Archive for February, 2017

There is, today, a lot of conversation about “fake news”.  There is, even and already, a bit of a fatigue regarding the intellectual discussion of this issue – not only among those sharing the currently quite en vogue anti-intellectual sentiment, but even among intellectual people themselves. Still, there are a few noteworthy things to be said about the issue, about its emergence, its prevalence, and about how to tackle it in the long-run. I want to focus here on only a select few, and point them out quickly. To anyone familiar with my writings, some of what I identify is going to be very obvious, indeed. This is, also, not a finally word on the issue. It is, like many things on this blog, an initial exploration, open for critical discussion, and meant to be revised and improved over time.

When today I stumbled  over the following “news” item Sean Hannity Flips Out After Getting Busted Sharing Fake News (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sean-hannity-mccain-fake-news_us_58af9677e4b0a8a9b780d36a?), which is, actually, a kind of “meta-news”, since it is news about a news-maker (falling for fake-news, and then being enraged over news about his falling for fake news – it’s a meta-news item, then of the third order, no?), I had to laugh, because, well, none of this is, actually, “news” but it illustrates various issues and dimensions packed into the current discourse of and on “fake news”. The whole question here is about some Tweets by Mr. Hannity – a media personality, working for a large US-American media company. This Mr. Hannity tweeted a link to a story by someone, which he qualified with “Wow if true”. Now, let us think about this for a moment: What is or makes  news “the news”? We have come to a moment in history, at least in the Global North, where every “item” that may carry information is considered news-worthy if it purports “relevance”; mind you (and pace Habermas), not a truth claim but a claim to relevance. Relevance, I might add in channeling Tyler Burge, as a kind of warrant would be a warrant kind of entitlement not a warrant kind of justification. Tentatively we could say, that this makes for two kinds of possible understanding of what “news” is: News is either current information about the world which is already partially warranted and seeking further warrant through justification, or news is what is deemed relevant (qua an entitlement structure). Anyone familiar with my more recent work and thought process knows that there is this thing I talk about, which I call “economy of  relevance” of which  “attention economies” are a particular aspect of – which is something that I see as being similar in some ways to what philosopher Bernard Stiegler is writing about, for example in his book Taking Care of Youth and Generations. I do not so much care about this  particular “fake news” story then being debunked, Mr.Hannity being called out, then him being upset, etc.  What I find interesting is (a) that this falls into one category of what “news” is, or rather has increasingly become (in and of itself, this turn to relevance and warrant qua entitlement over justification is nothing new itself, but more a cascading expansion of tabloid press: the tabloidization of “the news”, if you prefer to call it that. Perhaps, Boris Groys’s book on the question of what is “the new” would be an interesting read here as well); and (b) that any news-person, such as Mr. Hannity, who is working for an organization of the very size and  very means as his employer could offer, should(!) have editorial staff at their disposal who would check the claims made in any source – this could sometimes be called fact-checking, but I would refrain from calling it that, because sometimes even news-worthy items in the “justifiable news”-category cannot be fully verified as to their facticity in a given moment (I will admit that I have been wondering about the notion of “alternative facts”, that has been thrown around by members of the Trumpites, as being  Heideggerian in origin: after all, Heidegger distinguishes between facticity and factuality; but this may be problematic, with Heidegger’s political affiliation with the original master’s of populism and propaganda, no?), so I would prefer to call it plausibility-checking.  But this is precisely my point, the issue is, very often, one of plausibility. What has gone out of the window with the emergent dominance of relevance-driven news-cycles is not so much the question of checking “fact versus fake” in terms of truth, what has really gone out of the window is to check for plausibility. Facts are states of affairs in so far as facts present (as) truth-claims about states of affairs. And in practice, news organizations (regardless of their political couleur) when confronted with an item that might be news-worthy, they should at the very least do a plausibility-check (even if the fact-check as truth-check cannot be conducted to its fullness). But this doesn’t happen (as often) anymore for two reasons: (a) Quite practically (or in terms of social ontology), because there seems to be less spending on editorial staff in both numbers and competence, there are less staff available to work on a news item and there is an ever increasing number of interns and other low-paid, overworked (precariate) workers doing the job that a host of well-trained, well-paid, and well-rested editorial staffers should be doing (just think of the increasing number of typos, grammatical errors, etc. in online-outlets of even the most established news producers); (b) Because (in terms of social epistemology) we have and continue to exchange  plausibility with relevance , or at least, we value relevance more than plausibility (btw, this counts for news the same as it does for research grant proposals, which are subject to a similar kind of relevance economy). And relevance is somewhat of a construct. This is, I think, also something where philosophers and intellectuals of various could come to an agreement over, regardless of where they come down epistemologically  on the question of what “truth” is. I think that it is worth for them exploring this notion of plausibility here, because intellectuals of various camps (so-called realists against so-called Postmodernists) have been mutually “blaming each other for Trump”.

