The phenomenon that we call fake news will not go away. We often associate fake news with malicious schemers manipulating media, but that’s only part of it, rather a consequence. It is much more a symptom of social evolution and the result of societal and technological developments leading to the erosion of meaning. But we can do something to deal with it. A system-psychological exploration.
It must have happened some time at the beginning of this century, at the time of the cringe comedy The Office. The moment that satire stopped being the exaggeration of reality, but rather became the representation of reality. Who doesn’t recognize the scenes from The Office, the discussions with managers like David Brent, from personal experience? The Office was a sign that the times of parody and satire were over, long past the heydays of Yes Minister and Spitting Image. Following on from The Office, the emergence of another phenomenon – reality TV – was a logical next step. Why ridicule someone else if they can do it much better themselves? Enter: Big Brother.
In January 2018, actor Alec Baldwin, who imitated Donald Trump at Saturday Night Live (SNL), gave an interview about the record-breaking viewing figures. Baldwin says that Trump is not much fun to play; “He is tense, he is angry, he is pissed off.” And Baldwin explains that he just plays what the president says; “Another thing that I find strange about the things we do, we just repeat what he says … .!”
Another new trend in the media world? No, an expression of a fundamental tilt of consciousness, a transformation of giving meaning to information, to news. We are experiencing the erosion of the objectivity of news to the subjectification of news, and the emergence of the phenomenon of fake news.
The Dutch dictionary Van Dale defines fake news as: “News that is not based on truth, often deliberately distributed to influence public opinion”. That is a useless definition. It is nostalgic, longing for the time when one truth still existed; it is an attempt to control the phenomenon of fake news by defining it narrowly. It also creates the illusion that fake news will stop if we forbid it, if we silence these damned fake news distributors. Yet the problem is primarily that the frameworks used to interpret information have eroded and that some people abuse that.
There are a number of parallel developments in technology, social relationships, and consciousness, that indicate that fake news is here to stay; developments that signify that news and information will never be the same again. In fact, the question is whether we can objectively distinguish fake news from “real” news. The Dutch periodical “De Speld” has been publishing ridiculous fake news with fervor daily since 2007, yet their news is regularly seen as real news. What? UEFA has issued a non-smoking policy for football matches that limits smoking to the center circle, it’s a disgrace!
Modernity resulted in many authorities falling or being pushed off their pedestal. The convictions and opinions of the remaining authorities, be they doctors, professors or mayors, are hardly any more legitimate than yours and mine. In addition, increasing transparency has revealed more and more unsightly cases about the behavior of authorities that were previously hidden and that enabled us to maintain our illusions. This authority vacuum, has led us into a dangerous no-man’s-land of outrageous or megalomaniac leaders and pretentious or frustrated citizens. There are therefore fewer and fewer accepted authorities, and therefore fewer and fewer sources of accepted significance. Moreover, we increasingly see ourselves as an authority: it is just a pity that all those other individuals also think that they are authorities.
The overload of individualization
Baby boomers will certainly recognize the euphoria of the newly acquired individual liberties of the 60s and 70s. Individualization promised that everyone could be themselves. We had such great expectations; all those individual opinions that would replace the authoritarian frameworks. But do we now have our own autonomous wisdom? That remains to be seen. We are bombarded by advertisements, television, social media, sports competitions, and by peers, who tell us how we should be: unique and special. Because everything is measured and compared, we have to be better, more beautiful and more successful than the others. And this leads to a dichotomy: individualization does indeed have winners, but it also has very many losers. And the winners all look the same, not unique at all. Just look at the current uniformity among college students. The pretentions turned out to be hollow: the personal truth of the individual is often not sufficient to give meaning to life. In practice, no autonomy and individual wisdom has been created, but rather ambivalence: Who am I? As a result, we have less and less clarity and confidence, and that makes insecure. The neuroses and burnouts are booming.
