Author Information: Adam Riggio, New Democratic Party of Canada, firstname.lastname@example.org
Riggio, Adam. “Subverting Reality: We Are Not ‘Post-Truth,’ But in a Battle for Public Trust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 66-73.
Image credit: Cornerhouse, via flickr
Note: Several of the links in this article are to websites featuring alt-right news and commentary. This exists both as a warning for offensive content, as well as a sign of precisely how offensive the content we are dealing with actually is.
An important purpose of philosophical writing for public service is to prevent important ideas from slipping into empty buzzwords. You can give a superficial answer to the meaning of living in a “post-truth” world or discourse, but the most useful way to engage this question is to make it a starting point for a larger investigation into the major political and philosophical currents of our time. Post-truth was one of the many ideas American letters haemorrhaged in the maelstrom of Trumpism’s wake, the one seemingly most relevant to the concerns of social epistemology.
It is not enough simply to say that the American government’s communications have become propagandistic, or that the Trump Administration justifies its policies with lies. This is true, but trivial. We can learn much more from philosophical analysis. In public discourse, the stability of what information, facts, and principles are generally understood to be true has been eroding. General agreement on which sources of information are genuinely reliable in their truthfulness and trustworthiness has destabilized and diverged. This essay explores one philosophical hypothesis as to how that happened: through a sustained popular movement of subversion – subversion of consensus values, of reliability norms about information sources, and of who can legitimately claim the virtues of subversion itself. The drive to speak truth to power is today co-opted to punch down at the relatively powerless. This essay is a philosophical examination of how that happens.
Subversion as a Value and an Act
A central virtue in contemporary democracy is subversion. To be a subversive is to progress society against conservative, oppressive forces. It is to commit acts that transgress popular morality while providing a simultaneous critique of it. As new communities form in a society, or as previously oppressed communities push for equal status and rights, subversion calls attention to the inadequacy of currently mainstream morality to the new demands of this social development. Subversive acts can be publications, artistic works, protests, or even the slow process of conducting your own life publicly in a manner that transgresses mainstream social norms and preconceptions about what it is right to do.
Values of subversiveness are, therefore, politically progressive in their essence. The goal of subversion values is to destabilize an oppressive culture and its institutions of authority, in the name of greater inclusiveness and freedom. This is clear when we consider the popular paradigm case of subversive values: punk rock and punk culture. In the original punk and new wave scenes of 1970s New York and Britain, we can see subversion values in action. Punk’s embrace of BDSM and drag aesthetics subvert the niceties of respectable fashion. British punk’s embrace of reggae music promotes solidarity with people oppressed by racist and colonialist norms. Most obviously, punk enshrined a morality of musical composition through simplicity, jamming, and enthusiasm. All these acts and styles subverted popular values that suppressed all but vanilla hetero sexualities, marginalized immigrant groups and ethnic minorities, denigrated the poor, and esteemed an erudite musical aesthetic.
American nationalist conservatism today has adopted the form and rhetoric of subversion values, if not the content. The decadent, oppressive mainstream the modern alt-right opposes and subverts is a general consensus of liberal values – equal rights regardless of race or gender, an imperative to build a fair economy for all citizens, end police oppressive of marginalized communities, and so on. Alt-right activists push for the return of segregation and even ethnic cleansing of Hispanics from the United States. Curtis Yarvin, the intellectual centre of America’s alt-right, openly calls for an end to democratic institutions and their replacement with government by a neo-cameralist state structure that replaces citizenship with shareholds and reduces all public administration and foreign policy to the aim of profit. Yet because these ideas are a radical front opposing a broadly liberal democratic mainstream culture, alt-right activists declare themselves punk. They claim subversiveness in their appropriation of punk fashion in apparel and hair, and their gleeful offensiveness to liberal sensibilities with their embrace of public bigotry.
