Participatory culture and Michel Foucault: how we’re all to blame for ‘fake news’ and the loss of social consciousness.
By Dr. Karen Lowry
20th of April 2020
Which news headlines are intended to mislead readers with false claims, and which headlines represent verified news?
Defining fake news is more complicated than it first appears. According to Allcott and Gentzkow, fake news is any news article that is “intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers” (Allcott and Gentzkow 2017, 213). However, this definition is problematic because it causes us to pause and consider, what is 'news'? Thanks to web 2.0 and social media, we have instant access to reporting from direct sources without it being filtered through a third party news site. In order to compete, many news sites need to offer more than straight reporting. This often includes opinion, even satire, which has been controversal with readers (Smith 2019). With that being said, Allcott and Gentzkow’s definition does rule out unintentionally misleading journalism, such as, reporting mistakes, conspiracy theories, false statements by politicians and filtering (Edison et al 2018). It is important to note here that, according to Jenkins, “the web is not sufficient alone for spreading misinformation, but it leads the agenda for traditional media” (Rojecki and Meraz 2014, p.24). Even prior to the internet, we as humans have proven to be gullible. Orsen Welles explains, following the 1938 BBC radio broadcast of War of the Worlds:
“We were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, was being swallowed . . . so in a way, our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine. We wanted people to understand that they shouldn’t take any opinion pre-digested, and they shouldn’t swallow everything that came through the tap, whether it was radio or not” (as cited in Berman 2017, para.2).
It didn’t work. The world panicked and, while we are now more conscious of the bias of articles online, the quick sharing of content as small, digestible nuggets of information, increases our exposure to fake news stories in ways previously not possible. Fake news therefore exists as a result of a fundamental shift in how we access information (Egelhofer and Lecheler 2019). Research has also found that many people share fake news without reading it (Lazer et al, 2018), with of these people first encountering it on Facebook (Egelhofer and Lecheler 2019; Guess et al 2018; Nelson and Taneja 2018).
Part of our susceptibility to fake news is our lack of digital literacy due, in part, to our ability to participate in it's creation (Jenkins 2017). Many of us still treat news as coming from authorative, traditional sources that gatekeep information and have not yet adapted to a world of user-generated content. It is hard to navigate through the sheer volume of information online. According to Farnam Street;
“a lot of information pollution falls somewhere in between the extremes that tend to get the most attention. It’s the result of people being overworked or in a hurry and unable to do the due diligence that reliable journalism requires” ("The Illusory Truth Effect" n.d.).
One of the problems is that there is less gatekeeping involved in online news. Many news sites crowdsource their information and many more of us tweet and blog about issues we find personally relevant. As Wilson et al explain, “Online information providers are not bound by editorial and gatekeeping regulations like in the traditional media” (2020, 99). The result is that we are faced “with the influx of information online and offline” and that “the issue of message credibility is crucial (Hussain et all, 2018, p.6).
While many of us are gullible online, this is not a recent phenomenon with the establishment of the web. Fake news sites often utilise the illusory truth effect, a term which was first described by Hasher, Goldstein and Toppino in “Frequency and the Conference of Referential Validity” (1977). According to Polage, the illusionary effect is a way of explaining how “exposure to false stories increased the perceived plausibility and truthfulness of those stories” (2012, p.248). These misleading articles are often very convincing, particularly as repeated exposure increases their perceived accuracy (Pennycook, Cannon and Rand 2017). They are also never localised, resulting in receiving the same information from multiple online sources, whether that be news sites, blogs or retweets and shares. This act of sharing gives users power. We are not passive entities "at the receiving end of power" (Foucault 1980, 98).
So why spread fake news? According to Au-Yong-Oliveira et al, there are two key motivations; the first, less concerning, motivation is that the people sharing the news genuinely believe in their own delusions. More concerning, however, is the second motivation, namely that, for some, “news articles that go viral on social media can draw significant advertising revenue when users click to the original site” (2019, p.196). A third motivation, I argue, could be added: the use of fake news to manipulate and control. We’ve seen the spread of fake particularly during election campaigns and in relation to the introduction of new bills in parliament.
