Fake News isn’t a Truth Problem, it’s a Personhood Problem

By Kris Cohen

[In this new Age of Orange, we’ll be bringing you a series of thought-provoking pieces on the new political landscape (and the same old landscape, as well]

K Tran, The Treachery of Images, print on canvas, 50cm x 70cm, London, 2013.

Whatever else it is, fake news is a problem that will not be adequately addressed by any single discipline. It does not have a proper home. It threatens everyone but belongs to no one. It is a problem for social media no less than for the most institutionalized forms of journalism; for massive conglomerates like Fox News or The Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com) no less than it is for your uncle. Nor does the fake news phenomenon reside neatly in some one historical period: it is not new, but neither can it be explained away by conflating it with every other time that publicity has made truth complicated. Fake news matters because of Trump, but not only because of him. So the phenomenon is going to attract a lot of commentary, as it should. The rush to fill the void of uncertainty shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the problem is simply faddish and hollow. People are struggling to arrive at the right questions, and that kind of trial and error-style work takes time. Lauren Berlant has recently called this “genre flailing.” But the problem is even more complex than arriving at the right questions. It’s about arriving at the right scale of question. In many ways, “fake news” is but a single symptom of a far more massive destabilization, as people on every possible side of every possible political spectrum re-orient themselves to what feels like the new political realities of 2017.

For my part, as a new media scholar and an art historian who tries to understand how personhood and media technologies are (and have long been) mutually constitutive—how they literally create each other—“fake news” is an opportunity to think about the forms that subjectivity and collectivity take when they come to exist in networked environments. Whatever else fake news is, it is a phenomenon that could only come to exist in groups of people connected by electronic networks.

When someone refers to a story as “fake news,” the label wants to seem like a stable category, a name that can be granted to an event that comes into legibility once granted a name. More importantly, the label fashions the event as occasion for judgment. In this story, if only one exercises good judgment, fake news will cease to be a problem. For those who would decry it, fake news produces fantasies about better forms of subjectivity. If fake news is a failure of judgment, then we need better forms of judgment, both at an individual level (Read more! Reads the right things! Get educated at the right place!) and at a technological level (invent better Facebook algorithms!). For those who would profit from what’s retrospectively called fake news (the label only works in a retrospective mode), it’s a bet that subjectivity on its own will fail to discern the crucial difference, or—and this is the more intractable problem, the one that concerns me the most—that subjectivity is no longer a relevant criterion.

“Fake news,” in other words, is a procedure more than a name. Uttering the epithet sets a process in motion. The designation “fake” first manufactures an originating, mendacious intention. It does so in the hope that discerning people can later point out the originating mendacity and undo the damage. As such, it’s a last-ditch hope that subjectivity—decision, discernment, knowing better — might come to matter again in the face of phenomena like fake news and trolls and spam and virality and Trump, all of which make it feel like subjectivity—understood as decision, as choice, as sovereignty—has been downgraded in importance in public life. Such optimism—and it is a form of optimism we’re talking about—also motivates the calls for Facebook and Google to take responsibility for the fake news they propagate. If algorithms can’t make our news trustworthy again, then maybe self-conscious human action can, even if that human action is mobilized in the service of writing better algorithms. The point of calling this phenomenon “fake news” is precisely to conjure a comforting scene wherein a group of morally righteous renegades can combat the moral bankruptcy of whomever or whatever it is that generates fake news.

Thus delaminated from the label that the fake news phenomenon has come to so aggressively inherit, fake news can be seen as a species of something far more ordinary: namely, sharing. Sharing through electronic networks—or what, in a predominantly email milieu, used to be called forwarding—isn’t the only way fake news stories come to matter, but it is an important way—often ineluctably important, which is why Facebook has started to use how much something is shared to detect whether or not something might be fake news. Like fake news itself, sharing isn’t so easy to ascribe to individual subjectivity, nor to collectivity seen as scaled-up subjectivity. Sharing is enacted at an individual level, but it comes to matter only as a network effect. Moreover, electronic networks automate the forms of connection that make forwarding possible. And as we’ve seen in the waves of optimism and disillusionment that syncopate the Web’s history, connection alone can feel like being heard and being heard can feel like mattering. It is easy to see why the Web has been so important for so many people—however one tells the story of modernity, that story usually involves the observation that the feeling of public mattering is in short supply. But when being heard is the effect of an automatic procedure, it is no longer something one can seek or give, no longer an effect of subjectivity. One forwards and shares and likes to overcome or repress this fact, to assert that such acts do still matter, might still add up. Sharing, in other words, is a fantasy about mattering. It is homeopathic.

Which means that fake news isn’t just evidence of a colonizing mendacity that we can fight with the missionary gospel of better discernment. It is also a networked structure of sharing which in many ways moots or supersedes or out-scales the very idea of the empowered, autonomous, decision-making subject whose actions, properly-oriented, can scale up to a working polity. Unsurprisingly, participation in such a networked structure is often driven precisely by a wish to matter (again). This is especially true for people whose structural privilege makes the notion of an empowered subjectivity tenable in the first place—anyone whose body doesn’t get in the way of their smooth transit through the world or whose money or degree lets them think about life in the language of a career. Fake news has seemed, in other words, to confirm the idea of subjectivity as both problem and solution. But the strong invocation of a more enlightened, more discerning subject, at war with individuals who would use their agency for evil, is also a distraction from the long technocratic history of not mattering in which the “fake news” phenomena also participates. To follow out this thought, see: Seb Franklin’s Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic, Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics, Lisa Nakamura’s and Peter Chow-White’s Race After the Internet, Steven Shaviro’s Connected, or N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. Any of those books would be a good place to start to think about this other version of the fake news problem.