Fake News and Agnotology

story © Michael Betancourt, December 6, 2017 all rights reserved.


The emergence of the “fake news” phenomenon in the United States during 2016 and 2017 demonstrates the political applications of agnotology, quite apart from its structural role in maintaining digital capitalism. In being used for obviously political ends, agnotology reveals its foundations in equivalence: a social relations and assumptions, whether between instances of ‘type,’ qualitatively distinct actions, or in divergent forms of immaterial (intellectual) labor are symptoms of the expansive semiotic processes of digital capitalism.

As “fake news,” agnotology exploits misconceptions about the state of information as a moral relativism that renders all ideas and political positions identical; it is a term specifically employed by United States President Donald Trump to attack any information he disagrees with. However, it is an expansive term in use since the 1890s to describe the distribution and promotion (commonly through social media) of falsehoods, misinformation, and spurious news. In 2016, the founder of Snopes, David Mikkelson discussed the issue of “fake news” in relation to factuality and reliability of news in general, noting that “fake news” exists as part of a larger set of issues: Unfortunately, that phenomenon is commonly being referred to as a “fake news problem,” a term that itself may be nearly as misleading as the issue it seeks to address.

Certainly, the online world is full of fake news—fabricated stories set loose via social media with clickbait headlines and tantalizing images, intended for no purpose other than to fool readers and generate advertising revenues for their publishers. Many fake news purveyors claim to be working in the field of “satire,” but their work is not satirical by any standard definition of the term: it isn’t ironic or arch or funny, it doesn’t prompt debate of social issues by holding them up to derision, it doesn’t ridicule any particular set of human follies or vices. In short, it “satirizes” nothing other than the tendency of many people to accept false information presented to them in a news format as if it were real news (a tendency deliberately encouraged by so-called “satirists” who publish their work on sites that are deliberately designed to resemble those of real news outlets, that mimic the trademarks and URLs of legitimate news organizations, that hide fabricated stories amidst real news items, and that bear no disclaimers or tags identifying the content as humor).

Mikkelson, D. “We have a Bad News Problem, not a Fake News Problem” posed November 17, 2016.

What Mikkelson identifies, “the tendency of many people to accept false information presented to them in a news format as if it were real news” is agnotology. Dismissing the simulation of “legitimate news” in the fashion he does is an intentional fallacy—that the professed intent to satirize the gullibility of audiences is reliable. To conceive of “fake news” as simply “alternative view points” on issues of factuality and logic demonstrates the fantasy of equivalence is a superstructural part of digital capitalism, one that is essential to the maintenance of agnotological processes, blocking any objections as illiberal impositions; agnotology exploits a reification of abstract principle as instrumentality—“fake news” thus acts as a diagnostic that demonstrates the structural role and foundation of agnotology in enabling and defending challenges to unfettered semiotic production. The centrality of agnotological procedures to the production and maintenance of “fake news” becomes apparent with the fabrication of false stories to discredit real ones, as when Washington Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen challenged Jaime Phillips about her false story of sexual abuse by Republican candidate Roy Moore, who was running for Senator in Alabama during 2017. Her story was designed to undermine other, credible accounts of abuse by Moore, in effect providing political support for his candidacy by undermining the already known and publicized allegations of crime. The “sting” discovered by the Washington Post reporters is not an isolated case: automated “robocalls” claiming to be from the Washington Post and offering payments to women willing to make false claims of abuse have also been made to residents in Alabama. These phone calls themselves are agnotology, raising a question about the validity of reportage already made on the Moore case. Whether these formal attempts to create uncertainty are discovered (“caught” might be the appropriate term) is irrelevant—the fact of the calls puts the reportage in doubt. Their existence is significant in itself as a demonstration of the convergence between agnotology and “fake news.” The purpose of these calls, much like the “sting” is to validate interpretations that contradict the reportage of crime. (A similar process, over a longer time frame, has been used to deny any potential results of Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign and its relationship with the Russian government.) Belief in any specific reportage becomes a reflection of the innate biases of the human audience, rather than a logic of ‘facts.’ Agnotology challenges reportage in these cases by offering a network of potential interpretations that undermine the validity and trust in reportage itself. The event-being-interpreted is conceived of as false, as misinformation, in advance of its reportage.

The role of agnotology in attacking epistemological procedures is not new; in “fake news” the role of equivalence becomes self-evident: it is the presentation of “alternative ‘facts’” to support a denial of crime in the Moore case, demonstrating how “fake news” and agnotology are mutually reinforcing tendencies within digital capitalism, neither independent nor separate. The link between agnotology and the fantasy of equivalence is a symptom of the same underlying protocol, which Mikkelson’s article implicitly suggests (it is titled “We Have a Bad News Problem, Not a Fake News Problem”). Agnotology depends on a denial of distinctions and collapse of epistemological identifications; the fantasy of equivalence is a parallel ontological collapse. The interchangeability of labor and automation or the uniform valuation of its products without reference to quality and utility both derive from this ontological denial of distinctions. The moral relativism sometimes ascribed to the state of information—the belief that truth and falsehood are interchangeable, a view common to the "alternative facts" of “fake news” for example—involves ignoring the role that mutually exclusive potentials (paradoxes) have in defining limits. The conception of factuality as only one dimension of this information space does not make truth and falsehood equivalent—being identified as equivalent always realizes a specific claim about the nature of what has been conjoined, that the two (or more) equivalents are different-yet-the-same, a denial of their differences that when applied to mutually exclusive concepts reveals itself as an ontological variant of the epistemological erasures specific to agnotology. The fantasy of equivalence is an attack on the capacity to identify the nature of things, rather than their significance and meaning, that arises from and supports the moral relativism created by agnotology—thus its link to “fake news” comes as an opportunity to consider the erasure of human labor in maintaining of digital capitalism.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  December 6, 2017  all rights reserved.

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