Fake News or the Gamification of Politics

Let’s begin by admitting that news has always been fake. There is no media product that is not filtered, framed, and formatted. Filtered means that always some information is selected and other information overlooked. Framed means that the information selected out of all possible information is put into some kind of interpretive frame that describes what is going on. The frame decides whether we are dealing with an accident, an act of terrorism, a prank, or an advertising campaign. Formatted means that selected and framed information is always presented in a certain way, as image, text, video, audio, etc., all of which have their own rules of production, distribution, and consumption. These three “F”s create a gap between what “really” happened and what the media tell us happened. This is a fact. It remains a fact even when professional journalists are replaced by citizen journalists who upload their spontaneous and accidental photos, videos, and comments onto platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. So what do we do about it? Up until the advent of “post-truth” politics and “fake news” – formerly known as propaganda – there was apparently no pressing need to do anything about it. The experts, authorities, gatekeepers, and institutions of knowledge and truth were solidly in place and functioned quite well. We could tell the difference between the New York Times and Gawker and there really was a difference to tell. Although we knew that the media didn’t give us the truth, at least what we got was good enough to make reasonable decisions and get along with our neighbors. This is no longer the case.

How do we settle disputes and reach a consensus enabling cooperative action when, as David Weinberger (Too Big to Know, 2012) puts it, every fact on the Internet has an equal and opposite fact to refute it? What function do values such as objectivity and truth serve in an acknowledged “post-truth” era? It would seem that the only way to settle disputes is by motivating the most support one can get for a position, any position, regardless of what its truth value might be. And what is the best way to motivate support if not by appealing to strong emotions; emotions such as frustration, anger, righteous indignation, and the elation of victory? This is what “post-truth” public discourse and fake news is about, it is the gamification of politics. What counts is not the content of a message but the emotions that a message triggers. The stronger the emotion, the more post-truth “truth” a message has. Traditional mechanisms for establishing binding decisions and justly distributing power in society become dysfunctional in the post-truth world. Winning, scoring a point, making a mark, this is all that counts, even if at the cost of social equality, environmental safety, and security. This makes the game more fun and more engaging, since there is no middle ground, no consensus, and no cooperative position. Deliberation, achieving a consensus, and cooperative problem solving is boring. It is tedious hard work. What the postmodern celebration of diversity and the politics of recognition have taught us is that difference is much more fun than communality, provided of course, your group has enough power to get what it wants. The basis of community and solidarity which traditionally rested in a commitment to facts has been lost. The question becomes, how do we build community in a radically pluralistic, winner takes all, who cares what the truth might be situation.

Weinberger recommends five ways to deal with this situation. First, open access to information is necessary, but it is not sufficient. There must also be access to many different kinds of filters that allow information to be sifted, selected, bundled, and presented in non-predictable and uncontrollable ways. Not only information, but filters and search engines should be public domain or at least be held responsible to public scrutiny. Secondly, finding information is not enough, we need to evaluate, rate, curate, and classify information in order to separate the fake news from the real news. Wikipedia proves that community quality control can work. Even if forms of governance are needed, this does not necessarily imply a return to hierarchies. Third, transparency about the sources of information and processes of reaching conclusions via linking will expose intentions behind the presentation and use of information. The Internet makes it possible to trace back all statements via links to their sources. We have a choice to make use of hyperlinks for the sake of transparency or not. Fourth, not only information, but also institutions and organizations should be linked together to form networks. Networked organizations favor distributed decision-making, trust, negotiation, and innovation. They are managed by lateral forms of governance instead of vertical, top-down government. When government agencies are linked together with private actors, communities, non-profits, and civil society beyond local and national borders, it becomes more difficult for any single actor to give commands and force policy. Fifth, Net literacy must be taught and learned. How to use filters, evaluate informational quality, participate in distributed decision-making, and avoid the traps of political gamification is a competence that we must acquire, foster, and protect. No governmental agency or fact-checking organization can relieve us of the responsibility to evaluate information. Or course, it can help if governments and other organizations offer fact-checking services. But in the end we are responsible for what we believe. These five measures run counter to the gamification of politics and can help us sort our way through a world in which the truth is up for grabs.