The age of misinformation

Banksy, end of sale (V2), 2017


Author introduction to newly released book

"The knowledge that appearance and essence do not jibe is the beginning of truth. The mark of dialectical thinking is the ability to distinguish the essential from the apparent process of reality and to grasp their relation” (Herbert Marcuse, Reason and revolution: Hegel and the rise of social theory).

The saying goes that appearances can be deceiving. But not always. How to know? Every day we deal with this dilemma, from the most harmless to the most dangerous situations, and it can even be a matter of life and death.

It doesn't take a scientist to suspect something is burning when you see smoke. But it is up to science to explain not only causes and effects, but why things happen one way and not another. According to Karl Marx, if the appearance and essence of things directly coincided, science would be unnecessary. For him, science means the effective knowledge of reality, beyond appearances, without, however, ignoring them. Thus, more than assuming that appearances are (always) deceiving and seeking the truth in a non-apparent essence, it is about revealing the reason and the movement by which things appear as they do, sometimes deceiving, sometimes not, sometimes both things at the same time. On purpose or unintentionally.

The essence of things, in this approach, has nothing from another world. It simply concerns what the thing actually is, and that includes what it appears to be, what it appears to us who observe it. The essence of the thing can appear deceitfully or not, but in both cases it is part of its essence, whether it appears deceptively or not.

Quacks and liars succeed by appearing trustworthy. But a person can appear honest and in fact be essentially honest. And a person can seem free, he can even consider himself free, and not be free. How to distinguish? And what, after all, does it mean to be honest? What does it mean to be free?

Long before the emergence of human language, including its thousand forms of lying - deceit, hoax, dog, deceit, charlatanism, 171, half-truths and other forms of disinformation – nature itself already had a very rich arsenal of tricks that confused essence and appearance, at least from the plant kingdom: think of carnivorous plants and their stratagems to attract insects, for which they are essentially mortal, although they (a)appear so attractive and harmless, at first glance – if the insect lets itself be carried away by the charm of appearance, it will be devoured by it, by the devouring essence that then appears, the the same one that was hidden in the first impression.

Spider webs are very fine networks, but proportionately very strong, practically invisible, just as stick insects and chameleons know how to be masters of camouflage, for defense or attack. And there are river turtles that remain motionless under the water, with their mouths open, from which a worm-like appendage protrudes to attract unsuspecting fish. The appearance of the appetizing worm hides the voracious turtle, which will devour them. At the bottom of the oceans, some abyssal fish resort to a similar device, with a luminescent appendage on their foreheads that lure smaller fish into their ambush and mouth.

In the seas there are also delicate seahorses that look like the algae in which they hide and protect themselves. But nobody beats molluscs, squids, cuttlefish, octopuses, which change color, shape and texture as they try to hide from predators or deceive their victims. Nobody, before humans.

Disinformation is so old that it predates the human species itself. But it is human disinformation, also ancient, probably as old as humanity itself, that interests us here. It also involves a game of appearance and essence, from its grossest form, the pure and simple lie, to the most subtle, made up of half-truths, decontextualization and other resources that we will discuss later. However, despite being so old, it is not always the same, as it presents historical, geographic, rhetorical, sociotechnical nuances and modulations that prevent us from stating that nothing has changed.

Hannah Arendt (1967) and Alexandre Koyré (2019) denounced the control of public opinion in totalitarian regimes through the systematic distortion of factual information. Without going that far, it is enough to verify that the advertising cost of some, if not all, products tends to exceed their own production cost. Not all advertising is pure disinformation, certainly, but it always contains elements of disinformation, overestimating qualities, hiding problems and limits or attributing non-existent qualities to what is being sold. The same goes for political propaganda, whether electoral or the deeds of this or that government.

However, in recent years, new movements have taken place. The radius of reach of digital social networks, since they became popular, their capillarity and the speed of their operations are unprecedented. The costs of message boosts are relatively modest compared to print and broadcasting. And communicational precision is greater, due to the mentioned capillarity and the knowledge of the public's tastes by the senders and mediators, thanks to the surveillance of everyone's browsing, omnipresent in the networks. This set of factors has been substantially altering the known communicational ecosystem, with still unforeseen consequences, given the relative newness of the phenomenon.

I am going to think about the problem of disinformation from this historical perspective, starting from the premise that much of what we see may not seem to be anything new, but it is, even because of the fact that its development is synchronic with a moment of serious crisis of capitalism . Even so, it may be useful to dialogue with classic studies on lying.

To the set of the most alarming contemporary disinformation modalities that are born, flow, overflow, irrigate, feed the current scenario (with grotesque tones) and feed back from it, I call “networked digital disinformation” (DDR). The notion of networked digital disinformation concerns the set of disinformational actions conveyed in the various existing digital networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, TikTok and similar ones. It does not, therefore, refer to face-to-face conversations, the old press or radio broadcasting, although it certainly nourishes them and is nourished by them.

