Real news as fake news. Fake news as real news.
Aesop’s boy crying wolf is not about the wolf. Similarly, screaming about fake news is not a problem with facts, it’s a problem with ourselves. Fake news is mostly a label attached to the narrative created about facts that doesn’t fit someone else’s agenda.
The Italian philosopher and psychologist Paulo Bozzi, who helped develop what is known today as armchair philosophy wrote,
“When it comes to perception, the reality with which we have to work is precisely the object as it appears in a given moment, under certain conditions.” (Bozzi, 1969)
Basically, Bozzi was interested in allowing the intuitions of ordinary people to inform research on philosophical questions, this is now known as an early version of experimental philosophy. Here he makes two claims:
a) There may be a real world of things that exist. However, we don’t have access to the real world. Instead, we are limited to what we perceive;
b) that our perceptions, viewpoints of that reality are liable to change. What appears one way at any given moment might appear a different way in another moment.
The aphorism says: All cats are grey in the dark.
Let’s ask a newsy sort of question that looks for a fact: What is the color of a cat? Since all we have is the cat at any given moment under certain conditions, perhaps only seen in the dark, how do we answer?
Over the past year there have been numerous articles stating that people, and especially those who hold strong partisanship viewpoints don’t agree on basic facts. For example, Time magazine ran an article titled Why People Can’t Agree on Basic Facts, (Sharot, 2017) in which the Tali Sharot, Director of the Affective Brain Lab at the University College London went on to discuss how when we hold false beliefs we are resistant to changing them, even when faced with evidence that contradicts our beliefs. The brief conclusion of the research and data was, “We were somewhat surprised when those numbers pointed to the conclusion that in order to assess data and decide what is true the brain relies heavily on its emotional system.”
In other words, the emotions of ordinary people, or intuitions as Bozzi would say, get mixed up in and influence their arguments. We probably all can recollect gatherings when politics came up and someone argued a false position, even as the right information was held before their nose. It should be obvious, it’s not the facts that are the problem here.
When we talk of fake news, it’s normally not the facts that are in question. Sharot speaks about estimating the number of people at Trump’s presidential inauguration and I’ll follow this thread as it is commonly known. We could have found out the exact number of people physically attending the event, if we wanted to, by enforcing some sort of crowd management control combined with a method of counting. Let us assume then that we could accurately obtain the number of people physically at that inauguration ceremony. That number of people then is a fact.
A fact is a thing of the world. It is just that, a fact, often without causation or judgement. Next, about any thing of the world we are able to formulate propositions, assertions, questions, and so forth. For example, we can say, “This is a ball.” That may be considered to be a fact. We can then say, “I like this ball.” We add a value statement to the fact.
To add a greater complexity, let’s now assume we can’t and won’t get that accurate number of people at the inauguration. A couple of problems emerge.
The first problem is we never obtain any fact about the number of people at the event. Numbers provided by government bodies, or pundits, or the media become estimates, perhaps based on some standard method of estimating crowds, but no accurate number can be known.
Here’s a simple example. I tell you I have chosen a number between 1 and 10. Find a friend and argue over which number I chose. Since you both don’t know my chosen number, neither of you can ever argue with any authority to knowledge of that number. The best you can do is guess that my number is between 1 and 10, (I said so). Any rationale you state about the correctness of the number you think I have is only based on the foundation of a logical guess.
Secondly, as we saw with various news agencies, estimates were always driven by agenda. One side wanted to present estimates to show that the crowd was huge, another side wanted to present estimates to show the crowd was smaller than usual. Neither of these agendas or differing estimates had any real causal effect on the actual size of the crowd. Again, if we really cared, we could count.
To remind ourself of Bozzi, all we have are perceptions so lets’ work backwards, as we do when we consume media.
When we are presented with a distant helicopter shot of some or all of the physical crowd at the inauguration, and then we are presented with estimates of some or all of the people watching on media, there is no way possible we can obtain the accurate and real number of people at that event. The method of obtaining the fact of how many people were there itself is flawed. We don’t know if any presentation shows the whole crowd and the methods of counting were estimations. Consequently, any fact of how many people were there is in itself is speculation.
Here again, even though we can’t get to the fact of the number of people there, the problem is not with facts. Were we to have access to the number, we could agree on the fact, given that we agree on the counting method. However, as was pointed out earlier by Sharot’s research, even if we have that fact, some of us would refuse to acknowledge it because our emotions are all tied up with our argument.
Without less emotional involvement we’d most likely agree on the facts as shown in our daily practices. We agree on facts such as what times a movie is showing, or how many dollars we get as change, or how old our kids are. It’s the emotional content embedded in the need to align with one partisan side or another as a form of social identity where we most see facts being refused.
Resultantly, our disagreements are not about the facts as much as they are disagreement about statements formulated and disseminated in response to those facts. I will say, “This “A” is a big letter.” Someone might reply, “That “A” is not big, it’s only 14 point type. Fake News!” Someone can counter, “That “A” is big in relation to a small “a.” Each person can accuse the others of fake news based on situating the “A” in context. Note, whichever view we wish to take we are not disputing the fact of “A” itself. We agree on that fact.
