A Hermeneutical Perspective on “Fake News”

Speech at the conference “Fake News Cultures: The Context of Viral Disinformation Across East and West”, Umeå University, Sweden: October 10-11, 2019. It was published in Kyiv Post, Oct. 26, 2019 as “A Perspective on Fake News”.

In order to understand current social processes in the global and national (local) dimensions related to the post-truth era, we need to understand their recurrence in history. That is, it is important for us to takespace and time into consideration. Then, according to Wilhelm Dilthey, a classic of romantic hermeneutics, if we understand general patterns, it will be easier for us to understand their unique nature in each case in a new historical period.

The phenomenon of fake news has a long history. After all, it is human to tell a lie sometimes. Deliberate misleading has always been part of the political life of any society. In other words, there is nothing new when a person or a corporation is trying to mislead another person, or even the whole society. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, such as German Nazism and Russian Communism, offered nothing but fake news at all.

Leftist intellectuals have repeatedly claimed that the Western news industry is not truthful enough. A classic work of ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ (1988) by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky can be mentioned here. Although these authors did not use the term ‘fake news’, they offered to perceive American media critically, thus protecting the public interest as opposed to explicit or implicit media representation of the interests of various power groups through the so-called “news filters”.

The ideological legacy of postmodernism, based on the ideas of contextuality, relativity and multiplicity of meanings, has substantially contributed to justification of fake news. It seems that all depends on the point of view: credibility is relative, and no genuine truth exists. We only play with words and meanings. You can really consider some news as fake news. And that’s OK. However, it may look quite true to another consumer. If one news producer has own view of events, then another is said to have a right to a different interpretation of the same events.

In fact, such “applied postmodernism,” as Timothy Snyder says, is a kind of manifestation of authoritarian power in new social circumstances. We find it directly connected to the liberal rhetoric of free choice. The word “interpretation” loses its fruitful hermeneutical meaning here, breaking away from critical thinking and shifting into propaganda.

Postmodernism has also chosen tradition in its general meaning as an object of deconstruction, treating it as a potentially dangerous phantasm. According to the founder of philosophical hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer, tradition in this sense means the ground on which the participant of a conversation stands. It forms a prior judgment in a fruitful conversation when all the participants are striving to discover the truth. Thus, the hermeneutical position has a modernist nature. It can clearly distinguish truth from lies, or fake news.

We are also facing the phenomenon pointed out by Neil Postman when he explained the difference between two dangers: a prohibition on reading books and no need to read them. His follower in Ukraine, professor Boris Potiatynnyk, speaks not only about media literacy, but also about media philosophy, media criticism, and media ecology: identification and resistance to dangerous “pathogenic” texts, which are brought up by critical thinking.

Coming back to the issue of modern fake news, we see the main problem not in the very attempt of a certain political force to mislead mass audience (such attempts have always taken place), but in the reaction of that audience. According to the Uses and Gratifications theory, we need to find out not only what the media do to the audience, but also what the audience does to the media (Elihu Katz). That is, what the audience wants to see in the media.

The post-truth era is characterized by the reluctance of the mass audience to see a truly holistic picture of events, ignoring reliable sources of information and wishing to select only cozy and comfortable, yet invariably fake, news. From a certain point of view, the general public has itself created a demand for such news. I remember very well that in the Soviet Union we had another problem, namely, the lack of reliable sources of truthful information. That is why the “Aesopian language” became so widespread there: people tried to “read between lines” searching for a hidden truth.

Today’s global triumph of post-truth indicates that not only in post-totalitarian countries such as Ukraine but also within bastions of the free press such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America, mass audiences fall prey to special informational operations during election campaigns or referenda. Anyone who wants to mislead is addressing information to consumers with messages they want to hear. Opposing promises are thrown altogether – promises that are impossible to put into life. Experts are talking about a crisis of critical thinking: now this skill is generally not considered as a social value.

In Ukraine television remains the most influential of all media: its impact is 74% versus 24% of social media (Detector media, 2019). However, the role of social networks is much bigger since they are executing a selective function by ranking media news through different interpretation lens. In such a way, freedom of speech is losing its professional grounds by producing different sets of fake news instead. Various consumer groups select that kind of news which they like. Such news are misleading and producing parallel media realities.

