An Exploration of Truth & Meaning Amidst A Fake News World

An Introduction

What is ‘truth?’

At one point in life, I used to think there was a holistic and simple answer to this question; a question I’d not often considered in depth until at least the last several years.

Ah, but those were the good ol’ days, I guess.

Yet now, these days are much, much different.

With the growing trend of misinformation, disinformation, fake news, and post-truth phenomenons overtaking much of the media in recent years, I find the concept of ‘truth’ is now heavily on my mind.

And as these pervasive ‘fake truths’ continue their compilation of distortions, infecting not only news-reporting bodies but entire political systems as well, the question ‘what is truth?’ is one I believe many are also questioning, not just me.

‘Fake news’ is hardly new.

Truth be told, pun not intended, the practice of fake news is not a modern problem.

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.

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. I look forward to possibly writing more about the modern-twist to fake news over the coming months, as time permits.

That said, I bring up today’s fake news phenomena here in this post because its growing rise and spread is resulting in devastating outcomes.

Just as concerning is the reality that the fake news trend is hardly diminishing, waning, or tapering. On the contrary, its velocity and spread seemingly have no immediate end in sight.

As a media psychologist currently studying all kinds of psychology, including narrative psychology, political psychology, social psychology, and more, I feel compelled to jump in and help society combat the tsunami of misinformation threatening public discourse and democracies at large.

These thoughts are the driving force behind my interest and research in truth, and its fake news counterpart, in more depth.

My truth-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 to the present day. I’m still reading various literature, performing research, and taking copious notes along the way.

I’m a media psychology PhD student, not a philosophy major, so my perspectives on ‘truth’ (as I share them in future posts) will be tightly aligned to how they relate to mass media, propaganda, and communications.

With that said, let’s now briefly talk about anger.

Yes, anger.

A few words about anger

Exploring fake news in the context of today’s socio-political climate means that, to some degree, the emotion of anger must also be addressed 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 misinformation 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 what’s next?

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 peaked your interest in ‘truth,’ 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 more on these profoundly important subjects in between other topics, projects, and assignments, as time permits.

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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