But sometimes, it’s not even about plausibility, but about how economies of relevance and cultures of relevance clash. Think of the question of the recent “news” about French presidential candidate Macron’s sexual orientation (http://www.zeit.de/politik/2017-02/fake-news-emanuel-macron-russland-rekonstruktion/komplettansicht), which people claim is a “fake story” launched by “the Russians”. I am interested here  not so much in the truth or plausibility alone, or even who is “really behind” the story (do I, btw, sense a new genre of “Whodunnit?” stories here – novels that are not murder mysteries but mysteries about who launched these news and why?). What is interesting is the question, why and in what manner do people think that Monsieur Macron’s sexuality is relevant and why would anyone want to use it for political gain? Again, I am not interested in “the Russians” (or any other “collective” ascriptions), but in the fact that there is two news items here: One is about Monsieur Macron’s sexuality, the other news item is about “the Russians” spreading this for political gain.  So whoever spreads the news about the sexuality of Monsieur Macron has assumptions about why people would be interested (and these assumptions say something about how these people think of the French people, for example). Those who talk about “the Russians” have assumptions about how “these Russians” think about how “the French” think about sexuality, i.e. that someone being a politician being homosexual might be a problem for the French, or that he is married to a woman while having sex with men might be a problem, etc. etc. But perhaps people in France don’t care, or perhaps the voters “these Russians” supposedly seek to swing to, supposedly, vote for Front National  wouldn’t care,  etc. Take the comparative case of Germany (which I know a bit better), where sexuality is something people consider something that is best left inside one’s own four walls, i.e. Germans think sex and sexual orientation of their political personnel is something that is their private affair and has no place in political debate – hence, we had politicians in high offices, who were known to be gay and when some news media were trying to make it into something, it turned out that the majority of people didn’t really care and actually rewarded said politicians if they were themselves taking a “so what?” attitude (see the case of Berlin governor Klaus Wowereit, who simply stated “I’m gay, and that is good.”, which basically said: So what, and that’s it.) One could assume, but this is only an assumption, that those voters in France who aren’t already voting Front National (which always had an anti-gay faction, despite current attempts to portray the party as more neutral on this question) may not be too interested in what happens in Monsieur Macron’s bed-room. Or maybe they are. But my point here is, that there are different assumptions in-play about is deemed as relevant, and so are, sometimes, efforts to reconstruct  what relevance is: See the disparity of the gravity of offense between the Clinton emails and the various problems the Trumpite camp has in maintaining their digital security. Regardless of how even so-called liberal media who were more on Clinton’s side reported on it, the fact that they reported to such a large amount and degree on the Clinton email  issue says a lot about relevance as well as that even their reporting often did jump the gun, forsaking plausibility for relevance.

For news organizations, mainly, the issue of relevance is not only which news are deemed relevant, but (as I have written previously on the issue of, for example, research grant proposals and the prestige economy in academia) but to stay relevant themselves. So they often will report what might be “relevant news” as quickly as possible (hence the inflation of the “breaking news” genre in the past fifteen or so years), in order to not appear “irrelevant”. The logic here is: Better to appear relevant, even if utterly wrong, than to be right but appear as not being able to present what is currently and in the moment deemed (most) relevant. In the same vein, currently US comedians jump on everything the Trumpites do and try and make it funny – they thrive on relevance, too. But one can ask, if this contribution to the economy of relevance – which gives itself a guise of “criticism” –  is not contributing to the problem. What if these comedians from  Colbert to John Oliver and so on, stopped being funny about and got serious for a while, because what they talk about is serious? For late night shows in the US, their economies of relevance comes in two layers, too: What is relevant in the news cycles, and what is relevantly funny. But if, what is relevant were truly serious and truly serious to them, why make it funny? If the matters were so serious, for example with real lives being (plausibly) at stake, shouldn’t they not stop being funny to also convey the seriousness of the matter? The answer to this question is not an easy one, for certainly many people wouldn’t even listen to the message if it wasn’t presented in a funny way, and that way they at least here the message  – though, what is the/a “message” here, one could ask? But it also seems, presently, that comedians as well as many news outlets, after years of decline in audience, have profited from the current political situation. They appear more relevant, again. In the world of news, so many economies of relevance have become entangled that it is nearly impossible to make sense of them with any analytical clarity. What I wanted to point out here, though, is that two main trends over a long time have contributed to the current fray: The substitution of plausibility with relevance, and the decline in quality editing. And these two are dimensions, I claim, we seriously need to talk more about.

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