Fake news and post-truth, a weary debate… maybe even worn out

Fake news and post-truth, a weary debate… maybe even worn out

In the last two years the debate on fake news and how they influence public opinion in the most unequal fields, from medicine, to politics, to meteorology, has spread widely. Conventional media wisdom puts the blame on new media, especially on social networks. Nowadays most people follow the news on social networks, and so most people click on, share, and tweet articles, posts, and images.

The impact of the fiasco of the traditional news media regarding Donald Trump’s nomination and the vote for Brexit in Great Britain has prompted the post-truth and fake news debate. The international dictionaries elected these new words of the year, respectively, ‘post-truth’ for 2016 and ‘fake news’ in 2017. The definition of post-truth proposed by the Oxford Dictionary emphasizes the contrast between the "objective facts" and "appeals to personal emotions and beliefs," highlighting how it is precisely the emotional and personal component that plays a fundamental role in the formation of 'public opinion.' Fake news, on the other hand, are considered as the main manifestation of post-truth. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the expression in fact indicates, "false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke”.

These definitions focus their attention principally on the message, which becomes the fulcrum of a communication in which the role of the broadcaster is clear, even though his role is not exempt of bias or manipulation. Meanwhile, the recipient of communication seems to be put on the sidelines, viewed a passive subject of his innocent spreading of fake news. Yet, what role does the public have or could have, in this new scenario, in which social networks seems to have no limits, no guidelines of fairness, and where ethical rules have not yet reached “cyber citizenship”?

One answer, in the form of in-depth reflection, comes from an article published in the winter issue of Nuestro Tiempo, a cultural magazine published by the University of Navarra (Spaign). Its author, Miquel Urmeneta, journalist and lecturer of communication at the International University of Catalonia, addresses the issue by focusing precisely on the last element of communication, on the recipient, inviting the reader to reflect on the role he has not only as a receiver of the message, but also as a protagonist in the flow of news.

Objectivist journalism and algorithms, a struggle for power to win over the general public

In his article, Urmeneta reminds us how Donald Trump's communication electoral campaign and also Brexit campaigners did use dubious statements or even actual lies. Certainly the phenomenon of fake news is neither new in the history of humanity, nor in the history of communication. But, unlike the past, it is truth and our understanding of truth that makes the difference.

In 2017 the monthly Time magazine publishes an edition with the cover titled rather provocatively 'Is Truth Dead?' But even earlier, in 2016, the director of The Guardian Katharine Viner had written an article entitled "How technology disrupted the truth". Viner explains how "news publishers have lost control over the distribution of their journalism, which for many readers is now “filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable.” In short, the relationship between those who produce and those who consume the news no longer has intermediations, being substantially dependent on the algorithm. And, in the case of fake news, the algorithm goes much faster than true news. This is demonstrated by a study carried out by MIT (Media Lab Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and published by the journal Science in March 2018.

The study took into account 126 thousand news articles disseminated on the Twitter platform from 2006 to the end of 2016, before the election of Donald Trump. The fastest ‘race horses’, let’s say, are about politics, and they win over terrorism, natural disasters, finance, and science. The reason is that fake news conveys new messages that at the same time have a strong emotional impact on the recipients that become, however, the main people "responsible for the dissemination of false or misleading information." It happens that the instantaneousness of sharing beats the reflection, zeroing the time, but behind the click and its impact on the algorithm, there is always a person. Moreover, another significant fact that emerges in the MIT study is the fact that the relevance of the phenomenon of fake news is inversely proportional to the level of awareness of users/public/recipients.

We are then in a scenario in which technology and truth combat between themselves with every share, like, and re-tweet. It is actually a contrast that has been holding for some years now, let's say from the first half of the twentieth century when it was brought to everyone's attention by the famous essay by Benjamin, 'The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.’ In this case as well, therefore, there is nothing new, apart from the globalization added factor.

The truth can be counterfeited by the technique, and this applies to art as well as to communication, but above all, it is no longer a question only of artists and experts. It concerns each of us, in everyday life, in the simple act that has now become normal, social-multi-media communication. But speaking of post-truth must not lead us to consider that the comparison above has been definitively won by the technique, or that the truth is ineluctably algorithmic, as if the whole techno-modifying flow could not be governed. The main actor in this process, as explained by Urmeneta's essay, can and must be the public. In fact, his work aims to analyze and reflect on the role of the public in the formation of opinion flows. The public is the crucial element of communication, especially as it is understood in this particular historical time. "Politicians seek our votes - Urmeneta emphasizes - the media our attention, social networks feed on our interactions," and all this often "runs on the web," on large platforms that are not always transparent, and where the interests at stake are very high, as many as the zeros needed to quantify the clicking value market. "Citizens can - explains Urmeneta - reverse the intrusion of economic logic and consumption that, as described by Habermas, has invaded the private sector through the expansion of the mass media," they can mediate 'freeing' the truth which appears now hostage to SEO, they can help build an 'adequate' narrative of reality, one which reflects and respects truth.

Return to the realist concept of truth

The debate on fake news and post-truth is, after all, a problem within the boundaries of positivism, in the Enlightenment matrix that had characterized journalism from its birth until today. Galdón López had already demonstrated this before the dawn of the Internet (Information and disinformation: The method in journalism, Armando, Rome 1999) and the diagnosis is valid for the later, since technology has simply limitlessly multiplied the holders of power to inform... or misinform.

"We can exert our influence on the media," Urmeneta says in the essay, but to do so we need to get out of what he calls a "skeptical-gullible" bipolar attitude, trying to be critical and honest first of all with ourselves. " "Reaching the truth requires a collective effort," he continues, based mainly on the willingness to cooperate "to reach empathy," learning, striving, to understand each other, to put oneself in another’s shoes. "Truth is a struggle - he explains - but it is above all against our own prejudices."

The goal is to make sure that our vision of the world evolves, but at the same time, that there is a more practical change, related to lifestyles: "learning to dialogue through listening and thoughtful involvement," commit to building consensus that can also integrate a different vision. This means, according to Urmeneta, not to abdicate our own responsibility as a citizen and person. And it also means, "to claim a higher democratic standard with regard to social networks, both with reference to the use by political parties, and with reference to the same media.” “The fight against truth always has an individual and collective dimension" and can be carried out through the exercise of critical thinking and ethical behavior. The sincere social dialogue moves first of all from a person's honesty, and according to Urmeneta, "has much to do with the conquest of one's own freedom."

And this depends on the assumption of responsibility on the part of the people and the desire to put the common good at the center of the social communication network. Only in this way can we assume responsibility for building the society in which we want to live. "A society in which truth can be a shield against arbitrariness and injustice, in which respect for people is a reflection of their true dignity."

The debate on fake news and post-truth, if it wants to be serious and fruitful, and not a simple instrumental weapon to delegitimize the adversary with ad hominem arguments, must return to focus on truth, on our ability to reach it and tell it, either philosophical or religious truth, or the more minute and humble journalistic truth. Propaganda and manipulation are a whole other story, which have nothing to do with journalism.