An Exploration of Truth & Meaning Amidst A Fake News World

An Introduction

While current events surrounding ‘fake news’ trends have largely inspired this post, this initial writing —  focused on meaning, ‘truth,’ and their ‘fake news’ and disinformation counterparts — kicks off a truth-centric series that’ll be published in the coming weeks and months.

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What exactly is ‘truth?’

Naively, I used to think there was a holistic and noble answer to this question; a question I’ve not often considered in any signficant depth until at least the past several years.

Most of my curiosity about this provocative question has been inspired by the fake news, disinformation, and post-truth phenomenons overtaking much of the media in recent years — a pervasive compilation of distortions primarily infecting news-reporting bodies as well as entire political systems, namely ours but others abroad as well.

I realize ‘fake news’ is hardly new.

Deliberate disinformation goes back several hundred years; the first formally documented instance of fantastical reports published by a newspaper — and distributed to the masses — can be traced back to The New York Sun in 1835 (The great moon hoax,” n.d.) which repeatedly printed a string of false stories about weird sightings made by British astronomer John Herschel (Sir John Herschel, 1st baronet, n.d.).

False-yet-deliberately-reported sightings included “goat-like creatures with blue skin, a temple made of polished sapphire, and giant man-bats that spent their days collecting fruit and holding animated conversations” (Standage, 2017).

The bluster of yesteryear’s fake news, however, pales in comparison to today’s highly-charged partisan style, which insidiously aims to mislead in order to “damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership” (Fake News, 2017) or to increase (the loyalty of) one’s following.

Let’s put fake news aside for a moment.

It’s clear that the leap between the 1835 version of fake news and today’s harmful iteration of it is far and wide and deserves far more exploration than this post intends. However, I’ll be examining the modern-twist version of fake news in more detail over the coming months and will share my findings when ready.

That said, the reason I even bring up today’s fake news phenomena in this post is because I’ve been personally sensing — through my own observations and readings — that the volume of divisive fake news, and its devastating outcomes, are seemingly intensifying rather than they are mitigating.

As a citizen and member of society, I just don’t see any immediate or clear evidence of fake news’s gradual diminishment, waning, or tapering. No matter where I click or what I read (from both sides of the aisle across a multitude of media outlets), I only see an agitated, continuous increase of fake news’s velocity and spread.

As an emerging media psychologist currently studying all kinds of psychology, including narrative psychology, political psychology, and more, I wonder how I can help society at large ratchet down the intense heat emanating from the fake news manufacturing lines.

These and other such thoughts are what has compelled me to research truth, and its fake news counterpart, in more depth.

My truth-seeking explorations as of late have led me to a number of helpful resources, from as far back as ancient Greece and the 19th century all the way through the present day. I’m still very much in the middle of numerous readings and research and have been compiling copious notes along the way.

While I’m hardly ready to discuss truth in any prolific or knowledgeable fashion, this writing serves as an informal starter post for my ‘what is truth’ journey.

I don’t purport I’ll discover any kind of unanimously agreed-upon answer(s) to the ‘what is truth‘ question, but I do believe I’ll collect noteworthy enlightenments worth sharing that, in my mind, could help all of us better understand some of the reasons fueling today’s fake news fervor.

Understanding the origins and causes behind fake news, after all, is half the battle and fundamentally necessary to help combat its further spread.

A brief tangent about anger

If we’re going to be discussing meaning and ‘truth‘ and, to some degree fake news in the context of today’s socio-political climate, then we must also talk about the emotion of anger, because fake news often aims to sow anger and division.

This merits, then, a brief primer on the human emotion of anger.

As one of our brain’s primary and most basic emotions, anger has long been studied, even as far back as Darwin (1872) when he examined anger and rage as powerful emotions that motivated “animals of all kinds, and their progenitors before them, when attacked or threatened by an enemy, to fight and protect themselves” (p. 74).

Beyond its fight-or-flight aspects, the emotion of anger also has its prosocial utilities (Lindebaum & Geddes, 2016) and is known to spur change or action (Schroeder, 2017).

In the case of fake news, if the anger disinformation tends to foster is to spur *any* change or action, then such change or action has, to date, not yet manifested in addressing or tackling the distribution of fake news in a concerted, bipartisan way.

Therefore, the manufactured anger infiltrating our divided society, in my mind, is being continuously recycled, if you will, rather than being collectively harnessed to impact transformative change.

So where to go from here?

In candor, there are far more seasoned professionals in the realm of fake news and disinformation that could more expansively speak to these weightier matters and inherent challenges than me.

However, I believe I can offer an added perspective and insightful food-for-truth-thought to such conversations, wherever they may be occurring.

This post kicks off what will be a series of truth-centric discussions.

The subject of meaning and truth, and the massive challenges presented by fake news, is a broad, deep landscape and, as such, requires an ongoing conversation rather than this singular writing.

I hope this is post has whet your truth appetite, especially in light of the massive post-truth forces working day and night to disaffect our society and the world at large.

I welcome your comments and feedback and will be writing much more on these profoundly important subjects in between other topics, projects, and assignments over the coming weeks.

For now, thanks for reading.

Mayra Ruiz-McPherson

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References

Cheung-Blunden, V., & Blunden, B. (2008). The emotional construal of war: Anger, fear, and other negative emotions. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 14(2), 123-149. doi:http://dx.doi.org.fgul.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/10781910802017289.

Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: Murray.

Fake news. (2017, January 15). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 11, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fake_news.

Lindebaum, D., & Geddes, D. (2016). The place and role of (moral) anger in organizational behavior studies. Journal of Organizational Behavior37(5), 738-757.

Russell, B. (1940). Inquiry into meaning and truth: W. James lectures for 1940 delivered at Harvard University. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

Schroeder, M. (2017, October 26). The physical and mental toll of being angry all the time. U.S. News: Health. https://health.usnews.com/wellness/mind/articles/2017-10-26/the-physical-and-mental-toll-of-being-angry-all-the-time.

Sir John Herschel, 1st baronet. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Herschel.

“The great moon hoax” is published in the “New York Sun”. (2009, November 24). History.com. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-great-moon-hoax.

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Photo credits

Photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash

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