The press as fake news is nothing new. According to the Danish Philosopher Søren Kirkegaard, the press is fake news almost by definition.
From the strong reactions the last year’s Holberg debate elicited, one would think that radical media criticism was something new and unheard of. Being an attack on democracy and a symptom of a society in decline; in short – something ‘Trumpian’. None of this is true. Press criticism is almost as old as the press itself, and among its many representatives are some of the finest thinkers, writers and statesmen in Western culture – one of them; a not so unknown Danish philosopher.
In the mid-1800s, Søren Kierkegaard was sitting in his Copenhagen home, writing furiously in his diary about a new phenomenon he called the «the daily press» His rage was partly personal, as Kierkegaard himself was a victim of its power.
In 1840, The Corsair – Denmark’s first satirical magazine of importance – had seen the light of the day. The controversial magazine was often confiscated by the authorities, but attracted many readers – among them; Kierkegaard himself. The magazine’s editor Meïr Aron Goldschmidt was a personal admirer of Kierkegaard and she had therefore spared him of the bitter satire other famous personalities were subjected to. The philosopher wanted no such special treatment, and in an article in the newspaper Fædrelandet (1845) he asked outright to make an appearance in The Corsair: «It is really hard for a poor writer to be thus singled out in Danish literature that he […] is the only one that is not scolded there.»
A figure of amusement
Had Kierkegaard known what he was asking for, he would probably have reconsidered his request. But his prayers were more than answered to. In the coming years, Kierkegaard became a recurring figure of amusement in the magazine. The one accusation that really struck a chord was the most banal of them all, namely the cartoonists suggestions that his trouser legs were of unequal length.
«The news is – by definition – what the press disseminates.»
The subtext here is obviously the caricature of the eccentric philosopher who, in order to stand out from the common herd, should dress differently. One might be forgiven for thinking that a philosopher of such historical significance would rise above spiteful comments about the length of his trouser legs, but Kierkegaard did care – and quite a lot so. Not so much because of the false claim itself (although he took the trouble of denying its veracity in his diary) as with the fact that it had become a «thing» in the eyes of the public. People – it turned out – cared too. They wanted to see if it was really true. They looked, and they laughed. After a while the attention became unbearable for Kierkegaard.
He had always tried to maintain an open and cordial relationship with the ‘man in the street’ while enjoying his ability to strike up a conversation with just about anyone. Now, all this was dislocated, disturbed and destroyed. In the eyes of the public the great philosopher had been reduced to a pair of trouser legs of dissimilar length, and the press was to blame.
Despite the personal starting point, Kierkegaard’s criticism of the press is above all general. To Kierkegaard the press is «fake news» almost by definition. The fake is not found in the content, but in the very form and format: «One complains that on occasion a single untrue article appears in a newspaper – oh what a trifle; no, the basic form of its entire communication is fake»
Even if what is written in the paper is true, it can still be «untrue» that it is in the paper, according to Kierkegaard.
Let us look closer at his line of reasoning. Kierkegaard’s press criticism, sporadically written down over a seven-year period, covers the years from 1847 till 1854 – presented here as four theses.
The dissemination is fake
This is a point Kierkegaard keeps coming back to in his diaries. The press is a disproportionate means of communication. The disproportionate lies in the mismatch between quality and quantity – to be more precise: what isn’t worth communicating is in a very short time spread to the masses via the press. («The masses» to Kierkegaard meant a few thousand. What would he have thought of today’s state of affairs?) Kierkegaard rejects the general notion held by his contemporaries, and as of today – that the press, on the whole, is a force for good, and that it only occasionally «causes […] injury by being misused to promote lies, evil, etc.» No, says Kierkegaard, the press is an evil «simply and solely on the basis of its power of dissemination», representing a form of lunacy that can be compared to crisscrossing an area of a few square kilometres with railway tracks, and it contributes to turning society into a «madhouse».
«The fake is not so much in the content, but in the very form and format itself.»
He illustrates his point with the following example: Let’s assume that the press mentions a young girl by name, informs us that she has been given a light blue dress, and that this is all true. It sounds innocent enough, but Kierkegaard characterises it as nothing less than «a liquidation of the young girl, something which might spell her death or cost her her sanity». The violation lies not so much in the story itself, but in the disproportionately widespread attention it gets. The involuntary attention and publicity, which thus comes the girl’s way, will – according to Kierkegaard – become unbearable. In other words, the pervasiveness of news is in itself an evil.
