars (see picture) are becoming increasingly monotonous.
High expectations are not always fulfilled: the individual’s own and dear truth does not automatically make their life meaningful. In practice, it is not autonomy and wisdom that are created but ambivalence: Who am I? Am I good enough? As a result, many have less and less to hold on to, which unsettles us. Hypnotised, we stare at the screen of our iPhones, hungry for a Like, while at the same time, therapists are busier than ever.
3. The democratisation of the news
A few decades ago, the news was a solid industry; it took professionals, technology and logistics to produce it. With the smartphone, news acquisition and publication have been democratised. Every citizen potentially has this dual role concerning news: He/she is a producer and a consumer simultaneously. Twitter, Facebook and the iPhone allow anyone to record and publish anything. Pop artist and media phenomenon Andy Warhol announced this phenomenon back in 1968, the “moment of fame ” for everyone. And in today’s narcissistic age, we like nothing better than celebrating our “moment of fame” with a selfie post.
This democratisation has resulted in a race to the bottom. In the past, the media world predominantly operated based on journalistic standards that sought objectivity. Today, the media increasingly focus on personal emotions to please news consumers. Algorithms then ensure that personal emotional bubbles are constantly confirmed. It is also no longer possible to distinguish which broadcaster has which interests. Or what action is and what reaction. Marketing, propaganda and news can hardly be separated anymore.
4. Attention creates reality
In quantum theory, and for psychologists and spiritually minded people, a well-known phenomenon is that conscious attention influences reality. No matter how trivial and insignificant a detail or incident is, a properly set instinctive and dramatic tone can unleash a Twitter tornado. And if it is violent enough, even a minister can no longer ignore Twitter violence. These become the daily reality of the media: an endless series of incidents that carry their weight in the number of retweets, not their societal importance. Imaging pays off; the image becomes a reality.
According to the laws of quantum theory, images create a reality, and these realities generated by projections replace the “authoritarian ” order of the past. We then govern our countries based on per diems. But our institutions are so intertwined, and our executive organisations are so large and complex that governance by these day rates drives them mad. Yet we are amazed that institutions fall apart and organisations get bogged down.
This phenomenon can also be illuminated from another angle. There are massive crises that cannot be captured in a one-liner and therefore do not receive attention. Just think of the environmental crisis, the healthcare crisis, population growth and immigration and the economic and social decline, for example. These broad and slow undercurrents move slowly and unnoticed in their destructive momentum.
5. The discovery of not-knowing and the erosion of science
Yuval Harari, in his “A Brief History of Mankind”, has made a counterintuitive but interesting observation: with the breakthrough of science, we have discovered not-knowing. Not long ago, knowledge traditions like Islam, Christianity or Buddhism were the source of all knowledge. Everything there was to know about the world was known to the all-powerful gods and great sages. That knowledge was revealed to the mortal by their writings or the explanations of devoted priests, which was sufficient.
With the scientific revolution, man has become mature enough to understand that not everything is knowable. All scientific knowledge is provisional. As Karl Popper put it: all real science must be falsifiable. This means that science can never provide a definitive foundation, only a temporary one, until the opposite of a thesis is proven.
Of course, that “provisionality” has continually inspired us to explore further, giving us an incredible amount. However, with all the knowledge and value that science has given us, it becomes increasingly clear what science cannot do: answer questions of the purpose and meaning of life.
The statement familiar from the climate debate, “the science is settled”, with which people want to make the thesis absolute and final, aims to finalise the discussion. This can only mean one thing: that science is being used by politics. Used in a way that contradicts the essence of science. It is precisely because of this that science is eroding as an objectifying, meaning-giving phenomenon. Non-knowing emphasises our humanistic autonomy and diversity. A politicised, mediacratic science throws us back into mystical times.
All these phenomena and new developments are doing something to us and our society. The erosion of authority, the ambivalent self, the democratisation of news, the focus on trivial singularity and the decline of science all have social consequences in their context.
Regression in communication
The first consequence of these developments has to do with social media, namely their typical characteristics:
- Short: any thoroughness is impossible; the context is missing, and therefore
- Fast: posting, re-tweeting, without distance, without thinking, and on top of everything.
- Everywhere: these context-free messages are flung into the universe millions of times over.
The consequence of these characteristics is that society has entered a communicative regression. In psychology, regression is the phenomenon of falling back into an earlier stage of consciousness.