Subversion Logics: The Vicious Paradox and Trolling
Alt-right discourse and aesthetic claim to have inherited subversion values because their activists oppose a liberal democratic mainstream whose presumptions include the existence of universal human rights and the encouragement of cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity throughout society. If subversion values are defined entirely according to the act of subverting any mainstream, then this is true. But this would decouple subversion values from democratic political thought. At question in this essay – and at this moment in human democratic civilization – is whether such decoupling is truly possible.
If subversion as an act is decoupled from democratic values, then we can understand it as the act of forcing an opponent into a vicious paradox. One counters an opponent by interpreting their position as implying a hypocritical or self-contradictory logic. The most general such paradox is Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance. Alt-right discourse frames their most bigoted communications as subversive acts of total free speech – an absolutism of freedom that decries as censorship any critique or opposition to what they say. This is true whether they write on a comment thread, through an anonymous Twitter feed, or on a stage at UC Berkeley. We are left with the apparent paradox that a democratic society must, if we are to respect our democratic values without being hypocrites ourselves, accept the rights of the most vile bigots to spread racism, misogyny, anti-trans and heterosexist ideas, Holocaust denial, and even the public release of their opponents’ private information. As Popper himself wrote, the only response to such an argument is to deny its validity – a democratic society cannot survive if it allows its citizens to argue and advocate for the end of democracy. The actual hypocritical stance is free speech absolutism: permitting assaults on democratic society and values in the name of democracy itself.
Trolling, the chief rhetorical weapon of the alt-right, is another method of subversion, turning an opponent’s actions against herself. To troll is to communicate with statements so dripping in irony that an opponent’s own opposition can be turned against itself. In a simple sense, this is the subversion of insults into badges of honour and vice versa. Witness how alt-right trolls refer to themselves as shitlords, or denounce ‘social justice warriors’ as true fascists. But trolling also includes a more complex rhetorical strategy. For example, one posts a violent, sexist, or racist meme – say, Barack Obama as a witch doctor giving Brianna Wu a lethal injection. If you criticize the post, they respond that they were merely trying to bait you, and mock you as a fragile fool who takes people seriously when they are not – a snowflake. You are now ashamed, having fallen into their trap of baiting earnest liberals into believing in the sincerity of their racism, so you encourage people to dismiss such posts as ‘mere trolling.’ This allows for a massive proliferation of racist, misogynist, anti-democratic ideas under the cover of being ‘mere trolling’ or just ‘for the lulz.’
No matter the content of the ideology that informs a subversive act, any subversive rhetoric challenges truth. Straightforwardly, subversion challenges what a preponderant majority of a society takes to be true. It is an attack on common sense, on a society’s truisms, on that which is taken for granted. In such a subversive social movement, the agents of subversion attack common sense truisms because of their conviction that the popular truisms are, in fact, false, and their own perspective is true, or at least acknowledges more profound and important truths than what they attack. As we tell ourselves the stories of our democratic history, the content of those subversions were actually true. Now that the loudest voices in American politics claiming to be virtuous subversives support nationalist, racist, anti-democratic ideologies, we must confront the possibility that those who speak truth to power have a much more complicated relationship with facts than we often believe.
Fake News as Simply Lies
Fake news is the central signpost of what is popularly called the ‘post-truth’ era, but it quickly became a catch-all term that refers to too many disparate phenomena to be useful. When preparing for this series of articles, we at the Reply Collective discussed the influence of post-modern thinkers on contemporary politics, particularly regarding climate change denialism. But I don’t consider contemporary fake news as having roots in these philosophies. The tradition is regarded in popular culture (and definitely in self-identified analytic philosophy communities) as destabilizing the possibility of truth, knowledge, and even factuality.