The use of media to regulate and control populations has long been established with Foucault developing his theory of governmentality around the use of traditional, offline media. Governmentality, in this context, refers to the art of government, not just in terms of state politics, but also including all avenues of population and border control (Savva 2014). This control is acheived "by controlling, regulating, and also ‘letting’ the government subjects free to govern themselves” (Savva 2014, p.39). Examples of this are education and the media. The media is particularly prominernt at the moment of writing (March 2020), as it is causing mass hysteria in order to prepare people for self-quarantine and ensure they submit to border control processes. As Savva explains; “the government agency applies the technologies of performance as they demand from the … individual to ‘perform’ their conduct on the freedom given to them in a certain way” (2014, p.22). In other words, citizens are encouraged to regulate their behaviour according to given standards. It would therefore be naive to presume governments play no role in the dissemination of fake news, even if its just in their inaction on regulating it at a national level. After all, they often benefit from it.
The government's rules and restrictions for population control forms the dominant discourse in society. Pressure to abide by it comes from many sources. Foucault went as far as to claim “a totally different view of the purpose behind human relationships, and posited that power is not the expression of a sovereign will but rather the regulation of life processes of living legal subjects” (as cited in Justice 2017, para.7). Sometimes fake news represents a minority discourse, as we thought was the case with fake news surrounding Donald Trump. However, the discourse that is dominant can change; “Structural changes in society can be conceptualised as shifts in the relative influence of different discourses” (Sharp and Richardson 2001, p.196). As Fleming explains, “discourses are dynamic entities, shifting, merging, fading and re-emerging, therefore discourses are always able to be changed” (2010, p.10). We saw this with the conservatism that took over the US after Donald Trump was voted into office and started criticising the media. This kind of criticism of mass media from politicians in not a result of the development of the internet and user-generated content (Egelhofer 2019). However, Egelhofer and Lecheler point out that “the extent to which this happens following the introduction of the fake news terminology is unprecedented” (2019, p.105).
Predating the internet, politicians have long used fake and misleading news as a weapon to discredit opponents (Egelhofer and Lecheler 2019). Fake news is a method of population control, a way to delegitimise journalism and attack the legitimacy of particular outlets (Egelhofer and Lecheler 2019). As Foucault explains, population control is a political, economical and social problem, which he, for instance, showed in regard to the regulation of sex (1979); "Between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less; a whole web of discourses, special knowledges, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it" (Foucault 1979, p.26). We started collecting fertility rates, marriage statistics, and birth rates. These private things became public as what we talked about and acted upon became of government concern (Foucault 1979). Fake news has been such an effective tool for the control of populations because politicians can control, not just the rules and regulations we abide by, but even how we think, through the control of information distribution (Jowett and O’Donnell 2014, p.51). This population control can become extreme as was seen in Nazi Germany, where the Nazi government exterminated parts of its own population in order to maintain what the Nazi ideology considered to be a healthy and pure population.
When it comes to exploring the political ramifications of fake news in an accessible way for the general public, electronic literature is a more suitable platform than academic journals because it transgresses boundaries (Hayles 2007). Electronic literature, according to N. Katherine Hayles, is “generally considered to exclude print literature that has been digitized, is by contrast 'digital born,' a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer” (Hayles 2007). While works come with varying degrees of interactivity, all electronic literature replaces reading with writing, as Barthes once argued for print literature (Barthes 1968), putting a focus on experimentation and creation. As Benzon explains “electronic literature's purchase on the political is possible precisely because of its focus on formal experimentation rather than in spite of it” (2019, p.68). However, electronic literature is also criticising the system from within;
“If we understand the internet as perhaps the crucial infrastructure of the twenty-first century, then electronic literature is uniquely suited to provide critical purchase on infrastructural and political questions precisely because it is inextricable from that infra-structure—not only from the information on our screens, but also from the whole system of undersea cables, data centers, server racks, satellites, wireless towers, special economic zones, factories, supply chains, e-waste graveyards, and other objects and sites, all urgently in need of political critique” (Benzon 2019, p.68).
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