Awareness creates reality
Quantum theory scientists, as well as psychologists and those with a spiritual interest, recognize that awareness creates reality. We see the truth of this daily in the media. In the past, if a sperm whale washed up on a beach, it would have local newsworthiness at best. Now it becomes a media hype that leads to parliamentary debates and legislation. And this is just one example in an endless series of smaller and larger things that derive their importance from their number of retweets rather than from their significance. This is what a mediacracy looks like.
Democratization of the news
News gathering and news publication are both almost fully democratized. Potentially, every citizen can play this dual role in relation to the news: he or she is both producer and consumer. Through Twitter, Facebook and iPhone and the many other platforms, everyone can record and publish anything. And in this narcissistic era, we crave to celebrate our personal moment of fame, as announced by Andy Warhol in 1968. News supplier and customer are becoming less and less distinguishable, as is action and response. This also creates a battle for attention, also among the established media, thereby risking a race-to-the-bottom.
Science, once the mecca of objectivity and knowledge, no longer has the authority it had. The Internet gives citizens access to almost the same sources as the scientist. The massive growth in the number of PhDs leads to major thematic fragmentation. Social scientists force themselves into an exact scientific framework that does not do them justice. Science must be refutable, thus science can never offer an objective foundation. Because, as Karl Popper said, objective science is only temporary, it is only the ‘truth’ until the contrary is proven. So, science as a meaning-providing phenomenon is also eroding.
If there is one area of our society where the subjectification of meaning has had a very disastrous effect, then it is politics. Almost every framework for a stable and nuanced interpretation is missing. This leads, by definition, to extremism and polarization. We must increasingly take polarization, derived from the Greek “polos”, pole, literally: the erosion of the content and the seizing of the extremes, the poles. Many major Western democracies have witnessed this phenomenon, which usually leads to stalemates. Consider, for example, Brexit and the American “shutdowns”. In order to be heard, every politician and every party has become louder and louder and has taken up more extreme positions. In every election, old positions are exchanged for new ones. Of course, this only contributes to the growth of chaos. That is why politics is increasing criticized and why confidence in it is falling. This criticism, however, ignores an important point: politicians are only partly to blame for this phenomenon. It is a symptom of a larger development.
Because of the political principle of the primacy of politics we cannot underestimate the significance of this. The primacy of politics describes the monopoly of parliamentary politics over what is of general interest and what the design of social development should look like. As such, politics reflects on everything in society and is thus the highest secular organ of society. But this highest authority does not fundamentally reflect on itself. If politics is not aware that the self is also subject to autonomous social development, subject to the primacy of the development of consciousness, it creates a blind spot. This is often a psychological defense mechanism. What would happen if the blind spot were not there? If politics were no longer in charge of everything, but was also the subject of development, what are they in charge of exactly? Then suddenly the question of the legitimacy of political power can be raised. Political primacy is either valid or not valid: it cannot be partly valid, just as a woman cannot be a bit pregnant. If political primacy turns out to be untenable, why have we-the-people handed over so many powers? There seems to be little room for such self-reflection in politics.
In the absence of objective frames of reference, all news is subjective, and therefore all news is potentially “fake” news. As long as we continue to live under the illusion that truth and clarity exist, the malicious but also the foolish and the thoughtless will use this, either consciously or unconsciously, to further increase the confusion of those who are looking for the truth or to confirm them in their confused conviction.
What to do?
1. Look the beast in the eye
Stop thinking that it will pass. Stop moralizing fake news, unless there is obvious bad faith. Stop trying to outdo each other in indignation about fake news, but accept the phenomenon and come up with new ways of dealing with it. Give up the illusion of objectifiable information and truth. Because we are entering an exciting new paradigm, we must also be able to accept that we do not yet know exactly how to deal with it. That recognition is the first step. And let’s come up with a new language for these two concepts of the erosion of meaning and the deliberate manipulation of news.