A new category of politicians is emerging: populists. They are those who offer easy solutions to hard problems. This phenomenon is not new either, as any politician has at all times tried to promise more than he or she could implement. However, populism appears to be the only way to real power in media discourse because of the created parallel media reality.

According to the research done by Kantar TNS company, which was commissioned by the Center for Economic Strategy in August 2019, on average 84% of Ukrainians support populist politics, and 59% of the population find it realistic. This is exactly such a dimension of media reality when the majority of society is literally thinking with the help of fantastic categories.

It means that social changes have taken place on a global scale. No less dramatically have mass media changed. Earlier, the implementation of such projects was impossible due to insufficient technological capacity. The explosion of social networks brought an opportunity not only to get inside every home, as cheap and efficient radio once did. Vladimir Lenin, the father of modern political marketing, could not even dream of such a possibility to convey his clash arguments, which were propagandist fake news back then, to everyone, the largest and the smallest social groups.

In parallel to the emerging Internet and citizen journalism, Edward S. Herman, the co-author of the “Manufacturing Consent …”, expressed hope for the technological strengthening of true independent news. Now every citizen journalist could create their own content and compete with professional media. However, very quickly everything has changed for the opposite: the new media undermined the economy of professional media, declared “no need” for professional (responsible) journalism; accompanied by the talk about political indifference of social media platforms, really “high technologies” of manipulating mass consciousness grew up.

Propaganda opportunities, unheard of by even Joseph Goebbels, have been created. There has been a decline in public tastes and a new atomization of mass audiences has taken place. It can be called new if we link the first atomization to the Magic Bullet theory and Hypodermic Needle theory that grew up in the last century based on the Great Depression cases in the United States and the fear of Western democracies of Nazism’s propaganda possibilities. Of course, it is easiest to manipulate poor people who have no job, nor property, but also a society most concerned with hedonistic whims of its members, who are not so deeply interconnected with the common cultural values.

In this regard, Zbigniew Brzezinski complained about the ignorance of large public and lack of traditional values among its elite, and also, as a consequence: spreading garrison-state mentality or wallow in self-righteous cultural hedonism. Although atomization of society is not a new phenomenon, either. Even Ancient Greeks knew that it leads to ochlocracy (power of the crowd). Problems with education and culture, as well as the exceptional impact of fake news, remain common for both the first and the second waves of atomization.

What is the difference between today’s post truth and fake news and the manipulations with mass consciousness in ancient Rome? – First of all, the presence of the Internet and social networks. Similarly, ancient Oriental despotisms were not totalitarian states yet. It is only in the XXth century when it has become technologically possible to control all the information people receive during their lifetime, as well as their education and behavior.

So today, the press, and first of all, social media (but not only), are largely shaping the political agenda. Mediatization theory says that politicians are increasingly trying to tailor their messages to the demands of mass media, and so perhaps the press is not just a tool for informing, mediating and interacting. Mass media are acquiring a self-important systematic weight and independently affecting public life. Therefore, in order to better understand society, it is important to understand modern media. Coming back to our topic, we would like to add that it is important to understand not only mass media but particularly the nature of fake news.

Those theories of mass communication which deal with globalization processes tend to be over-generalizing. Thus, Glocalization theory talks about a certain marketing interaction between the global and the local, when global ideas and patterns of behavior are mostly adapted to local rhetoric and national peculiarities. In fact, in order to understand the impact of fake news, in each case we need to understand deeper the situation at the national state level. After all, freedom of speech can only be realized in the framework of a specific national legislation created in response to requests from society. That is, the ideal of the freedom of speech can be successfully fulfilled only when the society needs it and treats it as a value.

The impact of fake news is not just a global trend. The largest state by territory, which can be seen as a global gas station or as the biggest propaganda media corporation at the same time, plays a special role in disseminating fake news. As an authoritarian state, Russia has been most successful in creating and spreading fake news, including for domestic use. Putin’s efforts have actually created a parallel fake media reality there. Considering the fact that Russia is a global investor in fake news, we can talk about a global informational war, or rather, a hybrid war started by Russia against the Western world.

