Fake News

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It has long been a commonplace of cultural studies that the "news" is never an objective presentation of the way things really are, but reflects instead the ideological perspectives of those who present it.  More profoundly, the post-structural paradigm that continues to influence contemporary cultural studies (even if the word "post-structuralism" is beginning to show its age) goes even deeper to argue that reality itself (conventionally presented in scare quotes along the lines of a Derridean erasure) is a social construction without any objective grounding.  But in the wake of the recent revelations concerning what can only be called the "fake news industry"—and the potential effect that it appears to have had on the just-concluded presidential election—I think that it would behoove the practitioners of cultural studies to take "reality" out of scare quotes, because the reign of anti-realism is really getting out of hand.


To say that this will not be happening soon, however, is to risk considerable understatement, because I've made this call before.  Many years ago I published a book (Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, 1988) in which I tried to establish a semiotic alternative to post-structural anti-realism at a time when the sliding signifiers of the Reagan administration were giving the most fact-averse scholars of deconstruction a real run for their money.  And to say that I was not successful would also be to risk considerable understatement.  But I would like, nevertheless, to offer some tips to composition instructors who may be looking for ways to help students distinguish between outright fantasy and defensible reality in an era of "truthiness," "post-facts," and fake news.


To begin with, your students need to be informed that the "news feeds" that they receive on their Facebook pages reflect the same kind of data mining techniques that digital marketers employ.  By spying on the content posted on your Facebook page, Facebook can predict just what sort of news you are likely to want to get.  This not only means that "liberals" will accordingly receive "liberal" news and that "conservatives" will receive "conservative" news, but that liberal or conservative third parties—who have access to Facebook's data mines—can effectively spam your page in the same way that advertisers do—except in this case the spam is "news," not advertising.  The result is an echo chamber effect, within which everyone hears only the news that they want to hear (or already agree with).


So the second thing to realize is that the polarized (and polarizing) "news" situation in America is no longer simply a matter of whether you watch MSNBC or Fox News: these days the social network is the echo chamber, and that is a much trickier thing to resist.  For now it is not some network stranger who is providing you with your news, it is your own friends and family, whom you are lot more likely to trust, no matter what weirdness they send you.  The only way out of this echo chamber, then, is to get off social media and do some research, constantly seeking out multiple sources of —and perspectives on—information, especially when something you hear just doesn't seem very likely.  I'm not saying that unlikely things don't happen in this world, but, as they say in science, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," and so, extraordinary news requires extraordinary levels of active media scrutiny.


Finally, at a time when each side of the great American political divide doesn't trust anything that the other side reports, it is important to recognize that the concoction of fake news is not an ideological monopoly, especially at the extremes, where, to take one all-too-common example, the so-called "false flag" conspiracy narratives of both the left and the right can be disturbingly similar in their levels of sheer evidence-deficient fantasy.


So the best ground for refuting such post-fact fantasies remains good old-fashioned empirical evidence.  But we can't demand such evidence if we insist that there is no empirical reality and that everything is a social construction.  That is why the semiotic paradigm that I use, as influenced by Charles Sanders Peirce, is not a post-structural one.  It accepts a reality outside our sign systems and against which our signs can be tested and evaluated.  Absolute objectivity cannot be theoretically achieved by this paradigm, but it does supply a basis for identifying outright fabrications. In short, in this "post-truth" era, it's high time to get real.

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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.