Who decides whether news is ‘fake’ or true? How to decide which facts are real or ‘alternative’? The well-educated, well-situated class – to which I think I belong – knows almost for sure when other people are misled. Through what mechanism? And does it matter?
Sometimes it seems easy. There’s empirical evidence. If there are a thousand people attending an inauguration, you cannot pretend there is a massively larger audience than at a former inauguration that gathered ten thousand people – except of course if this so-called empirical evidence is in fact a series of manipulated images. If you could wipe out Trotsky or Lin Biao from group photos, why shouldn’t you be able to wipe out thousands of people from the recordings of the latter inauguration – or add thousands to the former one?
Allegations can be falsified, and sometimes it can be proven that falsified allegations are themselves incorrect, and thus untrue. A recent example is the French case of police violence against music producer Michel Zecler. On 23 November 2020 Zecler, a black man, is beaten over in his house by three policemen using their fists and boots and baton. When musicians show up out of the recording studio in the cellar, they also are physically attacked and eventually the studio is filled up with tear gas. The occasion that gave rise to this violence? Zecler wasn’t wearing a mouth cap while standing in the doorway of his studio.
The action was filmed by cctv, and published a few days later in a 8’47” video. But at the end of February 2021 a media campaign is launched by a police union and a few mainstream media to assert that the broadcasted cctv recording has been manipulated and directed, that the recording has been accelerated to enhance the impression of violence, that Zecler himself had pulled the policemen into his house, that he had merely got seven kicks within a timespan of eleven seconds, that the man had drawn a knife, that there was a suspicion of cannabis possession, that Zecler had tried to get rid of dope from his socks, etc. The news site Mediapart, that shows the entire cctv-recording, has investigated all allegations about the manipulation, and proven that they are all false. So on the one hand this specific police union and several popular media assert that the recording of the beating of Zecler and his musicians is fake and that only minor violence took place, provoked by the music producer and his friends; on the other hand, Mediapart proves that these assertions are fake and that the recording irrefutably shows (gratuitous) police violence.
Over the past hundred years or so, quite some people have learned that the truth is not something pre-existing, waiting to be dis-covered. Even empirical evidence or ‘science’ is dependent on a symbolic – and thus constructed – system to define the criteria of true knowledge. Truth has to be constructed again and again, and there are practically no truths that do not falsify previously established truths. Constructing a truth implies falsifying other views, facts, analyses, creations and beliefs. Deleuze once gave the following political example. Is there a Palestinian nation? Israel says there isn’t. Doubtlessly there has been one, but this reference to the past is not essential. From the very moment the Palestinians have been chased away from their land and territory, and they engage in processes of resistance, they are constituting a Palestinian nation. So, contrary to the discourse of the occupying power, the oppressed minority constructs and realises its own truth.
It’s too easy to assert that, if the legitimation of what is true or real knowledge for a large part depends on the power positions of its protagonists within the relevant context, in consequence the fake or untruthful character of information is due to the bare fact that it is enunciated by ordinary people who lack the authority to pronounce truth. And that, consequently again, what is regarded as misinformation should nevertheless be taken seriously, since it’s bare existence is expression and proof of the distrust of the ‘people’ towards the ‘elite’.
In his partly fictional Kleines Gespräch über grosse Worte (1978) Paul Feyerabend said: “Was ist den so wichtig an der Wahrheit? Was ist dieses Ding?” What is this thing called truth? (By the way, I don’t think truth is a ‘thing’, but rather a characteristic – but this as an aside.) His reasoning goes like this.
When people are grown-up – anyway whatsoever – you need to listen to them.
Even if they don’t understand a thing of the problems they want to solve?
Even then. Grown-ups should gain maturity, and they can only do so by participating in the solution of problems.
But won’t they do terribly stupid things?
Sure, but that’s what you learn from, from doing stupid things.
In fact, Feyerabend says, truth is not what matters – after all truth is nothing but an academic scam; what matters is the search for ways in which every person, according to their own interests, may be able to know or understand the surrounding world.
Feyerabend may commonly have been regarded as an anarchist in his approach of knowledge (anything goes), he most certainly refused to be called a political anarchist. Moreover, in the rare cases in which he himself tried to deploy his epistemological relativism in practical or societal domains, the results demonstrated a considerable amount of naiveté. For Feyerabend, political action – whether democratic or totalitarian, abstract or personal – is the attempt to change minds and situations in the world. Democratic action then has to do with organising situations in such a way that all people involved can actively participate.
His consequent and radical relativism led Feyerabend in 1989 to the remarkable assertion that he refused to condemn “even an extreme fascism” and that he thought it should be given Lebensmöglichkeit (means to live). One thing should be absolutely clear, he said: fascism wasn’t his thing – that was not the problem. The real problem was the relevance of this personal propensity (Neigung). His repudiation of fascism was a purely personal disposition, opposed to the inclinations of other people who didn’t reject it, and consequently there was politically insufficient objective ground to oppose or forbid an inclination to accept or promote fascism, since after all this is but one disposition amongst many dispositions.
Back to fake and true. So what now, if you accept that truth and power, facts and values, science and politics – and, not to forget: the algorithms of Big Tech – constitute all together one amalgam of stories and interpretations that decide about fake or true? In a complex and complicated world, where facts basically are admitted through the interpretation within a specific symbolic order, a great many people seem attracted by what Dick Pels calls “the rough mix of authoritarianism, populism and entertainment”, a mix that is based on the premiss that ‘my opinions are facts’. And the wide-spread addiction to the permanent stream of ‘information’, manipulated by a few global commercial companies, doesn’t help here. There’s an enormous appealing force in the simple equation ‘opinion = fact = truth’ as a basis for political agency.
On the contrary however, acknowledging the complexity of the world and the relativity of truth doesn’t need to be a problem in se. Treasuring epistemological uncertainty and pluralism may lead to a better understanding of a complex environment and an unknown and certainly uncontrollable future. When it comes to pure power struggle, it is clear the complex approach of truth can never win from the simplistic one. A straight political battle will always be lost. The only intellectually and politically honest thing to do would be to continually search for a balance between on the one side the principles of complexity, pluralism and relativism and on the other one the defence of the conditions in which these principles are viable and practicable. In that sense, Feyerabend’s stance on fascism is indeed extremely naïve.