Climate change, economic inequality, migration, galloping demographic growth and the loss of biodiversity all pose serious threats to civilization.

According to the 2017 Global Risk Report, published to coincide with the World Economic Forum’s meeting in January this year, misinformation can now be added to the list of manmade hazards that potentially threatens our very existence. The threat from misinformation consists primarily in its capacity to undermine democracy.

Alternative facts

Where in the world can we find the forces that can mobilize against this development while there’s still time? The question becomes pressing after reading Fake News. When Reality
Loses, written by the philosophers Vincent F. Hendricks and Mads Vestergaard. When large-scale wars can be started and the president of the most powerful country in the world can be elected as a result of fake news, the red warning lights should be flashing.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t provide an answer to how we can reverse this development, but a useful angle can perhaps be found in the authors’ account of the fake news phenomenon.

With the election of Trump to the US presidency, a new type of news event has seen the light of day. When faced with the incontestable fact that fewer people attended Trump’s inauguration than Obama’s, Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway maintained her version by referring to what she called “alternative facts.”

In a similar vein, Trump rejected the Paris Climate Accord on the basis that the whole phenomenon was a nefarious Chinese hoax aimed at undermining America’s
competitive edge.

The alternative facts, Trump’s rejection of the climate accord and a persistent stream of similar statements underlines the need to both understand and to raise awareness about what’s going on, as well as contemplating what a democratically inclined world can do about it.

Attention

Hendricks and Vestergaard have defined their mission as attempting to describe how democracies can end up in this postfactual condition. Such a condition arises in a democracy “when politically expedient, but factually misleading narratives replace facts as the basis for political debate, the shaping of public opinion and legislation.” Misinformation in the digital age could well result in a further weakening of our ability to see the underlying structural conditions in which misinformation thrives, and thus make it harder for us to take the actions necessary to counter it.

In the digital age, we’re bombarded with information from every side, leading some to speak of information pollution. But the struggle for dominance on the global market – for nations as well as for corporations – is above all about getting people’s attention. It constitutes the portal to our consciousness and consequently to what we care about and how we conduct our lives as citizens and consumers. Every one of us is forcibly engaged in a selection process in which the truth content of both individual news items and more comprehensive politico-ideological messages must continuously be assessed. In the attention economy, attention constitutes a scarce resource that can be resold for marketing and advertising purposes.

Newspapers, which aren’t necessarily intent on seeking the truth in the first place, are currently engaged in a desperate fight for survival in the face of declining circulation figures. The result is a general scramble for readers’ attention, which in its turn contributes to a curious situation whereby the main product is not the newspaper but the readers themselves, whose attention the customers (the advertisers) are buying access to. The same applies to television, Google and Facebook: The user isn’t the customer, but the product.

«We’re bombarded with information from every side, leading some to speak of information pollution»

Voters’ attention can be bought too, just like the information that is needed to influence them in a certain direction can be bought. Barack Obama did it in 2008 and Trump and Hillary Clinton did it in advance of the American presidential elections in 2016.

The company that Trump hired to lead his election campaign, Cambridge Analytica, uses data-based profiling and compiles psychological profiles (of users, voters, citizens) with the aim of launching precision bombardments. The world still hasn’t seen what the attention and data economy can develop into through the manipulation of human behaviour.

The role of the media unfolds within the framework of a media logic that, according to Hendricks and Vestergaard, can be defined within three separate dimensions relying respectively on media institutions, social environments and markets: Journalistic ideals, commercial interests and technological conditions.

Uninformed vs misinformed

The advent of television brought about a radical change in social communications. Media theoretician and critic Neil Postman stated that: “Entertainment is the overriding ideology for all discourse on TV.” And Trump did deliver “great TV” in his election campaign through his use of the spectacular, the confrontational and the dramatic.

The Internet has offered further possibilities for the attention economy. Yet while ordinary people can now assume the role of citizen journalists on online news platforms and as bloggers, the news diversity remains largely unchanged. There are still a few big players that capture most people’s attention. Similarly, the powerbrokers have retained their ability to get their message across and set the agenda.

Trump’s Twitter account has proved to be an effective tool in managing the attention economy, partly as a conduit for the president’s messages, partly as a blocking mechanism against having to engage in substantial politics. By way of populist legislation and symbolic politics you can speculate in the attention market, thus causing the forming of political bubbles which the authors define as a “collective rejection of reality.”

There’s much that we, as citizens, aren’t informed about. But there’s a difference between being uninformed and being misinformed. Misinformation entails trivialising, leaving out or tweaking important facts when and where it really matters. Disinformation, on the other hand, occurs when someone purposefully and intentionally misleads his or her audience out of underlying interests and motives. The authors operate with a scale of information quality, ranging from “true claims” to “fake news”, where the latter “claims to be journalism and truth-seeking, whereas the true aim is something completely different.

«People with strong ideological beliefs also tend to be factually mistaken more often than others»

Tribal war

To be confronted with facts we don’t feel to be true (cognitive dissonance) can give rise to the practice of conveniently selecting information and sources of information that matches what we want to hear (selection bias). When a specific attitude subsequently grows out of this selection we encounter a phenomenon termed motivated reasoning. Not surprisingly, research shows that people with strong ideological beliefs also tend be factually mistaken more often than others. Other studies show that the very same people are also the most certain that they’re right. This leads in turn to “tribal thinking”, where everything is framed in terms of us-vs-them. And this is where we find the “blue lies” that are concocted to benefit the tribe.

In this spiralling game of public opinion making, both negative feelings (anger and fear) and positive feelings (awe and fascination) are employed as means to mobilize for action. In the face of entrenched elites, populism lays the claim to represent the true will of the people. Your suffering in this world is caused by them, and every critical faculty is suspended in favour of a conspiratorial mindset where alternative facts are swallowed whole as part of the tribal narrative.

The authors dismiss the factual democracy as a technocracy and opens a broad debate on what we can do to counter the postfactual symptoms. If we do not, the result could well be the decay of democracy, or a situation in which “the rulers, in their capacity as technocrats, are never held to account even if they’re caught telling outright lies.”


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