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The press as 'fake news'

The press as fake news is no new phenomenon – according to Søren Kirkegaard, the content lies not in the content, but in the form and format itself.


"Media is one of the most destructive forces that has ever existed," Julian Assange argued in the increasingly publicized Holberg debate. Of the strong reactions to the debate, one would think radical media criticism was something new and unheard of. Yes, an attack on democracy and a symptom of a society in disrepair – in short: something trumpish. None of this is true. The press criticism is almost as old as the press itself, and among its many representatives are some of the finest thinkers, writers and statesmen of Western culture. One of them is an unknown Danish philosopher.

In the middle of the 1800th century, Søren Kierkegaard sat in Copenhagen and wrote furious diary entries about the new phenomenon he called "Dag-Pressen". The rage had, among other things, a personal background. He himself had been subjected to the power of the press. In 1840, Denmark's first significant joke magazine, The Corsair, saw the light of day. The magazine was controversial and was often seized by the authorities, but it was read by many, including Kierkegaard himself. The magazine's editor, Meïr Aron Goldschmidt, was a great admirer of Kierkegaard, which led to him being spared the bitter satire other celebrities were exposed to. The philosopher would have refused such treatment, and in an article in the newspaper Fædrelandet (1845) he directly asked to appear in the Corsair: «It is really hard for a poor author to be so designated in Danish Literature, that he […] is the only one who is not insulted there ».

Had he known what he was asking for, he would probably think again. In any case, the prayer was fulfilled. In the years that followed, Kierkegaard was a regular in the magazine. The one of the accusations that hit him the hardest was the most banal of them all, the caricature's hint that his pant legs were not as long. The subtitle here is, of course, the original philosophy that, for the sake of independence, cannot be dressed like ordinary people. One might think that a philosopher of world historical significance would rise above shabby statements about his trouser legs? But Kierkegaard felt upset. Not first and foremost about the case in and of itself (although in his diaries he struggles to state that it is not true), but that it became a "thing" in public. People cared. They had to see if it really was that way. They watched and they laughed. At length, this form of attention became unbearable for Kierkegaard. He had won to have a straightforward and cordial relationship with the common man, to be able to strike up a conversation with anyone. Now all this was crazy, disturbed, ruined. The great philosopher in public was reduced to a few different trouser legs. And it was the press who was to blame.

What we now see is that the opinion monopoly of traditional, editorial-controlled media is increasingly being challenged by independent actors. 

Despite the personal point of view, Kierkegaard's press criticism has a general character. For Kierkegaard, the press is fake news almost by definition. The false is not in the content, but in the form and format itself: "One complains that sometimes there is a single untrue article in a magazine – which, by all means, blasphemy, the whole essential form of this Communication is a fake".

Although what is in the newspaper is true, it can still be "false" at it says in the newspaper, according to Kierkegaard. Let's take a closer look at how he justifies this. His press criticism is written according to the approach and is spread over a three-year period in the diaries from 1847 to 1850 – formulated here as four theses.

The spread is a fake. This is a point Kierkegaard keeps repeating in his diaries: The press is a disproportionate story. The disproportionate is the mismatch between quality and quantity, which means that what is not worth communicating to anyone in a short time is communicated to many by the press. ("Many" for Kierkegaard are several thousand. What would he think of the state of our time?) He rejects the general view of the press of the time – which is also the usual attitude today – namely that the press is essentially a good one, and that it only "occasionally comes off". No, says Kierkegaard, the press is an evil "one and only by the Power of Distribution", it represents a form of insanity comparable to the construction of a railroad crossing a few kilometers in area, and it helps to make society into a "coffin" [mental hospital].

He illustrates the point with the following example: Let's say the press mentions a young girl by name and states that the girl has been given a new light blue dress and that this is true. It seems innocent, but Kierkegaard characterizes it as nothing less than "an assault on the young girl who might have died or cost her sense". The offense does not consist of the mention itself, but in the disproportionate prevalence that follows. According to Kierkegaard, the involuntary attention and "Familiarity" which in this way becomes the girl's part will not be possible. In other words, propagation is an evil in itself. And with the spread there are other evils as well.