It is important to mark this specificity of the phenomenon. Because the relatively low cost of its operations compared to traditional media (1), its immense and customized reach (2), added to the scarce and difficult regulation of these actions in technical and legal terms (3) favored that digital disinformation in network became, almost everywhere, a very influential element of the emerging ideological superstructure within the infrastructure of digital networks and, at the same time, a (marginal?) investment in it. This infrastructure, in turn, is a precious product and property of the main fraction of today's big capital (coupled with finance, arms, pharmaceuticals and energy).

The boundaries between legality and illegality become blurred in this environment, to the point that the UK parliament – ​​which strictly cannot be characterized as an expression of radical critical thinking – has accused Mark Zuckerberg's company of acting as a digital gangster (HOUSE OF COMMONS, 2019; PEG, 2019), about a year before Steve Bannon, architect of the election of Donald Trump, was arrested for commercial fraud that had, at the same time, a xenophobic and racist aura, involving the wall separating the USA and Mexico.

The publicity around the actions of digital disinformation in the network involving the Cambridge Analytica, both in Brexit as in the election of Donald Trump (GUIMÓN, 2018), certainly contributed to the popularization of the terms fake news and post-truth – and for understandable reasons. In fact, amidst the universe of networked digital disinformation, one of the most sensitive issues is the impact of fake news in the formation of post-truth, in a vicious circle, or rather, in a kind of vicious feedback loop, apparently centrifugal.

More recently, there is talk of misinformation superspreaders, something like superdisinformation spreaders. In the article "Identification and characterization of misinformation superspreaders on social media”, by Matthew R. De Verna, Rachith Aiyappa, Diogo Pacheco, John Bryden and Filippo Menczer, from Observatory on Social Media from Indiana University, we read that about 0,1% of Twitter users were responsible for 80% of the disinformation that circulated in the 2016 US elections.

This fact and similar ones demonstrate that this is an unprecedented phenomenon in its specific configuration, but that it represents, at the same time, an update of old infocommunication practices that refer to the philosophical problem of truth – in its ethical, political and epistemological dimensions, as well as in the contradictions , compositions and overlapping of the three.

Now, as far as we have been able to follow, the voluminous contemporary academic or para-academic production around the theme of disinformation, in the social sciences, has been dedicated mainly to unveiling the new element of the plot, with emphasis on its technological, economic, political constraints , psychological and cultural, sometimes in isolation, sometimes together. But as it is also about, despite the new element, the updating of very old practices and motivations, we explore here the methodological hypothesis of seeking in classical studies on truth and lies knowledge that may eventually, in a composite way with contemporary studies on the misinformation, to help us better understand what we are dealing with. A fertile ground for this exploration is obviously philosophy, which for more than two thousand years has systematically debated the subject and produced a rich bibliographic accumulation on the subject.

Thus, considering that, despite its unprecedented configurations as DDR, in a more general sense, disinformation is as old as humanity – even older –, our methodological proposal is to articulate the study of some classic texts on lying and truth with the contemporary theoretical framework around the topic of disinformation.

As a famous TV ad for Folha de São Paulo, “it is possible to tell a lot of lies by telling only the truth” (W/Brasil, 1987, 0:43'-0:48'). For those who haven't seen it or don't remember, the ad begins with an undefined image, made up of scattered black dots on a white background, which gradually organize themselves and gain definition, while a voice in off describes the apparent great deeds of a statesman, without naming him. Until at a given moment, an image of Hitler is formed, and the ad concludes with the idea that it is possible to tell a lie just by telling the truth and that we need to be alert.

The conclusion is reminiscent of the famous Hegelian sentence that the truth is in the whole. That is, in the case of the commercial, the image of Hitler finally appears and the notorious calamities associated with this image, which are common knowledge (or should be), are forcibly confronted with the positive impressions that the partial truths of his deeds induced. , without us knowing who it was. The confrontation undoes the positive image that was initially created before the closure (or so it is hoped). In the end, truth is established from the point of view of totality.

In the same line of reasoning, in the context of disinformational studies, one can paraphrase Hegel and say that the lie is in the whole, but in the partial, incomplete and farcical whole that presents itself as the real, since even a narrative composed only of truths , but which leaves out other truths necessary for the proper understanding of a given situation, or which fragments, decontextualizes and mixes truths, can be a lying narrative. Besides, of course, the pure and simple lie, which has prospered so much.

The problem of current disinformation, in the articulated sphere of corporate media and networked digital disinformation, in the midst of which the lie itself – as an intentional production and eventually naive circulation of malicious information, which maliciously mixes truth and falsehood – becomes if in a new form of mass mystification, generating very serious ethical problems, such as the perpetuation or the avoidable recrudescence of oppression, reification, alienation, misery, brutality, cowardice, excruciating suffering and death of millions of people.

Understanding and combating contemporary disinformation require an update of the debate around the ethical, political and epistemological – interconnected – dimensions of the dialectic of truth and lies. The starting point for this update is the exploration of the conceptual richness of this semantic field, full of subtleties and ambiguities, but not so blurred that the poles can be simply exchanged without major consequences.

