The issue of fake news is relevant and scary concept in the current US political climate. In fact the spread of information has led to many experts to refer to the world we are living in as “post truth”, meaning that the line between truth and lie is blurred. This blurring generally happens in the realm of news and information. The effects of the post truth world are often painted as a horrible dystopian society. This extreme is not as likely as it may seem, but is possible. More immediately, the post truth world can lead to the rise of isolated political groups (identitarian groups), political disengagement (low voter turnout), and ultimately a power structure that is harmful to the masses (fascism). An understanding of how fake news is spread and how we can work against the post truth world is vital for the survival of the democratic process and an EQUAL society.
Like I mentioned before, there has been a recent rise in “fake news” or “clickbait”, meaning headlines and articles that mislead or misinform the general public through emotional appeal, pandering, and controversial subjects. Facebook is a prime of example of a clickbait environment. The spread of information can be explained using Richard Dawkins’s viral memetic infection theory and I’ll attempt to do that. The theory was first introduced in 1976 and (fun fact!) was the first use of the term meme. You’re probably thinking about meme as a funny bit on the internet, but Dawkins’s definition of meme has more to do with units of information. A meme is a unit of information synonymous to a gene. The theory equates the spread of information through a society to the spread of a virus through an immune system. Memes use society as a way to replicate and spread with slight variations just like a gene does in an immune system. These variations lead to evolution in both cases. The memes that are able to survive are best adapted to the society they live in.
The memes that are best adapted to a society are ones that are perceived to be beneficial to a society. They help to establish values. The influence that memes have on a society are exactly what makes them dangerous. Just like a virus, a meme’s goal is to survive. Just like an immune system, society’s goal is to stay functional and healthy. A weak immune system is unable to fight against harmful genes. The post truth world is like this. Information of all types and with conflicting motives are all accepted, weakening the society.
This deteriorates the concept of truth. Without truth, people and organization introducing memes can more easily influence information and ultimately public opinion. Like I was saying, fake news is usually controversial and easily digestible. Because of the emotional response this creates, research is not done, critical thinking skills are not exercised and misinformation is spread. As fake news becomes more prominent, the idea of inconsistent truth starts to seem normal. It is then possible for larger policies to follow the model of fake news.
For example, take the controversy surrounding football players kneeling during the national anthem. According to the players, the action of kneeling is in response to police brutality and, by extension, institutionalized racism. Prominent sources on the political right have been spinning the story to appears as though protesters are kneeling to protest the armed forces or the flag itself. To many Americans, the idea of disrespect of armed forces is more powerful than the idea of institutionalized racism, and therefore the reason behind the athletes’ protest has been distorted. As has been illustrated by viral memetic infection, the meme of police brutality is misrepresented. This misrepresentation becomes accepted and it is no longer clear if the meme is advantageous or not. Institutionalized racism is then sustained through society, intentionally or not.
Okay guys, so here its going to get a bit more dense. I will try to explain terms and things, but sorry. Hang with me!
I’m going to use a few philosophers to explain the things that fuel viral memetic infection theory. First off, Friedrich Nietzche’s ideas on cultural evolution and the will to power. Then I’m going to get in to Charles Taylor’s ideas on value and significance. After that I’m going to talk about Michel Foucault and his ideas on the creation of value. Then will be out of the woods and I’ll tell you how to fix it! (hopefully)
So in terms of Nietzsche’s philosophy, memes create reality. A meme is created to communicate about a unique experience, for example an honest person. Similar experiences are categorized under a single meme as their distinguishing characteristics are forgotten. As time goes on these memes are cemented into universally held truths within a society. The meme of honesty is then created. A collection of memes, or metaphors then determines the reality of said society. In that way, a values are created.
Advantageous memes, or truths, are ones that benefit society. Sometimes these truths do not align with golden rule, which is the underlying principle of western ethics. People allow themselves to be deceived, as long as the deception is not determined to be harmful. Similarly, truths that are determined to be harmful are not accepted and therefore deemed lies. The only memes a society accepts as truth are ones that are perceived to be advantageous.
The acceptance of only advantageous memes and the refusal to consider those which encourage societal advancement promotes the post-truth world previously discussed. In a post-truth world, the most comfortable meme is accepted no matter what, prompting a slide away from the most objectively advantageous truth. It is then acceptable to promote truth memes to benefit the individual instead of society.
