movies: AESTHETICS
   movies: NEWS & REVIEWS
   random art notes
   random how-tos
   research: MOTION GRAPHICS
   research: VISUAL MUSIC
   theory: working notes



Movies by Michael Betancourt
 Art of Light Organization
 Going Somewhere
 exhibitions [pdf]
 purchase artworks

  Video Art listserv



archives begin in 1996

Fake News and Agnotology

story © Michael Betancourt | published December 6, 2017 | permalink | TwitThis Digg Facebook StumbleUpon  |  


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 newsfabricated 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 isnt ironic or arch or funny, it doesnt prompt debate of social issues by holding them up to derision, it doesnt 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 fallacythat 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 instrumentalityfake 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 irrelevantthe 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 Muellers investigation of Donald Trumps 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 Mikkelsons 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 informationthe belief that truth and falsehood are interchangeable, a view common to the "alternative facts" of fake news for exampleinvolves 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 equivalentbeing 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 agnotologythus its link to fake news comes as an opportunity to consider the erasure of human labor in maintaining digital capitalism.


  • fantasy of equivalence
  • more from theory: DIGITAL CAPITALISM

  • print