Fake news entails real problems. Many European countries are facing spring elections amid growing concerns regarding alleged Russian propaganda, manipulative misinformation and brainwashing social media strategies launched by unscrupulous companies profiting through the dissemination of clickbait content.
Meanwhile, governments and politicians are proposing countermeasures spanning from Orwellian “thought police” to issuing fines. This leads to a troublesome paradox: whether it is acceptable to censor social media to safeguard media freedom. The mediatisation of this debate – the fact that fake news is an en vogue argument discussed in the most influential opinion leaders’ filter bubble – helps to highlight its importance but prevents it from being framed correctly.
Firstly, fake news deliberately disseminated by foreign countries to manipulate public opinion is very different from false content channelled to pump revenues into someone’s pocket. There is nothing new under the sun about the latter. Stratcom and psyops have always been utilised by hegemonic countries to win the battle of ideas; the boundaries between what is false and what is a biased interpretation of reality framed to favour some interests are blurred. The fact that rogue states have adopted such strategies may be worrying but it is no surprise. The ideas promulgated by those in power are always an ideological interpretation of reality. The Frankfurt School extensively investigated the role of the culture industry, which includes the media. Marxists, in general, emphasise the role of “legitimate intellectuals”1 to shape “the public sphere as a virtual or “imaginary community”2. Pivotal is the Marxist concept of ideology as false consciousness3 that legitimises the prevailing ideas of a particular society as formed by the ruling class to justify their position.
Secondly, consider the success of debunkers and fact-checkers, the faith in the Moloch of Big Data and the proliferation of experts and politicians who stress the importance of spreading factual information to counter fake news. All these testify to the primacy of paradigms rooted in the heuristic category of homo economicus. Every time conspiracy theories flourish, the experts’ answer is, “Let’s provide data-based information”. Unfortunately, infographics do not help us to stop, for example, the believers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or those who deem that the European Union is a freemason conspiracy backed by globalist elites. Nor will calling them ignorant or stupid be beneficial for the triumph of what we label “truth”. The underlying assumption that fake news is leading us to a post-truth society is that a golden age of truth-based society has existed. This idea springs from the homo economicus theory4, a concept that has driven both liberalism and Marxism, implying that voters, readers, and consumers are “rational”5 and their decisions are based on the principle of diminishing marginal utility. A shared feature of Marxism and Liberalism is a deference towards the primacy of the economic base and a generic trust in people’s rationality – markets, to be efficient, must be operated by rational actors. This sustains the current ideology that facts can save us from fake news.
However, many scholars have objected to these assumptions. Herbert Simon called this approach “Olympic rationality” 6, arguing that decisions are actually taken following bounded rationality. Charles Lindblom7 added that, for politicians, what is considered to be decision-making based on facts is rather “the art of muddling through”, because – as Pressman & Wildavsky8 have demonstrated – decision-making processes are incremental and the outcomes can be completely different from what was planned. Economic rationality is chimerical and, according to March and Olsen9, decisions are taken through a “garbage can” model. Bounded rationality guides voters’ and readers’ behaviours. Walter Lippmann, who first theorised the idea of public opinion, emphasised that the masses are like a “great beast”, a bewildered herd influenced by a non-factual imagery. As a consequence, Gustave Le Bon10 defined the psychological crowd as a collective “unconsciousness” of alienated individuals trapped into “magnetic influence given out by the crowd” where an individual’s behaviour becomes governed by the “group mind”. Storytelling prevails over facts.
In this regard, as Christian Salmon11 argues, political storytelling and mythology are based on the same emotional tools, embodied in the concepts of epos and ethos. Citizens cast their votes according to their values. It is not by chance that all political marketing keywords, such as mission and vision, are reminiscent of religions. The most effective political campaigns rely on emotional reactions more than rational-economic responses. Even economic deterministic Marxism has been popularised by romantic icons like Che Guevara; in fact, the Communist Manifesto is completely different from Das Kapital. Grand narratives which allure and charm voters are fundamental12. Politics is about being part of a community, is a commitment to a collective action, not merely discussions on tax cuts. This is why political advisor Dave Gold13 concludes that in order to win elections, politicians must shift from data-driven campaigns to message-driven and data-informed ones.
From voters to readers, things do not change dramatically. Economic rationality itself has been called into question by cognitive scientists. According to the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman14, human rationality is biased by rational fallacy. Mancur Olson argued that the collective consequences of singular rational behaviours may be irrational consequences. The same conclusions are drawn by game theorists15. Gérald Bronner16 has therefore recently noted that those who believe in fake news are neither ignorant nor stupid. We face a rationality failure when the democratic quest to control political power, which is essential for democracy, leads to non-rational and non-democratic outcomes.
Before populists took advantage of “alternative” information, democrats and liberals largely dominated the world of independent news broadcasting, during the pioneer years of the Web. At that time, we were fascinated by bottom-up, grassroots media activism. When populists managed to set the agenda via social media, worries about alternative news outlets arose. Are we facing more manipulative content today than we were yesterday? It’s hard to prove. The point is that readers and voters have abandoned mainstream media and parties because their trust has been lost17. Bonds of confidence may be rebuilt by establishing a sympathetic emotional connection, not by providing data. Media literacy is fundamental to help people discern real news from propaganda. But when the enemies of open society coalesce, we must respond by favouring openness, not through prohibition and the issuance of fines. In the “emotional democracy”, the values of democracy are worth more than its utility.
1 Bourdieu P. (1984). The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, Columbia University Press.
2 Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society . Cambridge, MA: MIT, p.176.
3 Marx K. Engels F. (1958). L’ideologia tedesca, Editori Riuniti, Roma.
4 Polany K. (1976). La grande trasformazione, Einaudi.
5 Anthony Downs and Joseph Schumpeter are regarded as the main inspiration for the public choice school, “a theoretical current in rational choice that views the voting decision as a self-interested and calculative one” – Medearis J. (2009). Joseph Schumpeter, Continuum, New York.
6 Simon H. (1985). Le teorie della razionalità limitata in Mc Guire C. B., Radner R. Casualità, razionalità, organizzazione, Mulino, Bologna.
7 Lindblom C.E. (1974). La scienza del sapersela cavare, Milano, Angeli.
8 Regonini G. (2001). Capire le politiche pubbliche, Mulino, Bologna.
11 Christian S. (2008). Storytelling. La fabbrica delle storie, Fazi, Roma.
12 Marshment J. L. (2014). Political marketing, Routledge, London.
13 Gold D. Data-Driven’ Campaigns Are Killing the Democratic Party (2017), https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/02/data-driven-campaigns-democrats-need-message-214759
14 Kahneman D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow, Penguin, London.