The second of Nietzsche’s theories that can be applied here is the will to power. Will to power is akin to the will to survive in a virus. Nietzsche uses the example of the religious class gaining power. In medieval European societal structure inverted itself, establishing priests as the most important. The inversion of class structure was done through the promise of salvation through suffering. The gain and maintenance of power became memetic instead of physical. Instead of power being enforced through armies or executions, power is enforced through relics. Relics are representative of memes that allowed for the rise to power. By introducing a meme that was the best adapted to the environment, the religious classes in both societies were able to gain and maintain power. The introduction of memetic power allowed the ruling class to manipulate the masses to best fit their needs.
A modern application of the will to power is the presidential election. The Trump campaign promised a change in administration. It condemned the previous administration for mistreating white lower class workers. It rewarded suffering and promised improvement. Just as the idea of salvation appealed to the working class in medieval Europe, the idea of a change appealed to today’s working class. The general public took hold of the idea. Trump was elected and now has power, because his campaign provided a meme well adapted to the needs of the public.
The Clinton campaign used similar techniques in an attempt to gain power. The campaign promised to continue the policies of the previous administration. The campaign emphasized identity politics. Minority groups were promised more equal rights. Again, this was similar to the meme of salvation to the lower class. It rewarded suffering with the promise of an end to oppression. The public grabbed onto the idea, but Clinton did not rise to power.
This is an example of the most powerful meme infecting the public. To the majority of people, the idea of a change in administration was more appealing than the idea of decreased oppression. Similar to the way a virus best adapted to take advantage of a system survives, the ideas of the Republican Party were best adapted to the voters.
About a year after the election, one can see that the meme of truth has shifted away from the administration’s policies. The memes introduced during the campaign did not come to fruition. The administration has reversed its stance on many issues. The new memes presented by the Republican Party are no longer seen as advantageous truths. Instead they are seen as harmful. For example, compare campaign promises about health care to what is happening now. The memes presented by the opposite end of the political spectrum are seen as advantageous for the same reason that the Republican party originally was. They promise a change in administration. Change is still the meme best adapted to the environment, and therefore it is able to survive.
Charles Taylor’s argument concerning significance supports the argument against the post-truth world. According to Taylor, the spread of information is one of the aspects of an authentic society. He explains this through the idea of dialogical identity, or identity formed through interactions with others. Attempts to remain monological, or form an identity independent of outside influence, encourage a post-truth world, or in Taylor’s words the debased ideal of authenticity.
Taylor also discusses “horizons of significance”. These are the limits by which society determines what is significant. Taylor argues that one cannot determine by oneself what is significant, supporting his argument for dialogical identity. Horizons of significance create limits by which one can define the way ideas evolve and spread. They operate in the same way environmental limitations for viruses, determining the environments in which survival is possible.
In Taylor’s ideal of authenticity, horizons of significance are determined through moral reasoning, meaning that a meme must be supported by commonly held truths. In a strong immune system, bad viruses are destroyed because they harm the system. In an authentic world, values are determined in a similar fashion. Memes that are not advantageous are not allowed to survive. Additionally, this creates a large environment for an advantageous meme to survive in.
In the debased form of authenticity, horizons of significance are not supported by moral reasoning. Soft relativism allows horizons of significance and values to become subjective to the individual. This slide to subjectivism leads to fragmentation. A meme held within the horizons of significance of a fragmented group cannot survive easily outside of it.
For example, Alt-Right groups hold race to a higher significance than the rest of western society. The significance of race is not supported by moral reason. While some systematic racism is still present in western society as a result of historically held horizons of significance, overt racism is no longer accepted. It is condemned on the grounds that race no longer holds significance. As a result, the meme of white supremacy does not survive outside of the Alt-Right groups.
The information system of the post-truth world is changing this. Significance, or truth, is not determined by commonly held memes due to a lack of moral reasoning. Horizons of significance backed by moral reason create environmental limits in which a meme can survive. Placing value on memes that cannot survive outside of groups promotes the slide towards subjectivism and social atomism which in turn quickens the fragmentation that leads to a post-truth world.
