Having been away for a week, a fortuitous selection of holiday reading lead me to some insights on the fake news phenomenon and its impact on the recent US election. Let me list these out, before exploring them in more detail:
- A unique quality of humans is our ability to create imagined realities.
- Many things that are fundamental to society are fictional constructs.
- Therefore humans were always ripe to be exploited by fake news.
- It is only the increased ability to propagate fake news and the end of gate-keeping caused by technology that has changed, resulting in the current “crisis”.
The three books that got me thinking about this are:
The first third (or so) of Sapiens focused on the idea of imagined realities that were composed of stories.
The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively.
This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money and no human rights—except in the common imagination of human beings. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee Heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
If this sounds bizarre, just think for a moment about business corporations, like Peugeot or Toyota or Google. What exactly are they? They are not the people working in them, or the managers, or the stockholders, or the buildings. The buildings could be destroyed, the workers fired, the managers replaced, and the stockholders could sell their stocks to somebody else – yet the corporation will continue to exist. Corporations are legal fictions. They are stories invented by lawyers, which have absolutely no existence outside our imagination. Yet these stories are today some of the most powerful forces on earth.
Democracy for Realists makes a very persuasive case for the idea that:
most voters base their political decisions on who they are rather than what they think. Political behaviour reflects our membership of a particular group, an expression of our social identity. Voters choose parties which represent their culture and community, and stay with their political tribe long after they have ceased to serve their interests.
Fake News are stories that construct a political identity
This is the insight I had as a result of my reading. We now have an unprecedented ability to tell stories (about politics) and distribute them widely (for example, through social media). Given the historical openness of humans to imagined realities, it is not surprising that a socio-political identity can be created and propagated as a result of this.
So what? Fake is Fake.
At this point, the concept of Intersubjectivity becomes important. While definitions vary, in this context, I am referring to the ability of humans to share their subjective reality. That is a reality as they perceive it.
If there is a sufficient number of people who believe and share the imagined reality of, for example, Mexican rapists swarming across the US-Mexico border, then this becomes part of their social identity. This social identity is the determining factor in how they vote.
Simply flagging individual articles that appear on social media feeds, will not be sufficient to address this. The challenging of fake news is not just about questioning the veracity of stories, it is challenging the myths that build and sustain a community.
I’ve left The Mirror’s Truth for the end since it is a work of fantasy fiction. However, I found it amusing in the light of the other two books, as it is set in a world where delusion and insanity manifest as reality and I suspect it was responsible for igniting the line of thought expressed in this blog post.