This conception is mistaken, as any attentive reading of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Francois Lyotard, or Jean Beaudrillard will reveal that they were concerned – at least on the question of knowledge and truth – with demonstrating that there were many more ways to understand how we justify our knowledge and the nature of facticity than any simple propositional definition in a Tarskian tradition can include. There are more ways to understand knowledge and truth than seeing whether and how a given state of affairs grounds the truth and truth-value of a description. A recent article by Steve Fuller at the Institute of Art and Ideas considers many concepts of truth throughout the history of philosophy more complicated than the popular idea of simple correspondence. So when we ask whether Trumpism has pushed us into a post-truth era, we must ask which concept of truth had become obsolete. Understanding what fake news is and can be, is one productive probe of this question.
So what are the major conceptions of ‘fake news’ that exist in Western media today? I ask this question with the knowledge that, given the rapid pace of political developments in the Trump era, my answers will probably be obsolete, or at least incomplete, by publication. The proliferation of meanings that I now describe happened in popular Western discourse in a mere two months from Election Day to Inauguration Day. My account of these conceptual shifts in popular discourse shows how these shifts of meaning have acquired such speed.
Fake news, as a political phenomenon, exists as one facet of a broad global political culture where the destabilization of what gets to count as a fact and how or why a proposition may be considered factual has become fully mainstream. As Bruno Latour has said, the destabilization of facticity’s foundation is rooted in the politics and epistemology of climate change denialism, the root of wider denialism of any real value for scientific knowledge. The centrepiece of petroleum industry public relations and global government lobbying efforts, climate change denialism was designed to undercut the legitimacy of international efforts to shift global industry away from petroleum reliance. Climate change denial conveniently aligns with the nationalist goals of Trump’s administration, since a denialist agenda requires attacking American loyalty to international emissions reduction treaties and United Nations environmental efforts. Denialism undercuts the legitimacy of scientific evidence for climate change by countering the efficacy of its practical epistemic truth-making function. It is denial and opposition all the way down. Ontologically, the truth-making functions of actual states of affairs on climatological statements remain as fine as they always were. What’s disappeared is the popular belief in the validity of those truth-makers.
So the function of ‘fake news’ as an accusation is to sever the truth-making powers of the targeted information source for as many people who hear the accusation as possible. The accusation is an attempt to deny and destroy a channel’s credibility as a source of true information. To achieve this, the accusation itself requires its own credibility for listeners. The term ‘fake news’ first applied to the flood of stories and memes flowing from a variety of dubious websites, consisting of uncorroborated and outright fabricated reports. The articles and images originated on websites based largely in Russia and Macedonia, then disseminated on Facebook pages like Occupy Democrats, Eagle Rising, and Freedom Daily, which make money using clickthrough-generating headlines and links. Much of the extreme white nationalist content of these pages came, in addition to the content mills of eastern Europe, from radical think tanks and lobby groups like the National Policy Institute. These feeds are a very literal definition of fake news: content written in the form of actual journalism so that their statements appear credible, but communicating blatant lies and falsehoods.
The feeds and pages disseminating these nonsensical stories were successful because the infrastructure of Facebook as a medium incentivizes comforting falsehoods over inconvenient truths. Its News Feed algorithm is largely a similarity-sorting process, pointing a user to sources that resemble what has been engaged before. Pages and websites that depend on by-clickthrough advertising revenue will therefore cater to already-existing user opinions to boost such engagement. A challenging idea that unsettles a user’s presumptions about the world will receive fewer clickthroughs because people tend to prefer hearing what they already agree with. The continuing aggregation of similarity after similarity reinforces your perspective and makes changing your mind even harder than it usually is.
Trolling Truth Itself
Donald Trump is an epically oversignified cultural figure. But in my case for the moment, I want to approach him as the most successful troll in contemporary culture. In his 11 January 2017 press conference, Trump angrily accused CNN and Buzzfeed of themselves being “fake news.” This proposition seems transparent, at first, as a clear act of trolling, a President’s subversive action against critical media outlets. Here, the insulting meaning of the term is retained, but its reference has shifted to cover the Trump-critical media organizations that first brought the term to ubiquity shortly after the 8 November 2016 election. The intention and meaning of the term has been turned against those who coined it.
