Philosophers on Fake News
Arendt and Foucault on power and truth in media politics
Despite their irrefutable and continued presence in the world today, for some time the practices of banning and censorship have struck me as antiquated, almost quaint, like a desperate but not wholly effective grasp for control by a declining State. My admission of this admittedly unsubstantiated and impressionistic outlook—although not entirely unsupported by news reports of cracks in the wall —is not an attempt to dismiss or downplay the dangers of censorship. Nor is it necessarily a failure of empathy, arising from my own lack of lived experienced in censorship. Admittedly, my lived experience is notably different from that of those who grew up in authoritarian regimes, or even that of anyone who grew up before the Internet and its myriad tools for accessing forbidden information, whether through virtual private networks or the dark web, or even something as commonplace as illegal torrenting. But in what is perhaps a telling parallel shift in how “knowledge” or truth is valued, while it has become much easier to find free information, it has also become harder to escape unwanted information, whether it’s invasive or insidious advertising or simply a viral piece of content for content’s sake—like fake news.
Information is not knowledge, even if it masquerades as such, and certainly not truth. But all of the above, in particular the shift from being denied access to information (whether through censorship or simply not having the means to purchase it) to being inundated with information, suggests that the truth—or “truth” as an idea—is endangered today in new ways that bear serious consideration. Here it’s helpful to draw on Hannah Arendt’s and Michel Foucault’s respective examinations of the relationship between truth, power, and politics, especially as seen in Arendt’s 1927 New Yorker article, “Truth and Politics” and Foucault’s interview with Alessandro Fontana and Pasquale Paquino, “Truth and Power.”
As Jeffrey Goldfarb notes in the first chapter of Reinventing Political Culture, wherein he considers Weber, Arendt, Foucault and their conceptions of power as he formulates a new way to approach the idea of “political culture,” Arendt and Foucault’s differing emphases in regard to power are not “competing theories about the same thing,” but rather different, albeit related, approaches altogether (31).
With a different focus, but in a similar spirit, I seek not to pit Arendt and Foucault against each other, but rather to draw on their respective approaches to the tension between truth and power (Arendt) and the inextricability of truth and power (Foucault), and consider the political and cultural significance of these tangled relationships today in the context of fake news. These questions are not original, and my aim is not to answer any questions about how truth is endangered today, or even to try and encompass all of “today” in the following paragraphs. Rather, my goal is to reflect on certain aspects of this present-day phenomenon informed by the thought of Foucault and Arendt, and by interrogating it, refrain from dismissing it, as I have often been tempted to do.
The phenomenon of “fake news”—how to define it, how it constitutes a problem and for whom, its origins and effects—is too broad a topic to be considered in full here. Moreover, there are several historically specific iterations—including but certainly not limited to the fake news circulating on Facebook ahead of the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections—not all of which can be grouped together. But one point of entry into thinking about “fake news” might be to ask whether it can be fairly called an “epidemic,” as it often is, in the sense of a temporary outbreak, or whether it is indicative of a larger shift in how knowledge and truth are produced, disseminated, perceived and processed.
Fake news has been viewed as the negative side-effect of social media platforms such as Facebook, as an algorithmic problem, the responsibility for which lies within the technology of the social media platform itself. Other approaches have highlighted the relationship of fake news vis-à-vis traditional or legacy media outlets, focusing on either the rise or fall of the legitimacy of traditional media. Bracketing these diagnoses for the time being, it might be productive to think about fake news with an emphasis on power and its relation to truth.
Without reference to any particular thinker, it’s possible to see fake news as having power in a limited sense, in the sense of exercising influence as a source of “truth.” And while in certain cases certain fake news items might be identifiable with a certain political stance, in other cases fake news seems to exist for nothing but its own sake, without origin or end goal. Like the virus which has been widely adopted as a metaphor to describe rapidly circulated items of news or information, fake news is characterized by its self-replicating but ultimately transient quality as much as its lack of truthfulness.
Here it’s appropriate to turn to Foucault, who criticizes a “wholly negative, narrow, skeletal conception of power” which links power to State repression, arguing that it fails to recognize its seductive fertility. In fact, he attributes the origin of power in part to its productivity. “What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no,” writes Foucault, “but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse” (Foucault 119). “It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body.”
