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Praise and circus while democracy dies

Fake News. When reality loses


Climate change, economic inequality, migration, population growth and loss of biodiversity threaten civilization. But according to the Global Risk Report 2017, released at the World Economic Forum meeting in January of that year, misinformation can add further into the range of man-made risks that may threaten our existence. Misinformation primarily threatens to undermine democratic governance.

Alternative facts. Where in the world do we find the forces that can be mobilized in time to reverse development? That question comes to light after reading the book Fake News. When reality loses by the philosophers Vincent F. Hendricks and Mads Vestergaard. When extensive wars can be started and the president of the world's most powerful state can be elected on the basis of fake news, the red light is on.

Unfortunately, the book does not give any clues as to how we can reverse the development – but a contribution may be found in the explanatory framework that the authors propose for understanding fake newsphenomenon.

With the election of Trump for the US presidential office, a new type of news stream event has seen the light of world. When Trump's adviser Kellyanne Conway opposes the undeniable fact that there was less to Trump's appointment as president than Obama's, the adviser could maintain the opposite, citing the fact that alternative facts.

Likewise, Trump could reject the Paris Agreement on Climate in an understanding framework that is based on a claim that man-made climate change is a Chinese scam that actually covers a scary plan to undermine US competitiveness.

The "alternative facts", Trump's rejection of the climate agreement and a sustained flow of similar statements necessitates a mapping and awareness of what is happening and, not least, what a democratically-minded world must do with it.

Attention. The authors Hendricks / Vestergaard have set themselves the task of describing how democracy can end in a post factual state. Such a state emerges in a democracy "when politically opportune but factually misleading narratives replace facts as the basis of political debate, opinion formation and legislation". Misinformation in the digital age could mean that we will be further distracted from seeing the underlying structural conditions under which misinformation thrives and thus also be cut off from the necessary intervention.

Information bombards us from every angle; one can almost call it an information pollution.

Information is bombarding us in the digital age from all directions, so you might even be talking about information pollution. With a struggle to position itself on the world market – for nations as well as for businesses – it is first and foremost a matter of gaining attention. It is the entrance to our consciousness and thus also what occupies us and how we orient ourselves in life, as citizens and as consumers. Each of us is forced to make a comprehensive selection in the individual information and in the flow of more coherent messages and messages. In the area, an attention economy dominates, where attention is a scarce resource that can be resold for marketing and advertising purposes.

The newspapers, which do not, of course, strive to be truth-seekers, struggle with circulation figures to survive. On the whole, there is a battle for readers' attention that causes the product not at all the newspaper, but the readers whose attention the customers (advertisers) buy access to. As with TV, Google and Facebook: The user is not the customer, but the product.

Voters' attention can also be purchased, as is the information needed to influence them in a desired direction. Barack Obama did it in 2008, and Trump and Hillary Clinton did it in 2016 ahead of the US presidential election.

The firm that Trump hired to lead his election campaign, Cambridge Analytica, uses data-based profiling and compiles psychological profiles (of users, voters, citizens) for precision bombing. The world has not yet seen the end of what the attention and data economy can develop into with us humans as products (through the manipulation of behavior).

The role of media unfolds within a framework of media logic that Hendricks / Vestergaard believes can be defined within three dimensions depending on media institutions, environments and the market: journalistic ideals, commercial interests and technological conditions.

Uninformed vs. misinformed. With television, community communication changed radically. Media theorist and critic Neil Postman stated: "Entertainment is the overarching ideology of all discourse on television." And "good television" delivered Trump in his election campaign as spectacular, conflict-seeking and dramatic.

People with marked ideological attitudes are also those who tend to be most wrong.

The Internet has offered additional opportunities for the attention economy. However, with citizens as potential civil journalists on online news platforms and as bloggers, news diversity has not changed. The majority of people's attention is still a few major players. The possibilities, whether to speak to the rulers or to influence the agenda, are unchanged.

Trump's Twitter account has proven to be an effective tool in the attention economy, partly for the president's messages, and partly for blocking more substantive content in the limited attention economy. Signal law and symbolism can create speculation in the attention marketplace, causing political bubble formation, whereby the authors understand a "collective rejection of reality".

Much we, as citizens, are not informed about. But there is a difference between being uninformed and being misinformed. Misinformation is about crucial moments in a context being trivialized, omitted or distorted. If, on the other hand, we are disinformed, then it is a matter of the messenger having been in a deliberate and intentional deception based on underlying interests and motives. The authors operate with a scale of information quality, ranging from «true statements» to «fake news», where fake news «pretends to be journalism and truth-seeking, while the goal is really completely different».

Tribal War. Being confronted with facts that we do not even feel is true (cognitive dissonance) can result in us conveniently selecting information and sources of information that match what we would like to hear (selection bias). If an attitude is developed through the selection, you talk about motivated reasoning. Not surprisingly, studies show that people with marked ideological attitudes are also those who tend to be most factually wrong. But studies also show that at the same time, it is these people who are the most confident and convinced of being right. Now we are at the "tribal thinking", where we think about them versus them. And here we find the "blue lies" that should benefit the tribe.

In this spiral of influence of opinion, negative emotions (anger and fear) and positive emotions (awe and fascination) are means to mobilize for action. Up against the elite, populism here pretends to represent the true will of the people. In that world you suffer because of them, and critical sense is turned into conspiratorial thinking where they alternative facts swallowed raw as part of the tribal narrative.

The authors reject factual democracy to be a technocracy and open up a broad discussion of what we are doing with the post-factual symptoms that can result in the demise of democracy when the "power-holders, like a complete technocracy, are not accounted for." Not even if revealed in a direct lie ».

Niels Johan Juhl-Nielsen
Niels Johan Juhl-Nielsen
Juhl-Nielsen resides in Copenhagen.

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