In other words, even if we recognize, for example, the distinctions between lying as deliberate falsehood or as an unintentional mistake; between factual, scientific or philosophical truth; or even between metaphors, metonyms, fiction, opinion, evidence, etc., the extremes of bad faith or misunderstanding, on the one hand, and good faith or correspondence between understanding and things, on the other, cannot be ignored in their formal structural opposition – not even in a historical and intercultural perspective –, at the risk of losing any shared parameter of reality.

Apparently, most contemporary disinformation is marked by reactionary, misogynistic, racist, homophobic and, ultimately, neo-fascist elements.[I] The mobilization of fears and prejudices acts as a Trojan horse that carries neoliberalism in its belly, which no longer dares to expose itself frankly after decades of promoting wars, environmental destruction and growing social inequality.

The corollary of all this is hate speech, flat earthism, the resurgence of anti-vaccine movements and innumerable conspiracy theories, more or less dangerous, which convert the healthy distrust of authorities, characteristic of modern thought, into an indigestible mixture of skepticism in relation to modern cognitive authorities. – rule of law, science, press – and dogmatism in relation to those of the postmodern type – swashbuckling media politicians, internet pseudo-intellectuals, thousand sects.

Conspiracy theories always have a background of reality mixed with layers of fantasy. Starting from the verification that conspiracies, in fact, exist, their formulators and propagators fantasize simplistic explanations and solutions for the real problems of the world. Perhaps the greatest proof that real conspiracies exist lies in the fact that conspiracy theories are fanciful theories produced by real conspirators and spread by the unwary, from the most innocent to the most dangerous.

Given this scenario, some more questions need to be asked: who benefits from this? Who loses? In what ways? What is the gradient between the sociopath and the helpful innocent, in this sometimes deadly game of losing and winning?

We live in a serious crisis of capitalism, because its contradictions are exploding in new levels, more and more brutal and without realistic horizons of overcoming, in its own terms. It is a scenario marked by unprecedented environmental degradation and the most intense concentration of wealth in history, associated with the widest poverty and misery. To aggravate the picture, the boundaries between science and opinion, privacy and surveillance, security and violence, freedom and oppression blur, confuse, mix and exchange, in a hallucinatory cultural broth where violence is security and oppression is freedom.

As for the last pair, freedom and oppression, freedom of expression has become the safe conduct of openly right-wing liars and their financiers, who have the nerve to condemn their critics from the center and left, and even those from the right, such as communist and “ideological”. In fact, all positions involved in the political debate are necessarily ideological, if we understand ideology as a world view.

In this sense, it is an ideological dispute that is at issue, insofar as it is a dispute between worldviews. An ideological dispute that, in turn, refers to the class struggle with all its nuances. But if we understand ideology in the negative sense of mystification, a set of fanciful ideas, contrary to reason and a realistic appreciation of the world, its problems and possible solutions, the current picture does not exactly suggest a dispute between ideologies, but between a hallucinated ideological complex and the various forms of common sense that oppose it, many of them divergent from each other, but within shared parameters of rationality.

Mystification is lying in such a way as to produce distorted perceptions and appreciations of reality. How to demystify the mystifiers? Unmasking their lies, proving that they gain from it and demonstrating that their arguments are worse than those of those who criticize them. Sometimes the lies are more subtle, but often they are straight out lies. And there are the useful innocents, the unwary, in the most diverse degrees, multitudes of them, replicating the lies because they believe in them, or because they believe that fighting the enemies of what they understand as good morals justifies resorting to absurdities, slander, defamation and murder.

Nowadays, the neo-fascist reaction defends neoliberal freedom, while the progressive forces seek, at first, nothing but a superior conception of freedom - according to which the freedom of each one ceases to be an obstacle to that of the next, converting it if in your condition – at least the preservation of what remains of liberal liberty. What does that mean with regard to freedom of expression? The defense of minimum parameters of common rationality, and public regulations on private privileges, which curb and penalize the self-interested propagation of disinformation on a large scale.

The fact is that, instead of the collective intelligence that the internet would promote, in Pierre Lévy's dream (2007), we witness the growth of collective stupidity in digital social networks. Stupidity understood in the combined sense of very mistaken conceptions, the result of hypocrisy or ignorance, associated with brutality.

What to do to reverse this trend?

This book, unfortunately or fortunately, brings more questions than answers, because it starts from the belief that, despite the regrets, many heads are better than one, when they risk thinking for real.

*Marco Schneider He is a professor at the Department of Communication at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF). Author, among other books, of The dialectic of taste: information, music and politics (Circuit).

Releases: no Rio de Janeiro, 06.12.22/18/21, from 180 pm to XNUMX pm at Bar Mané (Praia do Flamengo, XNUMX, on the corner of Rua Machado de Assis.); in Brasilia, 08.12.2022, Hotel San Marco, SHS Q. 05, BL C – Asa Sul, Brasília – DF, 70322-914. From 16:30 to 18:XNUMX


Mark Schneider. The age of disinformation: post-truth, fake news and other pitfalls. Rio de Janeiro, Garamond, 2022, 159 pages.


[I] I am aware of the controversies surrounding the propriety of using the expression to characterize current political movements. Throughout the text, I will present some arguments in its defense.

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