Ukrainian political reality also deserves strong criticism, yet from the opposite perspective. Ukrainian society can be characterized as extremely naive, as it thinks within categories of an impossible “ideal state”. What does it mean? – If the political forces in power do not meet prior public expectations, Ukrainian society immediately launches a process of complete reloading of power. It is probably grounded on valuing political rights and freedoms as such, rather than comprehending the value of having an independent state: not yet perfect, but already one’s own.

On the other hand, public institutions are weak. Due to the naive public attitudes to the liberal rules of the game, the understanding of the reasons why they were created is often lost. For example, openly pro-Russian media can function legally in Ukraine, which obviously cannot be seen as normal. A strong and demanding civil society is a big positive achievement of the Revolution of Dignity. In particular, the volunteer movement and new traditions of direct action democracy.

Today civil society is facing new challenges related to the overwhelming majority [“mono-majority”] of pro-presidential political power in the Parliament and accompanying temptations of authoritarianism. The trends of unwillingness to ask real questions and take upon responsibility also result in degradation processes in the journalist’s profession. It was evident from the primitive questions that Ukrainian journalists asked Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko during their first press conference after Russian imprisonment.

So, fake news does have influence in Ukraine and Russia, but the reasons for that are different. In Russia, there is a kind of public agreement for authoritarian state. In general, imperial “greatness” looks to Russians a higher value than democratic rights and freedoms. In Ukraine, on the contrary, the excessive democratic turbulence and lack of traditions of own effective state institutions are intensifying the influence of manipulations with mass consciousness. The tough critical media discourse in Ukraine very much resembles an informational war of all against all. What is more, none of the parties take into account the participation of the external Russian factor.

We can conclude that fake news does influence and wins under all kinds of political circumstances and systems – including countries of liberal democracy and societies that prefer authoritarian power. Modern technologies can also contribute to post truth. Under such hybrid circumstances, various philosophical, economic, and political theories and ideologies are losing their meaning because neither liberals or conservatives, right or left, nor Christians or agnostics can stand against fake news by offering a truly real agenda to society.

The title of the book by a Ukrainian intellectual and diplomat Dmytro Kuleba sounds precisely as «The Struggle for Reality. How to Win in the World of Fakes, Truths, and Communities” (2019). People should hear and understand each other by meeting one another in real life, not through social networks. Politicians should be held accountable for real matters in which they are involved. This is possible with the help of critical thinking which can be enabled by true education and relevant social circumstances, including an opportunity to enjoy political rights and freedoms.

So, let us try to summarize. How can we fight fake news? In order to answer this question, we need to consider the following points.

Firstly, for an open and serious conversation within society, there should available critically thinking initiators of such talk (intellectuals and politicians) and a technological possibility to extract such a discourse from the general informational noise and deliberately manipulative messages.

Secondly, the response of the audience does matter. Public energy should be targeted to support educational institutions and academic research – only they can motivate people to start thinking in a really critical way. It is important to preserve what makes us human, stressed Martin Heidegger, one of the founders of hermeneutics tradition in philosophy, meaning the ability to think deeply. He spoke of philosophy as “the benefit of the useless”, as a denial of a superficial, consumerist, and selfish approach.

Thirdly, tradition can no longer be opposed to critical discourse. It is important to keep your attention, as urged by Paul Ricœur, a distinguished representative of philosophical hermeneutics and honorary professor of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy: Europeans should not forget anything, but they should not be kept hostage to their own memory. At the same time, according to the founder of philosophical hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer, tradition is part of our identity and it shapes necessary pre-judgments for our critical thinking.

Fourthly, a victory of professional media, professional journalism, and professional news (value-oriented news) over fake news is possible at the level of each independent state. It is not global, but the national level that is fundamental: every society must resolve this challenge for itself.


Опубліковано у Герменевтика, Масові комунікації. Додати до закладок постійне посилання.