Foucault downplays the role of the State as a the sole originator or executor of power, emphasizing rather the “conditioning-conditioned” relationship of the “superstructural” State and preexisting power relations that exist in society—“in body, sexuality, the family, kinship, knowledge, technology,” and more (Foucault 122).
According to Foucault, truth is “linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it,” a notion he expresses with the phrase “régime of truth.” More directly, “[truth] is produced and transmitted under the control, dominant if not exclusive, of a few great political and economic apparatuses” (133).
Foucault’s emphases on networks of power that lie outside the State, and on the productivity of power, are especially pertinent when we return to thinking about fake news. What happens to fake news if, more than a subsection or even a huge swathe, the majority of the population believes in the factuality of fake news, and acts on these beliefs, or disagrees on what constitutes “fake” news? It’s possible to take this possibility to its extreme, and to ponder what might happen if, like being in the Matrix, we realize that all news we consume were, to some degree, “fake.” Fake news itself likely exists on a continuum from ambiguously misleading to outright fabrications, and the historical specificity of fake news as a hot-button issue in the current socio-techno-political moment might suggest an association between fake news and extremist views, but in theory there are a far greater range of possibilities. But it’s also possible to go in another direction: Foucault’s emphasis on the productivity of power has a natural analog in the proliferation of fake news, in its tendency to spread virally. But can fake news be linked to a “régime” of truth, or a network of power? And if not, is it simply the residual effect of another productive process? Is it spontaneously occurring? Foucault is suggestive, but not conclusive.
Unlike Foucault, who does not acknowledge the possibility of a truth outside of power, not conditioned by or produced by networks of power, Arendt differentiates between “philosophical truth,” which becomes “opinion” in the market place, and “factual truth,” which has an existence independent from interpretation, or “what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us” (19). Arendt traces the historical conflict between these two related but separate forms of truth, but focuses on factual truth and its uneasy relationship to power. For Arendt, there’s a contingency or haphazardness to factual truth, which is stubbornly persistent, “beyond agreement and consent” and beyond “ persuasion or dissuasion,” however unwelcome it may be to the powers that be (Arendt 8). This is what gives truth its coercive character: “Seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character. It is therefore hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize” (Arendt 8). And this is also what puts the realm of truth outside the realm of politics; the moment a truth-teller attempts to “speak the language of persuasion and violence,” he becomes political, and forfeits his legitimacy as a teller of truth. (16) For despite its coercive character, truth is not inherently powerful. Directly opposed to it, according to Arendt, is the “deliberate falsehood, or lie.” She counts presenting opinion as factual truth, and vice versa, as one of many forms of lying, and writes that the effect of constant, continuous lying is not that the lies will replace truth, but that the very “category of truth vs. falsehood” itself will be destroyed (Arendt 15).
In this sense, truth is highly vulnerable to the falsehood; even if the falsehood will never be a substitute, and it is vulnerable to power, despite the fact that power is transitory and can never replace the truth, nor hope to imitate its resilience. “Truth, though powerless and always defeated in a head-on clash with the powers that be, possesses a strength of its own: whatever those in power may contrive, they are unable to discover or invent a viable substitute for it. Persuasion and violence can destroy truth, but they cannot replace it” (Arendt 16).
Arendt is careful to emphasize that her distinction between the realm of politics, and the perspective of truth which lies outside it, is not a denigration of politics—but that rather, that politics cannot tread on truth. “The political function of the storyteller—historian or novelist—is to teach acceptance of things as they are. Out of this acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment” (Arendt 18).
What’s striking in Arendt in relation to the phenomena of fake news is that the cynicism she writes of as the inevitable, eventual result of brainwashing, a cynicism characterized by “an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established,” because the very idea of truth itself has disintegrated. This is the real danger in falsehood, in opinion masquerading as fact, in wielding truth as a coercive weapon in the political sphere. And it’s in this sense that despite the ostensible differences between how truth is defined in Foucault’s “Truth and Power” and in Arendt’s “Truth and Politics,” there’s a common underlying threat against truth, suggested in the phenomena of fake news. Fake news read through Foucault might be the product of a particular régime of truth. Read through Arendt, fake news, unchecked, might be an omen. These suggestions merely graze the surface, but in both, fake news looms like a cloud of locusts from an unknown, potentially omnipotent network of power to blot out the sun.
Haeun Kim is an M.A. candidate in sociology at the New School for Social Research. She has worked in journalism, radio, and marketing, with interests including digital media, social interaction, and informal organizations.