We live in a time of uncertainty as to what is true, which sources of information we can trust and what it even means to know something. The philosopher René Descartes lived in a similar age of upheaval of our convictions. What can the great thinker teach us about navigating the fake news landscape?

In the latest episode of the podcast, Descartes, Fake News and the Power of Narrative, I discuss various aspects of our post-truth era: its possible origins and philosophical implications, our human tendency to construct powerful narratives through which we frame our surroundings, the impact of social media and how post-truth ties in to rising authoritarian trends. The common theme is the increasing difficulty in understanding what the truth is or if such a thing even exists. The philosopher René Descartes asked the same questions in an age similarly beset by doubts about the nature of truth and knowledge, reaching conclusions that could be useful to us in navigating the fake news landscape.

You can listen to the podcast on Anchor, Apple, Spotify and anywhere else podcasts exist (as well as the player embedded in the player).

Points discussed in the podcast (use the forward button to skip to the relevant section):

What is Fake News? (03:44 – 14.18)

For many, fake news just seems to mean “the lies the other side believes”. Yet the issue of fake news has deep roots in human psychology and influences the very mechanisms by which we interpret the world and interact with it.

The notions of fake news, post-truth, alternative facts are founded on the premise that whatever your opinion, no matter how true, or untrue, there is no independent, objective reality that can push back against your version of the truth. Or that if there is such an objective reality, it is powerless to tell you you are wrong.

This creates a paradigm in which what counts as “true” is no longer an external fact-checking reality, but merely a state of affairs that is agreed upon by a sufficient number of people. In such a landscape, even mass delusion counts as “truth”. Social media interacts with this phenomenon by (a) aggregating and amplifying various different viewpoints, and (b) suggesting content that affirms a preferred worldview, thus creating a cycle that is optimised for confirmation bias – what you already believe is what you see more of.

But in a globalised world, even the resulting filter bubbles can’t keep all voices out – and when worldviews collide, there are only three options available: ignoring, communication or conflict.

The Power of Narrative (14:25 – 21.58)

A crucial tool for navigating the fake news landscape is understanding the power of narrative.

As humans, we are story-making machines. We connect dots between different facts and events in order to make sense of them and impose structure on the world. On a macro-scale, this dot-connecting mechanism means we create narratives and stories that give us meaning. When these stories are shared, they become culture. Such shared cultural stories include our mythologies and religions and imagined orders such as currency. They are the invisible ropes that bind a civilisation together.

Fragmentation (22:00 – 31.38)

During the Middle Ages, Western Civilisation is inhabiting a single shared narrative based on Christian mythology. The stories contained in the Bible aren’t just the lens through which Europeans interpret the world, they are considered literal truth. There are very few dissenting voices, as those with the learning and imagination to challenge the prevailing narrative are branded as heretics and swiftly punished. Medieval Europe is a perfect example of a shared cultural narrative promulgated and enforced by a powerful and unquestionable authority who can silence any divergence from that narrative. It is a world of absolute certainty. These certainties begin to crumble in the Renaissance. New ways of thinking emerge, that are given unprecedented reach thanks to the invention of the printing press. The single dominant narrative begins to fragment.

Cogito Ergo Sum (31:42 – 44:04)

René Descartes’ project is to apply reason in order to find certainty in this fragmented world. Amidst the confusion as to what the truth really is, what is it truly possible to know? How do you find certainty in a world of uncertainty?

Descartes’ method is to question every belief he has, in order to find core truths, those remaining beliefs that are truly beyond doubt. He soon realises that the only thing that cannot be questioned is his immediate subjective experience. Consciousness is the one thing that is beyond all doubt. 

From that bedrock of certainty (and using a couple of dubious logical steps), Descartes builds a worldview based on “the natural light of reason”.

Totalitarianism (44:05 – 53:20)

We too are living in a time of uncertainty and fragmentation of narratives. This confusion is exploited by cynical media companies eager to gain our attention through heightening tension while playing to our comfort zones, as well as by authoritarian leaders who raise the volume on alternative narratives in order to destabilise our understanding of the world. In this confusion, they can then present themselves as the only ones offering stable narratives at an unstable time. 

Navigating the fake news landscape (53:30 – 1:02:10)

To summarise, we are dealing with:

  1. a fragmentation of our narratives;
  2. a systemic distrust of the media, our institutions and the notion of knowledge itself; and
  3. an increased polarisation between different worldviews.

What tools can we use for navigating the fake news landscape? How do we find firm ground outside of the certainty of subjective consciousness?

Useful approaches include:

  • understanding our reliance on stories and narratives and to be mindful of how influential these are in how we experience and interpret the world.
  • relying on facts in forming our opinion, and avoiding unnecessary leaps from fact to narrative.
  • embracing uncertainty. Adopting a worldview that is flexible and can accommodate new facts which challenge it. Being suspicious of rigid certainties, and being ready to question our own views at all times.
  • being aware of our own ignorance – remember Socrates, who’s wisdom consisted in knowing he knew nothing at all.
  • openness to good faith dialogue. When coming into contact with different worldviews, our only options are to ignore them, to fight them or to communicate with them. Let’s choose the most productive option.

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