2. Train, learn, develop, ……
What is obvious but is not yet being done on a large enough scale: learn, learn, learn to deal with the media. Children and adults, everyone. Information and communication are the oxygen and lubricating oil of this society. We all have to be highly skilled in dealing with this, we must be media savvy. We must understand that this tilting communication paradigm is just as fundamental to human progress as the arrival of the train and the car, the end of food scarcity and so on. We must accept that we must develop new, different and not yet existing concepts for the interpretation of information.
A crucial element of learning is developing our competence to observe, rather than thinking and feeling. These latter are not wrong “sensors”, but they are only of limited help to us. We need to learn what is recognized in psychology but also, for example, in Buddhism: to distinguish between what we observe, what we hear someone say, and how we understand it ourselves. We are used to saying “you hurt me” when someone tells us something disagreeable. We do not see the distinction between language and our interpretation of it. Observation means being open to that which shows itself without judging it. The advantage of observation is that it is easier to find common ground because it is more neutral, less determined by the individual and the past. Observation only “works” in the here and now: by observing in the here and now we can more easily “find” the other. Observation is not cool and distanced, it is empathetic and precise.
4. Adjusting behavior
A symptom of the fake news age is that our society has entered a kind of communicative regression: behavior that regresses into an earlier level of consciousness. Calm thoughtfulness, nuance and tolerance have disappeared. In addition, all information is available permanently and in real-time. The information bombardment we are exposed to every day, the scale and the speed of it, lead to an overload, and itself contributes to the regression. A characteristic of regressive behavior is that we respond more instinctively. We are triggered more by the limbic system where our instincts reside than by the frontal cortex where the ratio dwells. As a result, our attention focuses on pictures faster than on text. Faster on headlines and sound bites than on an article. Moreover, we respond faster to everything that has to do with poo, pee, sex, violence, rancidity and trivialities. There is more appeal to our primary instincts: sexuality and safety, desire and fear. Many media try to seduce us with these kinds of triggers, and we will have to learn to recognize that and to offer more resistance to it. Just as we had to learn to adjust our eating habits and eat healthily and moderately, or stop smoking, we can learn to ignore junk media. What we need, therefore, is discipline. Not a phenomenon that enjoys great popularity at this time, but still useful at the right time.
5. From neutral to partial: opt for honest subjectivity
In a society that does not recognize the phenomenon of the erosion of meaning, the scoundrels have the advantage. If we assume that we all regularly distribute information that can be interpreted as fake news, then we can also assume that the crooks are doing so consciously. However, the superficial viewer cannot recognize the scoundrel.
Take the example of Donald Trump’s struggle with respectable media such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. These media compete for the objectivity of news with an authority, with a person who regularly misuses the subjectification of news. We don’t understand why he gets away with his 8158 lies. The superficial viewer sees two parties accusing each other of fake news. And where two fight, two are to blame. This explains why Trump still has a relatively large following: his supporters merely see are two brawlers. They then opt for the querulant, for the outsider, just like themselves.
If we recognize the phenomenon of the erosion of meaning, serious media will have to accept that objectivity as the highest norm is a lost bastion. They will have to interpret more from pure perception: opting for honest and transparent subjectivity. This has considerable impact: they will have to accept that they are not only media in the literal sense of the word (that they serve to transfer information) but also party to the information they spread. It means giving up the claim to be right.
This may sound frightening, this apparent plea for relativism. It seems to be grist to the mill for Breitbarts and Fox News. That image is understandable, but not correct. It is essentially not relativism that I advocate. What I advocate is a reassessment of objectivism, beyond cognition, beyond emotion, into observation. My thesis is therefore another: in a world where we do not recognize the erosion of meaning, the crooks have an advantage. This thesis is not an ideological one, it is the result of a development that can be observed by everyone, just beyond ideology. As long as we continue to reason and communicate from an assumed but no longer existing objectivism, the erosion of meaning will increase first, and then the erosion of trust. No society can stand that.