The important and mostly invisible point that should become clear by this example is that we dispute facts on their context. Briefly, facts are facts, which is to state a tautology. But but we cannot see facts alone. They are always in context.
One of the most compelling exemplifications of the importance of context in perceiving the world is found with French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul. He was famous for his discoveries in the field of fatty acids with applications as soap. And because of is work, he was contacted by the Gobelins Manufactory tapestry weaving company in Paris. They had a serious problem and they thought the chemist would help them solve it. To set the scene, the Gobelins had been in business for years, supplying tapestries to royal courts such as that of Louis XIV. The Gobelins’ reputation was being called into question over some of the dyes that people said were fading or the wrong color. The confusing part for the Gobelins Manufactory was that the formula of the dyes had not been changed. So Chevreul got to work and first verified there was no problem with the dyes or their chemical compositions. Then, mostly by accident, he discovered that a certain color X could look different in different contexts. When woven with color A the color X would look like X(2) and when in the woven with color B, X would look like X(3). Using color words, a greyish yarn could look slightly redder when surrounded by green or slightly greener when surrounded by red. The grey strand of yarn could also look darker when placed on a lighter color and lighter when placed on a darker color. This raises a problem we could call the fact of the real color of that strand of yarn.
We can argue that to see the strand of yarn alone provides us with the real color. But upon what background color do we place the yarn to see the strand alone? If we put it on a white paper, the yarn will look darker. If we dangle it in the air, the color is influenced by the colors around it that form the background behind the yarn. Even if we make a strand of year large enough to fill our entire visual field, we next have the problem of lighting. The yarn will look different under the fluorescent lights of the manufacturing plant than it will under incandescent lights, or sunlight. This is a problem with industry and there are some technical ways to get some answers that ordinary people don’t have access to. This is also a problem with the display of Impressionist paintings that were mostly painted outdoors under sunlight on the wall of museum, with a goal to have the colors look true.
People ordinarily don’t have access to the fancy measuring equipment that industry has, so they are unable to avoid seeing color in context. Years later Joseph Albers also explored color contrasts as did Chevreul and he came to similar conclusions. Albers wrote, “we do not see colors as they really are,” (Moszynska, 1990); “It is necessary to recognize that color deceives constantly.” (Birren, 1976). Look up one of Albers’ Homage to the Square paintings and stare at it for a few minutes. You’ll see how he selected colors to emphasize a perceptual destabilization. Colors perceptually flicker, they perceptually change, some perceptually disappear over the viewing time. I say perceptually because the color does not really change.
Bozzi’s statement now begins to make a good deal of sense: “When it comes to perception, the reality with which we have to work is precisely the object as it appears in a given moment, under certain conditions.”
We can see through this lens that this thing we call a fact, like the color of a strand of yarn, is impossible to see outside of context, a problem exponentially more difficult when counting is not involved.
The ongoing riots in Paris provide little or nothing we can count. What we have is a whole host of interrelated events and states of affairs. The news media comes along and obtains, by necessity, only fragments of the events. These fragments include some things and leave out others. They turn the camera to the left, they ignore that to the right. In response people claim, Fake news! They cut a shot rather than film for hours on end. Fake news! Then these mediated excerpts are spun, they get interpreted or propagandized based on an agenda. We, the consumers of news, hear and repeat the cries, “The riots are good.” “The riots are bad.” “The riots effected change.” “The riots are useless.” “The people rioting are change agents.” “The people rioting are hooligans.” On the basis of whether we agree or disagree with specific cries, we claim fake news.
Again, looking backwards, we the consumers of news are presented with fully mediated coverage of the riots. It’s nearly impossible for us to see past the mostly invisible media agendas that interpose and interfere with the facts of the riot. The media claims all they do is objective. No, all they can create is mediated, fragmentary, partial coverage which in turn becomes, as Bozzi said, all we have to work with.
It’s a dual problem. Firstly news media fakes real events, sometimes by design and always by necessity. By fake it I mean they lie outwardly and by omission. It is impossible to unable to adequately cover all sides of an event, all influencing backgrounds, the viewpoints of all people involved, and so forth. Every selection means exclusion, again by design, chance, or structure. It’s fair to call any inclusion or exclusion fake as it puts a spin on the coverage in the way we can call any color of the yarn fake because of its lighting and context.
Secondly, our news is mediated coverage. This mediation is natural given the way a news organization choses to represent a state of affairs as it appears in a given moment under certain conditions. As we see, these conditions range from a lack of quantifiability, to the method of obtaining visual and verbal accounts, to the structure of the media itself, to the application of agendas. If we disagree with any of the conditions, Fake News!
To be is to be perceived. But since mediated, fragmentary perceptions are all we have, it’s all faked to some degree. We can see how absurd it is to think we can find the facts in any of this mess, but that’s not a fault with facts, that’s our mistake.
Birren, F. (1976). Color Perception in Art. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Bozzi, P. (1969). Unità, identità, causalità.Una introduzione allo studio dellapercezione. Bologna, Italy: Cappelli Editore.
Moszynska, A. (1990). Abstract Art. Anna Moszynska, New York, NY: Thamesand Hudson.
Sharot, T. (2017, September). Why People Can’t Agree on Basic Facts. Time.Retrieved online at http://time.com/4946513/twitter-facts-fake-news-neuroscience/