“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (1984, p. 40).
It can be argued that Orwellian narrative appears multifaceted, projecting a general critique towards the communist ideals through the hyperbolised prism of a dormant future. However, the concept of the omnipresent systemic control embodies one of the most prominent societal threats of today. Despite the technological advances which led to the greater socio-economic interconnectivity, society became operated by the incarnation of the Big Brother in the form of the media. Within the venomous currents of this media lake, there lives a Lernaean Hydra of fake news, with flagrant heads of speculation, misinformation, and disinformation.
However, before identifying Hercules who possesses an ability to defeat this Hydra, we need to seize the concept of fake news. Lexico defines fake news as “false information that is broadcast or published as news for fraudulent or politically motivated purposes”. According to the 2018 Statista reports, 83% of Europeans believe that such a phenomenon furnishes a threat to democracy. Moreover, 68% of the respondents claim to encounter fake news almost every day or once a week, which, subsequently, results in the diminished levels of trust in journalists. Fake news became one of the instrumental mechanisms within the social machine, which gudgeons can be greased by the populist propaganda. However, fraudulent information is traced throughout the history of humankind.
Back in the XIII century BC, the kings of the Hittite state inscribed on the stones of their palace messages about the victorious battles, which ended in a draw. In the 1830s, The New York Sun doubled sales, reporting that an astronomer had seen humanoid inhabitants of the moon. Arguably, WWII began with fake news about the seizure of a radio station. In all of the preceding examples, the dissemination of the disinformation amongst a wide audience was possible through a distinguished communication channel — a stone within the wall, a newspaper, radio. Therefore, access to this channel was limited to the people with a specific remote panel.
However, nowadays, anybody can spawn and distribute fake news. During the 2000s, social networks appeared, which became an unlimited media environment. The growth of their users and the variety of information formats have led to the democratization of these trumpets of pseudo-verity. It is in social networks that the fake news broadcaster communicates with the audience directly, bypassing fact-checking.
Therefore, fake news embodies a parasite which affects the societal body, paralyzing cognitive abilities and supplementing the polarized abruption from reality. As argued by Giovanni Ciampaglia, fake news in the form of the “low-credibility content” spreads with a cosmic velocity, suggesting that “people and algorithms are vulnerable to manipulation”.
The contagion of fake news propagates further stimulating certain biases within the brain, society, and machine, which make societal ecosystems subject to manipulation. By immersing into the virulent coalpit of the delusive darkness, an individual loses his identity under the pretentious helmet of conformity.
“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already” (1984, p. 229)
Despite the marvellous characteristics that encompass the life of a human individuum, obstinacy represents the opposite side of the spectrum. Fake news can further root this characteristic into the core of the subconsciousness, limiting the perspective of the outside world. These roots flourish into the buds of misguided preconceptions, which sprout into the flower of hatred. However, this process is not possible without a fertiliser of cognitive biases, which can be activated under the influence of fake news. Falsehood data accompanied by a convincing narrative may generate a clustering illusion — overestimating the importance of the coincidental patterns. Furthermore, due to omnipresence of fake news, a person may be a victim to anchoring bias, as he becomes over-reliant on the first piece of information available. Additionally, through the activation of the cognitive biases, fake news not only has an ability to separate the different perspectives but also produce a thick layer between them. In particular, presenting misleading information to a person with a specific set of beliefs further augments a limited information network — known as an “epistemic bubble” — through the rise of the confirmation bias. An individual appears to be secluded in a capsule from which the other sources of information are being rejected.
Therefore, the effect of the fake news on an individual and his actions is substantial, sometimes tragic. In 2011, Anders Breivik committed two terrorist attacks killing 77 people. In his manifesto, he condemned the wave of liberal modernization which destroyed the traditional structures of society. As it was further investigated, Breivik spent hours submerging himself into the bowels of fake news neo-racist propaganda. His exposure to the misleading information and activated cognitive biases, within the epistemic bubble, were generating pressure in the form of the intensifying pre-existing hatred, which culminated in the horrifying attacks.
“What can you do… against the lunatic… who gives your arguments a fair hearing and simply persists in his lunacy?” (1984, p. 301)
The second aspect of human life that is being continuously affected and manipulated by fake news is the social environment. The fake news is being embedded into the social structure of the “echo chamber” and embodies one of the key pillars of the polarization edifice. The “echo chamber” is categorized by the defamatory motives, projected upon a person by his social environment, towards the ideologically opposite relevant sources of information. This implies an absence of the “upper ceiling” of actuality, which damages the immune system of the person’s rationalism. Likewise a virus, fake news attacks the brain cells of the subject, causing a rise of the partisan cognition. With the additional support of cognitive biases in the form of the bandwagon and motivated reasoning, fake news regarding another group of people with dissimilar ideologico-moral foundations becomes perceived as a sacred truth which further cements one’s former opinion.
Hence, the biggest threat of the fake news on a societal level is its capability to exponentially increase the distance between the ideological semispheres and to further demagnetize the echo-chamber moral compass. This may have dismal political implications. One of the most prominent recent examples is the coverage of Navalny poisoning. The “Russia 1” channel, sponsored by the government-controlled Gazprom media, started spreading the fake news calling Navalny “Berlin agent” and suggesting the “staged poisoning”. Therefore, the fake news is used as a brick in the totalitarian wall separating the general population affected by the propaganda and the other side.
“Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” (1984, p. 178)
The last sphere in which fake news spreads its toxicant roots is technology. The algorithms once created to simplify the process of interconnection became personalised shoulder devils whispering the biased information. In his Ted Talk, Eli Pariser stresses the shift in information flows, accentuating that the access to the information via technology became “tailored”. The mega-conglomerates created algorithmic “filter bubbles”, which endlessly sew the identity mask. In this case, fake news represents the polystyrene that formulates the shape of this mask. If a person becomes exposed to fake news and engages with it, the algorithm aimed for the amplification of engagement will generate similar content which will be presented to the subject.
Thus, once the fake news becomes incorporated within one’s social media space — the algorithm initialises a vicious delivery cycle which further reinforces the cognitive and social biases. The recent Netflix film illustrates the practical effect of this correlation. The illegitimate harvesting of the big data, conducted by Cambridge Analytica and its further exploitation by Facebook, created politically aimed ads targeting individuals by creating a fake news noise around them. Arguably, this was seen as one of the key components of Trump’s 2016 victory and pro-Brexit vote.
Based on the presented examples, a general claim might be formulated — fake news became a quintessence of evil corporations and corrupt governments attempting to absorb the wealth and impose control.
However, I argue that the proliferation of fake news would not be possible without ignorant individuals which inhabit the consumerist society. The soil for the fake news parasite plant is our obsession with egocentrism. Therefore, we will be able to dig up the poisonous roots starting on an individual level. Specifically, we can “pop” the epistemic bubble with adherent fake news by becoming more suspicious of the validity of the presented information. This process of personal reconstruction will provoke the destruction of the echo chambers with the misguided acceptance of fraudulent information. Ultimately, the concept of the fake news will be diminished and its algorithmic presence will be limited.
Ultimately, each of us is Hercules who is capable of defeating the Hydra of fake news. What we need is Ariadne’s thread — logic. We follow a lie until the path leads us to the truth. Only when we realize that a change begins from within,
“We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness” (1984, p. 29).