Michel Foucault’s ideas build on the previous argument. He argues that discourse is the organization of memes within a society. Power then lies in the ability to influence discourse. The viewpoint of a society then determines the meme, leading to punishment or control.
An example of this would be the current number of public figures being accused of sexual assault and/or harassment. The determination of a meme is done through observation. Societies and the people within them observe behavior and then create a norm. Differences between similar behaviors are shed and an expected behavior is determined. In the creation of a norm, there is also the formation of the harmful meme. Abnormal behavior is discouraged through fear tactics (generally scientific or medical) and the exclusion of those who exhibit said behaviors. Through observation of oneself and attempts to avoid punishment, the norms are perpetuated. Through observation of societal behavior, sexual assault is a bad meme.
While the meme is widely accepted, the advent of the post-truth world is calling the validity of it into question. This is illustrated in the recent election to replace Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. Republican Roy Moore is accused of having sexual relations with minors. In addition to being accused of child molestation, Moore violated the constitution by erecting a statue of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse. This was ruled as establishing religion and was therefore a violation of the First Amendment. His democratic opponent in the election was Doug Jones. Previously a US attorney, Jones is best known for prosecuting two Klu Klux Klan members for bombing a church. In addition to this, Jones is known for being pro-choice. Many people would still rather vote for Moore than Jones, purely on the grounds of Moore’s political affiliation and stance on abortion. Jones won the election with a 1.5 margin of victory. The outcome of the election is a result of competing discourses, or memes, that is indicative of the post-truth world.
The recent attempts to remove net neutrality are one of the greatest symptoms of the post-truth world as it allows for a tighter regulation of discourse. Without net neutrality, large corporations will be able to control the flow of memes. Certain sites may be promoted or sped up. Others may be slowed or even blocked. Entertainment sites and social media may cost more to access. This is can be perceived as a power play by those in control. A loss of net neutrality leads to a control over discourse. This then allows those in power to better determine which memes the general public has access to. Ultimately, these corporations will be able to heavily influence the values and opinions of a society, as well as the information citizens are receiving.
So the argument part is over and now onto potential solutions for the post truth world.
One of Nietzsche’s most famous claims is that the creation of woman as God’s second mistake. The context of this is often missing. He makes this claim because Eve ate the apple and gained knowledge. In other words, she taught people to think. By learning to think, people were then able to see past the metaphors or memes presented by those in power. He cites both the Renaissance and the Reformation as an example of this, as they are time periods of critical thinking, the tool he argues is needed to abandon the post-truth world. By having this skill, man is able to see through the memes presented by those in power.
To return to an authentic society that is more impervious to negative viral memes, Taylor promotes a return to horizons of significance supported by moral reasoning. The reduction of competing discourses fights against fragmentation. A slide away from social atomism and subjectivism allows for more advantageous memes to survive and promotes a shift away from the post-truth world.
In short, a post-truth world is defined as one in which memes of truth are subjective, meaning that the line between objective truth and lie is blurred. This failed distinction makes a society more susceptible to harmful memes and power structures in the same way that a compromised immune system is more susceptible to disease. Viral memetic infection theory is a theory proposed by Richard Dawkins that equates the spread of information, or “memes”, through a society to the spread of a virus through the body. The will to power described by Friedrich Nietzsche is the vehicle which fuels the spread of harmful memes in the previously mentioned post-truth world. Charles Taylor’s writings on the slide away from authenticity in the western world and Michel Foucault’s investigation of the role of discourse both support the existence of the post-truth world.
Growing up and becoming politically active in the post-truth world has made me hyper-aware of the role viral memetic infection theory plays in the spread of information and ideas, as well as the will to power that motivates our leaders. As truth is no longer reliable, you have to be aware of the origin of memes. Most information is either fueled by a will to power or is introduced in response to the contradicting discourses. To combat this, there must be a return to morally reasoned truth. By supporting truth with morals, citizens of the post-truth world are able to better determine what memes are truly advantageous. This creates solidarity which implies morality and empirically supported truth. Those who introduce memes perceived as advantageous only do so in order to gain power. Just as Nietzsche argues, the memes create suffering so those in power can provide relief. A return to morally supported truth allows for a better understanding of advantageous memes and encourages a more authentic society.
Every good wish,