We are constantly exposed to a bombardment of information in real-time. The volume and speed lead to overload. Therefore, we are controlled by the instinctive area of the brain rather than the frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain where reason resides. Our attention turns more quickly to images than to text. We react more strongly to headlines and soundbites than to an article. We jump more rapidly to anything concerning sex and violence, unsavouriness and trivia. Appeals are made to primal instincts: sexuality, safety, desire, and fear. The calm deliberation and the nuance of the past has disappeared.
These are not innocent or arbitrary features of social media. They are at the core of the business model and technical design that Big Tech uses to make money. We are hardly free in our primal instinctive orientation to ubiquitous stimuli. The more addicted the user, the richer the platform. Of course, we have known these psychological mechanisms from marketing for quite some time. But the scale and pervasiveness of these techniques today are historically unprecedented.
Many people are concerned about the coarsening of society, about divisions, about polarisation. In response, the Dutch government has launched a campaign against polarisation. In this campaign, citizens are given tips on how to react a little differently. “For example, count to 10”, “try to really listen”, and “let someone finish”. This shows that the government, like the Pope, sees polarisation as a socially undesirable behaviour to be combated with behavioural instructions, but is it?
Individual freedom, so eagerly anticipated in the early 1960s, led to the fragmentation of opinions and split them into billions. All these opinions have become a swirling mass due to social media’s speed, contextlessness and volume. The sea of individual meanings has taken on an amorphous meaninglessness. Just as a swirling mass of colours leads to the perception of white. There is a mass of information, but only a limited shared meaning. Because of this development’s scale, scope and intensity, it is difficult to protect against it, just as a raincoat does not help against getting wet when you fall into the water.
Polarisation is not a behavioural variable but an energetic principle. To be heard, you must make your splinter opinion heard louder, faster and more often. Then you get attention. Added to this, in this dynamic, the axiom that attracts attention provokes an opposite hypothesis. This maxim that what gets attention grows, whether positive or negative, is taught to us not only by spiritual masters like Deepak Chopra, but also by modern management journals like the Harvard Business Review.
And the centrifugal force prevails in this vortex, driving the poles further apart until they fly out of orbit.
Media as mainstream
A third consequence is the impact on media. Media, plural of medium, from the Latin medium of the same name, “the centre”, “a carrier”, or “a transmitter”. A word that radiates neutrality. It is what media also want to be: neutral, objective, revealing perhaps, but then also as objective as possible. To emphasise this, the press places themselves outside the order, outside the social field of forces. After all, they are only observers.
In the more or less stable social order of a few decades ago, choosing one’s own position was still possible. In the chaotic order of today, even the media no longer have a foothold. The fate of the press is that they no longer have a foothold in an information age that is too fast, too contextless, too massive and too commercial. The media are spinning as empty as everyone else in the modern chaos, looking for an escape route, a coalition.
The mainstream media now clings to the prevailing narrative of the government and the elite because that is the only way for the media to make a difference. These media are no longer free, not because they are not conscientious or incompetent, but because they will drown if they do not grab the lifebelt of the ruling order.
The mainstream media have not so much become the establishment themselves. Instead, in a contextless world, they have inevitably identified with what still seems to have some measure of reality, namely power. But it is, of course, intolerable that a neutral, objective and pretending to be independent news agency that is supposed to control the establishment is only a symptom.
From this phenomenological perspective, it can also be seen that polarisation, even towards the media, is pointless. There is neither a perpetrator nor a victim. Nevertheless, the symptom: the lack of freedom of the press, the loss of control and counter-power is a disturbing societal development.
The erosion of politics
If there is one institution that suffers from the phenomena described, it is politics. There, the excess of one-liners and clickbait leads to chaos. It lacks any framework for stable and nuanced interpretation. By definition, this now leads to fragmentation, extremism and polarisation, in parliaments and governments. The powerlessness resulting from this phenomenon leads to gridlock, stagnation, and government overreach in many large Western democracies.
Politicians and parties must shout louder and louder and take more extreme positions to be heard. With every election, parties split. With every election, old, nuanced positions are exchanged for new and more extreme ones, a development that only contributes to the growth of chaos. This makes politics more critically viewed and reduces trust, leading to constant electoral landslides. This ignores that this phenomenon can only partly be blamed on politicians. This is also a symptom.
This erosion of politics is difficult to control because of the constitutional principle of the primacy of politics. This principle describes the monopoly of the parliamentary system to determine what is essential for the public interest and how social development should look. But the highest secular authority, politics itself, reflects on everything in society but not fundamentally on itself.