Opinion is a fake. It is easy to get the impression that what a newspaper thinks about a case is what the people think about a case. And if it was not so in the first place, it will often be so as soon as the press has spoken. That's why we call newspapers opinion leaders – they tell us what to think about things. But according to Kierkegaard, this is precisely the "Perishable and Demoralizing" of the press. Not «that it announces something False», but the «perishable Guarantee it gives […] The fact that it is in a Magazine is probably a Guarantee for that. ' What man fears most of all is not to say something that is untrue, but to stand alone with an opinion, Kierkegaard claims. The press plays on teams with this fear and cowardice. The opinions of the press come with a guarantee. The safest and most convenient way is to lean on the guarantee, and this is how people become "worse and worse", says Kierkegaard. The press creates people who refrain from thinking for themselves.

The press creates people who refrain from thinking for themselves.

Impersonality is a fake. The press also creates people who are afraid to express themselves individually and personally. "All true Message is personal," Kierkegaard argues, while "the delusion is always [impersonal]." In Kierkegaard's eyes, the press helped to abolish personality, and thus also the truth. He looked with horror at how the press made it possible to speak impersonally and anonymously, on behalf of the newspaper and the public, as a "man" without responsibility. While a "brothel host lives on the misery of men," the journalist lives by putting "the evil principle of man in motion," he says with a hard-hitting comparison. Basically, lies and delusions depend on a single human being daring to pronounce and stand for it, but with the help of the press, this protection is removed. The journalist can "without thought of responsibility" put "any error in Circulation" using the most disproportionate means of communication. Kierkegaard predicts that the truth will eventually disappear from the world and the only thing left will be what he calls the mean, the unknown origin of the voice.

The interesting thing is a fake. In our time, we like to call it a 'talk ice cream'. A talk ice cream is a matter of little world historical significance that we talk about for a short while because it has been featured in the media. A talkie is pseudo-interesting. The evidence that it is pseudo-interesting and not really interesting is that it is impossible to mobilize commitment to discuss the age-old talkative. A real talkie is irrevocably dead after a few weeks. Kierkegaard makes the following observation: "Something you don't even bother to talk about – you can use the Press to disseminate, and then you talk about it because it has been in the Press". How is it like this? Kierkegaard gives the following explanation: There is something that real, concrete people avoid talking about and that is below their dignity. But the press is "nobody," so they can safely write about it. And once the press has written about it, so er there something to talk about; it has been in the newspaper after all. And then you talk about it. Put to the head: The press does not convey news. News is by definition what the press conveys.

What people fear most of all is not to say something that is false, but to stand alone with an opinion, Kierkegaard argues.

Media as an end-time sign. It is now well over 150 years since Kierkegaard recorded his thoughts on the press. So what relevance does this have for us today? Besides the fact that it is of historical and curious interest in how the greatest philosopher in the Nordic countries considered the phenomenon "Dag-Pressen" when it was new, it is also interesting in light of, and as a comment on, today's debate on the media and fake news.

What we now see is that the opinion monopoly of traditional, editorial-controlled media is increasingly being challenged by independent actors. In this situation, the threat to truth, democracy and civilization that fake news allegedly represents is used for all it's worth.

In his fundamental press criticism, Kierkegaard argues that the distinction between the use and abuse of press power, between truth and falsehood, news and fake news does not really hit the main point. There is something false in the nature of the press itself, and that the normal use of the press is a form of abuse. According to Kirkegaard, the press is a destructive force that does more harm than good.

One who has expressed similar thoughts in our time is Julian Assange. At the Holberg debate, he also voiced his concern about what he called the fake news apocalypse. It is a state in which the amount of information becomes so confused and manipulated in so many ways and so fast that it is no longer possible for humanity to understand or control what is happening to us. Søren Kierkegaard also saw the new media phenomenon as an end-time sign. In a record from 1848, he writes: "As China is halted at a developmental stage, so Europe will stop at the Press, standing as a memento that the human genus has made a discovery that eventually it became overwhelming."

Øivind Nygård
Øivind Nygård
Nygård has a master's degree in Nordic language and literature.

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