Truth, falsehood, and fake news – why even care about it?


By Aloysius Chia

One of the problems in the discussion about fake news is the lack of clarity regarding what it is. Proponents from all sides of the political aisle use the term to undermine the truth of what they refer to. For instance, in the reporting of news as a representation of facts and in social media, such as commentary on Facebook and Twitter, a particular post or article that is denoted as “fake news” is also usually an accusation hurled at the post as being untrue.

Knowledge of the truth, though often fallible, is needed to make sense of the facts and to be reasonable in reaching one’s conclusions.

It is thus crucial for citizens who wish to be active participants in the shaping of politics and civic institutions in a country to be informed and to be discerning of what is or is not the truth. Knowledge of the truth, though often fallible, is needed to make sense of the facts and to be reasonable in reaching one’s conclusions. At the very least, this is what most people would like to see if indeed the “truth” was something accessible: that the facts can allow one to make sense of circumstances in a sensible, coherent, and fair way.

However, this idealized version of truth-seeking, while sought by many who think truth possible to obtain despite the diversity of social contexts that individuals come from, fails to touch on the complexity of what “fakeness” is. Though the idea of truth has been raised and debated by philosophers for millennia, for instance in the metaphor of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Descartes’ Evil Demon, and although truth is a concept pivotal in theories of justice, the idea of fake news consists of more than merely knowing and truth-seeking

Knowing and truth-seeking may not be sufficient because one can know and one can try to search for the truth, but one’s knowledge can still be false. To put it another way, one can have a belief is that is justified and true but which is also false because there are other factors that determine the truth-content of one’s belief. This problem, also known as the Gettier problem in theories of knowledge, lies at the heart of discussion on fake news.

In fake news, the medium of transmission and the authenticity of the author’s intention becomes central to how facts are portrayed and interpreted. Suddenly, our knowledge of the facts and our understanding of what is true becomes intensely political and is transformed into something deeply problematic that is viewed through the lens of a disparate relativism.

The real problem arises not because the labelling of a source as “fake” suggests that it is unreliable, inauthentic, and untruthful. More severe than the mere accusation of being a provider of inaccurate information, labels of “fakeness” suggests that the source is a deliberate purveyor of false facts. It is this that makes the idea of ‘fake’ such a powerful undermining tool. False information is now associated with the intention of distorting, veiling, shading, and hiding what is or is not approximately true.

“Fake”, when used this way, not only serves as a refrain to undermine the truth-content of what the other person is saying, and questions the integrity of the other even if it was a casual, offhand remark. Instead, it becomes a rhetorical device to defend one’s own beliefs and views. By accusing the other of saying what is criticized about oneself as ‘fake’, one negates the necessity of requiring oneself to defend against criticism. Accusing the other of being ‘fake’ turns attention away from one’s own argument, to focus the debate on the identity, intentions and beliefs of the other person.

it pretends to be interested in truthfulness and credibility, when in fact its main objective is diversion and distraction.

This diversionary technique, which deflects criticism towards the critic’s credibility, reveals an interesting feature about the operationalization of what is ‘fake’. In so far as it is used as a defensive tactic against criticism, it pretends to be interested in truthfulness and credibility, when in fact its main objective is diversion and distraction. The operative term of ‘fake’ is not so much as to be actually interested in what is not fake, it is more interested in creating an image that there is a foundational problem with criticism itself in the first place.

In this way, almost anyone can claim that some comment or source is “fake”. If one disagrees with a piece of criticism, one can merely accuse the source of criticism as being inauthentic or having ill intentions in expounding one’s views. One can defend one’s views simply by accusing the other of being incapable of upholding reasonable facts and interpreting information correctly. Political and social bias is taken to be the basis of purported truth-telling from the other side, rather than some level of reasonable comment.

A discussion that frames answers only as  “truthness” and “fakeness” sacrifices nuance – instead we find a clear delineation between both sides instead of communicative engagement.

What is fake, and what is not

This dilemma is what complicates attempts to define what “fake” is from the truth. If there are some facts that must be true and others that are false, then not everyone who accuses some other who is ‘fake’ or false must be true, since some of them must be false. But there is no stopping anyone from freely labelling which comment they dislike as “fake” and “false” as opposed to being true, whether these are prominent figures of authority, who wield status and power, or ordinary individuals expressing themselves through social and other media.

These varied media platforms that capture our thoughts and expressions, when coupled with the multi-layered complexities of languages that we use, means that there are often multiple levels of truth rather than one truth.

Where one person is true, and the other is untrue is not the only combination that describes the debate about any given topic. When parties communicate, one party may be conveying higher levels of truth and the other lower levels of truth; alternatively, both parties may be conveying equal levels of truth about overlapping but different topics that seem at first sight to be competing topics of discussion.

To give a simplified example, if two person disagrees on a descriptive statement describing any state of affairs X, and person A may have referred to it correctly while person B has referred to it wrongly does not immediately mean that person B is wrong about what he or she may be trying to say. This is because the truth content of what person B may be trying to claim may not be dependent on whether describing X is true. Rather, the claim may be conditionally dependent on X and some other statement of fact Y, Z in order to be true.

Very often, due to the richness of our linguistic abilities and flexible comprehension of words, people tend to mix opinions, ideas and thoughts with statements of fact. This complicates attempts to sort out what is true because though conversations between any number of individuals often seem to refer to the same set of propositions, they may actually refer to different sets of propositions when probed further. Where the difference is not referring to different sets, the argumentative propositions may be premised on quite different points.


The entrance of social media

The medium of transmission acts as a filter to our what is being said by someone. The difference with social media such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook is that where previously there was a filter that occurred in a mainstream media source that selected events to report and individuals to interview, now you get to read and see directly what the person you’re following is saying. Both contain perspectives and act as lenses to reality. However, journalism, in spite of its biases, has a professionalized style of reporting that social media does not need to adhere to. In mainstream newspapers, for example, one would know its political leanings and tell apart opinions and commentary that are sorted separately from other news sections. In social media, the personal becomes the public and vice-versa.

This is not to say that social media is inferior as a source of information. There are merits and downsides to both social and traditional media. In social media, there is a sense of the personal voice that seems to come directly from the self of the person speaking. This is something that mainstream media lacks. It is also more immediate, quicker to post and faster to respond to than traditional forms of media. This makes it both a great tool for creating genuine communities but also serves as an avenue for abuse. Any abuse consequently undermines trust and the ability of communities to hold cogent, dignified conversations because suspicions abound to everything that has been said.

For this very reason it is vital that everyone who cares about civic participation learn to discriminate between facts from sources that are accidentally untrue, and those that are deliberately fabricated to be untrue. Where a fact from a source that is untrue it may be due to genuine error, unforeseen mistakes and unexpected inaccuracies; where a source is deliberately untrue it is caused by an intentional imputing of falsification, generated by a range of motivations. The reality, however, is that individuals across the socio-economic and political aisle probably would not even agree on what the same fact means to them.


Finding the truth

This does not mean we should try to give up finding out what the truth is. Even if there are difficulties in assessing truth because of inherent interests, ways of speaking, and differing intentions of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, how we try to discover what is true or false plays an important role in creating a civic and free culture. If the most immediate reaction a society has is suspicion, doubt and caution about the veracity anything said and finds a need to purify it through any means possible, then society will become worse off than if there were freedom of expression and genuine authenticity amongst all those who take part in debates. For this reason, we should all care about how we deal with what “fake” is, for our civic life and vibrancy sorely depends on it.

by Aloysius Chia


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