In this context, the nature of the ‘post-truth’ era of politics appears simple. We are faced with two duelling conceptions of American politics and global social purpose. One is the Trump Administration, with its propositions about the danger of Islamist terror and the size of this year’s live Inauguration audience. The other is the usual collection of news outlets referred to as the mainstream media. Each gives a presentation of what is happening regarding a variety of topics, neither of which is compatible, both of which may be accurate to greater or lesser degrees in each instance. The simple issue is that the Trump Administration pushes easily falsified transparent propaganda such as the lie about an Islamist-led mass murder in Bowling Green, Kentucky. This simple issue becomes an intractable problem because significantly large spaces in the contemporary media economy constitutes a hardening of popular viewpoints into bubbles of self-reinforcing extremism. Thanks to Facebook’s sorting algorithms, there will likely always be a large group of Trumpists who will consider all his administration’s blatant lies to be truth.
This does not appear to be a problem for philosophy, but for public relations. We can solve this problem of the intractable audience for propaganda by finding or creating new paths to reach people in severely comforting information bubbles. There is a philosophical problem, but it is far more profound than even this practically difficult issue of outreach. The possibility conditions for the character of human society itself is the fundamental battlefield in the Trumpist era.
The accusation “You are fake news!” of Trump’s January press conference delivered a tactical subversion, rendering the original use of the term impossible. The moral aspects of this act of subversion appeared a few weeks later, in a 7 February interview Trump Administration communications official Sebastian Gorka did with Michael Medved. Gorka’s words first appear to be a straightforward instance of authoritarian delegitimizing of opposition, as he equates ‘fake news’ with opposition to President Trump. But Gorka goes beyond this simple gesture to contribute to a re-valuation of the values of subversion and opposition in our cultural discourse. He accuses Trump-critical news organizations of such a deep bias and hatred of President Trump and Trumpism that they themselves have failed to understand and perceive the world correctly. The mainstream media have become untrustworthy, says Gorka, not merely because many of their leaders and workers oppose President Trump, but because those people no longer understand the world as it is. That conclusion is, as Breitbart’s messaging would tell us, the reason to trust the mainstream media no longer is their genuine ignorance. And because it was a genuine mistake about the facts of the world, that accusation of ignorance and untrustworthiness is actually legitimate.
Real Failures of Knowledge
Donald Trump, as well as the political movements that backed his Presidential campaign and the anti-EU side of the Brexit referendum, knew something about the wider culture that many mainstream analysts and journalists did not: they knew that their victory was possible. This is not a matter of ideology, but a fact about the world. It is not a matter of interpretive understanding or political ideology like the symbolic meanings of a text, object, or gesture, but a matter of empirical knowledge. It is not a straightforward fact like the surface area of my apartment building’s front lawn or the number of Boeing aircraft owned by KLM. Discovering such a fact as the possibility conditions and likelihood of an election or referendum victory involving thousands of workers, billions of dollars of infrastructure and communications, and millions of people deliberating over their vote or refusal to vote is a massively complicated process. But it is still an empirical process and can be achieved to varying levels of success and failure. In the two most radical reversals of the West’s (neo)liberal democratic political programs in decades, the press as an institution failed to understand what is and is not possible.
Not only that, these organizations know they have failed, and know that their failure harms their reputation as sources of trustworthy knowledge about the world. Their knowledge of their real inadequacy can be seen in their steps to repair their knowledge production processes. These efforts are not a submission to the propagandistic demands of the Trump Presidency, but an attempt to rebuild real research capacities after the internet era’s disastrous collapse of the traditional newspaper industry. Through most of the 20th century, the news media ecology of the United States consisted of a hierarchy of local, regional, and inter/national newspapers. Community papers reported on local matters, these reports were among the sources for content at regional papers, and those regional papers in turn provided source material for America’s internationally-known newsrooms in the country’s major urban centres. This information ecology was the primary route not only for content, but for general knowledge of cultural developments beyond those few urban centres.
