Fake News: A Modern Day Problem or Positively Medieval?

Fake News: A Modern Day Problem or Positively Medieval?

Olivia Ward-Jackson provides a fresh perspective on the ‘fake news’ phenomenon as a clash between truth and post-truth belief systems, and its underlying tensions that stretch back a millennium.

It seems that we are living in a time of epistemological crisis, where the nature of truth and knowledge have been called into question, as suggested  by the rise of new political buzzwords such as ‘post-truth’, ‘alternative fact’ and ‘fake news’. Two belief systems, that of truth and post-truth, are now existing together, and often come in face-to-face opposition with distressing results. However, the issue of clashing belief systems is not exclusive to 2019, but can be recognised throughout history, such as in the conflict between religion and logic in twelfth century medieval Europe. 

The recent Oxford Dictionary definition of post-truth, which was its word of the year in 2016, can illuminate the difference between truth and post-truth systems. Post-truth was defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ The Oxford Dictionary chose to define post-truth by its antithesis to truth, which appeals to reason and is based on objective fact. Instead, post-truth epistemology appeals to emotion and is based on what the philosopher Henry Frankfurt would politely call ‘bullshit’. Frankfurt describes bullshit as different to lies. A liar will attempt to hide the truth by telling a lie that opposes it. A bullshitter shows no concern for truth at all and instead uses bullshit to persuade a listener, taking no account of whether the bullshit is true or false.  

We can see the system of truth in practice all over the world. The scientific achievements of the modern world are an astounding attempt to understand and categorise the mysteries of the universe. In recent years, scientists have discovered new planets with possibly inhabitable atmospheres, and taken huge steps forward in human tissue regeneration and advanced Artificial Intelligence. Furthermore, we are living in an age of technology, where everything is saved or recorded, whether it be on cameras, iClouds, or via state surveillance networks. In a world where the truth appears so clear-cut, the post-truth backlash seems even more drastic. 

It is clear that, especially in the realm of politics, truth is being counteracted by a post-truth belief system that appeals to emotion and prejudice rather than reason. An obvious example is Donald Trump’s infamous twitter account and fake news accusations, especially his support of the conspiracy that President Obama was not born in the US, which served to reinforce the prejudices of his supporters. Similarly, the leave campaign was accused of using post-truth tactics to incite racial hatred in its ‘breaking point’ anti-immigration poster. The internet is also a haven for post-truth politics, as it allows people to circulate images or arguments that provide a false representation of reality. An obvious example of this is the Kremlin-backed twitter account that posted a photo captioned “Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone.” In fact, since the woman had been trying to help just moments before it was taken, the photo had been entirely decontextualised in a ploy to encourage Islamophobia.  

However, ours is not the first society that struggled to harmonise two contradictory epistemological systems. In fact, nearly a millennium ago, twelfth century Europe saw a similar phenomenon, in that a society based on orthodox religion was confronted by a new craze for logic in its schools and early universities. Like truth and post-truth, it was hard to reconcile Christian mysticism and logic, and many feared that logic would undermine the Roman Catholic Church, which was reliant on blind faith in the divine and unprovable mysteries of God such as the Eucharist. A famous writer, Bernard of Clairvaux, despaired that ‘mere human ingenuity’ was ‘rushing into divine things, and profaning rather than revealing what is holy’, in the same way that emotive politics in the 21st century is distorting, rather than revealing what is true.   

We should recognise the fragility of two very different belief systems – twelfth century Catholicism and twenty-first century truth. What these two systems share is an absolute belief in a specific truth, whether that be the Catholic God as defined by the Creed, or in Truth as defined by Reason. This quality makes them vulnerable, since any single, absolute truth can be easily undermined and replaced by another belief from an infinite choice of options, whether that be a heretical theory based on logic or an emotionally driven belief in alternative facts. For every religious truth, there are a thousand possible heresies, and for every fact, there are a thousand possible alternative facts. 

In the twelfth century, the tenets of the Catholic faith were propagated by the formidable Papacy. In the modern day, for a long time it has been established institutions of experts, such as governments, scientists and the mainstream media, that have disseminated the truth. Yet, recently, people have begun to question whether the establishment is a reliable source of truth, thus separating the truth from the institutions that claim to uphold it. Michael Gove during the Brexit campaign claimed that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, whilst in the memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D Vance describes his upbringing in poor, white America, and explains that ‘many try to blame the ager and cynicism of working-class whites on misinformation’ but ‘the people I know are well aware of what the major news organisations have to say […] they simply don’t believe them’. The separation of the truth from institutions of experts, with no other truth-upholding institution to replace it, creates a vacuum that can only be filled by post-truth and its persuasions.  

What we can learn from twelfth century Europe is that two belief systems can exist side-by-side in relative harmony if they respect one-another’s boundaries, and indeed learn from each other. The medieval logicians did not try and construct rational arguments that undermined the Catholic faith. In fact, some of them such as Thomas Aquinas reinforced the faith with their logical proofs for God. In the same way, emotional, post-truth politics should not be used to undermine the truth. However, post-truth beliefs could help professional politicians understand the perspectives of their voters, so they can address their needs and fears in a rational, effective and fact-based way. Measures should be taken, such as bolstering independent fact-checking agencies, to ensure post-truth politics is not interpreted as an alternative to truth, but understood as a code for political dissatisfaction.

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