As a result, the material and social legitimacy of politics is under tremendous pressure. But this fact is swept under the carpet with reference to formal legitimacy. The political game continues to be fought to the hilt for majorities. If politics does not realise that it is also subject to its own social development through the primacy of the development of consciousness itself, a blind spot is created. Who protects society from the blind spots of the collective of politicians? Many politicians ignore these phenomena and cling ever more doggedly to formal legitimacy and their truth.
Truth and ambivalence
The consequences described above: polarisation, communication regression, media as mainstream and erosion of politics are each catastrophic for a society in their own right, and they certainly are so in this broader context.
Where has the truth gone now?
Until a few decades ago, the perspective on truth was determined by God. Divine truth was absolute. God was interpreted for us, without our say, by the religion or culture of the group we belonged to.
The group offered protection, but this protection became a restraint increasingly. With the awakening of the individual, we freed ourselves from the group. On the one hand, we gained access to the relativisation of knowledge, to not-knowing. Science was an exponent of this. On the other hand, because the not-knowing was quite challenging, the individual additionally projected divine truth onto himself. Je pense, donc je suis, said Descartes. And so ego-truth acquired an absolute status.
Modernity has created an inherent ambivalence. On an individual level, between not knowing and the ego’s absolute. On a collective level, it is the dichotomy between the reality of poverty, violence, pollution and exhaustion on the one hand and the human claim that the world is malleable and controllable and that we should save the planet on the other.
The consequence of this modern, immanent conflict between not knowing and the absolute status of the ego is disinformation.
Disinformation and morality. A disease of abundance
Disinformation and fake news are symptoms of modernity in their own right. In the past, we could not have guessed how much the fragmentation of structures and meanings, combined with the ego’s attachment to its ideas, would affect everything that makes up a society: mores, institutions, architecture, technology, law and politics. Perhaps it would make more sense to call disinformation in this sense, for example, a “welfare disease “.
If you then call disinformation immoral, you suggest that it is easy to distinguish what is disinformation and what is not. The establishment and the fact-checkers then have the real information, the objective truths. They will proclaim it to us. Disinformation, after all, comes from Pharisees, deceivers and morons.
Of course, there are powerful malcontents and technically gifted airheads who use the media for dystopian propaganda and deliberate deception. Therefore, the hypothesis that disinformation is a symptom of modernity does not render this symptom harmless; quite the contrary. In fact, modernity has opened Pandora’s box with it.
For this very reason, it is more plausible and realistic to assume that almost every news item is subjective and, therefore potentially Fake News. Whether we like it or not, this results from the absence of sufficiently objective and shared frames of reference for interpreting news and data. We will live in limbo until we have developed new and different behaviours of dealing with disinformation to learn to make distinctions.
Moralising disinformation makes something clear, like a canary in the coal mine: modern consciousness has reached a dead end and has become impotent. That is why it calls up an old consciousness. In psychology, we call this phenomenon regression. With this regression into the old consciousness, certain features reappear simultaneously: absolute truth (settled science, lack of alternatives), censorship and exclusion of opinions, populistic condemnation and denunciation based on imaging, and the rise of collective fear and aggression.
Hotpants and disinformation
In the past, The Establishment railed against hotpants. Their wearer was the subject of fierce moral reproaches because the hotpants were too short and revealing, which earned them the name ‘floozy’. In retrospect, we can see that hotpants were a symptom, a manifestation of individualisation, of a particular aspect of it, the emancipation of women. Did the protests against hotpants and their wearers stop individualisation and emancipation? There are countless manifestations of the unfolding of the individual that was mocked, ridiculed and fought against, but of course, they did not stop the emancipation of the individual.
At the moment, we see only two modes of dealing with disinformation. First, the technocratic social malleability vision, where we endlessly tinker with society. In doing so, we risk resorting to more restrictive, extensive interventions that only reinforce powerlessness and endanger our fundamental rights. Secondly, we resort to morality since technocracy has reached a dead end. A regressive move. With all our understanding today of what our (grand)parents did wrong, surely, we should know that this is not a salutary path.
Disinformation is a manifestation of “post”-modernity, of course, of a very different nature than the hotpants of sixty years ago. Disinformation is a degeneration of modernity, a degeneration of six decades of individual liberation and technological development. Are we willing and able to see disinformation and fake news as phenomena of a world that we have created and for which we must take responsibility? If so, we can learn to recognise what these phenomena say about reality. The truth can be found if we examine what message these phenomena hold for us.