Public opinion is fake
One might get the impression that what a paper thinks of a topic is the same as what the public think of a topic. And if this wasn’t initially the case, then it certainly becomes so once the press has made its case. We refer to newspapers as creators of public opinion precisely because they tell us what to think about this or that.
But according to Kierkegaard this is exactly what makes the press’s influence «corrupt and demoralizing». Not that it «says something false», but that it «offers a depraved guarantee that there is a horde of people saying the same things and making the same judgements; for the very fact that it’s printed in a paper». According to Kirkegaard, what a human being fears more than anything is not to make a false statement, but to be alone in making it.
The press plays on this fear and cowardice. The opinions of the press come with a stamp of approval. The safest, most comfortable choice is to rely on that approval, but this will only «assist people toward greater and greater depravation», says Kierkegaard. The press produces people who refrain from doing their own thinking.
The impersonal is fake
In Kierkegaard’s view, the press contributed to abolishing the personality and therefore also the truth. He viewed with horror how the press made it possible to write impersonally and anonymously on behalf of the paper and public opinion – as a «someone» without responsibility. Just as the «bordello keeper makes a living off human depravity», the journalist lives off «setting in motion the evil principle in human beings», Kierkegaard says with a powerful analogy.
«A truly viral phenomenon is irrevocably dead after a few weeks.»
Initially, the lie and the error depend on someone daring to utter it and defend it, but through the press this barrier is removed. «Without any notion of responsibility», the journalist can put «any error into circulation» through the means of the most disproportionate means of dissemination. Kierkegaard predicts that the truth will finally disappear completely from the world and that the only thing left will be the «ventriloquism of the race» – an expression absolutely worth reflecting on.
The interesting is fake
Nowadays we like to refer to it as «going viral». Something viral is a small story of little or no historical significance that catches our fancy for a short while because the media has brought it to our attention. Something viral is something pseudo-interesting. The proof that it’s pseudo-interesting and not genuinely interesting is that it’s impossible to mobilise any kind of enthusiasm for discussing it after its moment has passed.
A truly viral phenomenon is irrevocably dead after a few weeks. Kierkegaard makes the following observation: «Something that people would not even bother to talk about – that is something one can use the press to spread, and then people will talk about it because it has been in the press.» Why is this the case? Kierkegaard provides the following explanation: There are things that real, concrete people would never deign to talk about, as it would be below their dignity.
But the press is a «nobody», and so can safely write about anything. And once the press has started writing about it, it becomes something to talk about; after all, it’s been in the paper. And then people talk about it. To put it bluntly: The press doesn’t disseminate the news. The news is – by definition – what the press disseminates.
«Fake news apocalypse»
It is now more than 150 years since Kierkegaard wrote down his own thoughts on the press. So what relevance does this have for us today? Besides how it’s obviously of historical interest to see how the great Nordic philosopher viewed the phenomenon of «the daily press» in its infancy, it’s also interesting in the light of, and as a commentary on, today’s debate about the media and fake news.
What we’re now seeing is that the monopoly of opinion enjoyed by traditional, editor-run media is being challenged, with increasing efficiency by independent actors. In this situation the threat fake news allegedly represents to society, democracy and civilisation is used for everything it’s worth.
In his fundamental criticism of the press, Kierkegaard claims that the divide between the use and misuse of media power, between truth and falsehood and news and fake news doesn’t really capture the essential point. Someone who has expressed similar ideas in our time is Julian Assange. In the Holberg debate he aired his concerns over what he called the «fake news apocalypse».
It’s a condition in which the flow of information has become so bewildering, is manipulated in so many ways and where events unfold so fast that it’s become impossible for mankind to understand or control what is happening to mankind. Kierkegaard also saw the new media phenomenon in apocalyptic terms. In a diary entry from 1848, he writes: «As China has come to a standstill at an age of development, so will Europe come to a standstill at the press, remaining at a standstill as a reminder that there the human race made a discovery that eventually became more powerful than itself.»