With the 21st century, it became customary to read local and national news online for free, causing sales and advertising revenue for those smaller newspapers to collapse. The ensuing decades saw most entry-level journalism work become casual and precarious, cutting off entry to the profession from those who did not have the inherited wealth to subsidize their first money-losing working years. So most poor and middle class people were cut off from work in journalism, removing their perspectives and positionality from the field’s knowledge production. The dominant newspaper culture that centred all content production in and around a local newsroom persisted into the internet era, forcing journalists to focus their home base in major cities. So investigation outside major cities rarely took place beyond parachute journalism, visits by reporters with little to no cultural familiarity with the region. This is a real failure of empirical knowledge gathering processes. Facing this failure, major metropolitan news organizations like the New York Times and Mic have begun building a network of regional bureaus throughout the now-neglected regions of America, where local independent journalists are hired as contractual workers to bring their lived experiences to national audiences.
America’s Democratic Party suffered a similar failure of knowledge, having been certain that the Trump campaign could never have breached the midwestern regions – Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania – that for decades have been strongholds of their support in Presidential elections. I leave aside the critical issue of voter suppression in these states to concentrate on a more epistemic aspect of Trump’s victory. This was the campaign’s unprecedented ability to craft messages with nuanced detail. Cambridge Analytica, the data analysis firm that worked for both Trump and leave.eu, provided the power to understand and target voter outreach with almost individual specificity. This firm derives incredibly complex and nuanced data sets from the Facebook behaviour of hundreds of millions of people, and is the most advanced microtargeting analytics company operating today. They were able to craft messages intricately tailored to individual viewers and deliver them through Facebook advertising. So the Trump campaign has a legitimate claim to have won based on superior knowledge of the details of the electorate and how best to reach and influence them.
Battles Over the Right to Truth
With this essay, I have attempted an investigation that is a blend of philosophy and journalism, an examination of epistemological aspects of dangerous and important contemporary political and social phenomena and trends. After such a mediation, I feel confident in proposing the following conclusions.
1) Trumpist propaganda justifies itself with an exclusive and correct claim to reliability as a source of knowledge: that the Trump campaign was the only major information source covering the American election that was always certain of the possibility that they could win. That all other media institutions at some point did not understand or accept the truth of Trump’s victory being possible makes them less reliable than the Trump team and Trump personally.
2) The denial of a claim’s legitimacy as truth, and of an institution’s fidelity to informing people of truths, has become such a powerful weapon of political rhetoric that it has ended all cross-partisan agreement on what sources of information about the wider world are reliable.
3) Because of the second conclusion, journalism has become an unreliable set of knowledge production techniques. The most reliable source of knowledge about that election was the analysis of mass data mining Facebook profiles, the ground of all Trump’s public outreach communications. Donald Trump became President of the United States with the most powerful quantitative sociology research program in human history.
4) This is Trumpism’s most powerful claim to the mantle of the true subversives of society, the virtuous rebel overthrowing a corrupt mainstream. Trumpism’s victory, which no one but Trumpists themselves thought possible, won the greatest achievement of any troll. Trumpism has argued its opponent into submission, humiliated them for the fact of having lost, then turned out to be right anyway.
The statistical analysis and mass data mining of Cambridge Analytica made Trump’s knowledge superior to that of the entire journalistic profession. So the best contribution that social epistemology as a field can make to understanding our moment is bringing all its cognitive and conceptual resources to an intense analysis of statistical knowledge production itself. We must understand its strengths and weaknesses – what statistical knowledge production emphasizes in the world and what escapes its ability to comprehend. Social epistemologists must ask themselves and each other: What does qualitative knowledge discover and allow us to do, that quantitative knowledge cannot? How can the qualitative form of knowledge uncover a truth of the same profundity and power to popularly shock an entire population as Trump’s election itself?