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Fake News and Post-Truths? The “real” issue is how democracy is faring lately

In the end, despite our steadfast efforts to avoid treading in the footpaths of trend-issues, systematically fueled and fed by the media and social networks, we have practically been “forced” to speak about them, due to the repeated requests and stimuli we have received. Nevertheless, I will attempt to frame these issues within a more ample discourse, trying, as ever, to highlight correlations and levels of connection, and taking care not to fall into the error of using slogans or trivializing the topics. With regards to both the so-called “fake news” (or the so-called fact-checking) and the so-called “post-truths” (debunking) — (let it be clear that this is yet another age-old concept/theme passed off as original or “newly-coined”) — my opinion is that we are still reasoning along theoretical-practical lines whose framework is solely and unendingly limited to the logics of emergency and total control, (and in fact, with respect to information, what is under discussion includes censorship. . .) with the consequential exclusive involvement of the standard fields of knowledge and competences. It goes without saying that these are important strategic dimensions that must be dealt with in depth; however, constantly and consistently centering the analyses, process management, and the individuation of possible solutions (?) solely around the “instruments”, the media, their technological “nature” and the judicial and economic dimensions, means never taking into account, as would be needed, the social and cultural factors, the aspects regarding environment and ecosystems, the characteristics and dynamics typical of social nets – pre-existent to digital net(work)s, to the web and to the social networks themselves. Typical variables of social, relational and communicative complexity that should be integrated into a critical and systemic approach to such hypercomplexity. Variables, processes and dynamics that pertain, for example, to hetero-direction[1], to the search for “cultural approximation”, to sociality and to the (rampant, and by no means recent) conformism of belonging and of the reference groups.

The “real” problems are not the fake news and the post-truths, but the people, the citizens, their being easily conditioned, their hetero-direction and “predisposition” — socially and culturally “constructed” through education and socialization processes – to conformism and/or to “subjection taught through cultural habituation”, as Etienne de La Boétie would have put it.

The problem is, has been and continues to be the same: there is so much discussion, more and more frequent and insistent – and the issues raised, inherent to the digital revolution and the sharing society (1996), to information and the sharing/distribution of information and knowledge, in terms of emergency management, using more or less sophisticated and complex “instruments” and “applications” (algorithms, platforms etc.), other than through laws and deontological codes, guidelines, declarations – are designed to orient, guide and direct readers, listeners, TV spectators, internauts, citizens, but also the journalists and communicators themselves. With an approach that is halfway between technological determinism and legal positivism. Well, on the contrary of all that is being discussed, actuated and put into practice. . .(all indispensable but insufficient questions) – it would be necessary to start over, beginning exactly with the factors which are considered (in spite of the proclamations and slogans) less important and decisive: beginning with education and the teaching of analytical capacities to the Person, in his/her role, yes, of reader, listener, TV spectator, internet surfer, but above all in his/her role of “citizen” and not merely “consumer” (long-term logics and strategies). Many years have gone by since we first discussed this, but in the framework of a complex and radical rethinking of education and of educational processes, the most obvious urgency is that of reversing the dominating perspective that sees the recipients of (cognitive) information flows exclusively as pawns to be maneuvered, almost as though they were “marionettes” on strings, to move, accompany, co-instruct (naturally from the top town), to persuade, to manipulate (of course with the best intentions, for their own good!) towards “positive and correct information”. We are dealing with an extremely risky, indeed perilous, approach for many reasons, concerning, above all, certain essential rights and liberties, hence the quality of citizenship and of democracy. This kind of “approach”, with all the possible shades, tints and peculiarities related to the specific discipline referred to, continues to be applied top-down, whereas working on the training and the education of those entrusted with the task of communicating and informing takes much more commitment and effort. Whilst the kind of commitment that takes even more effort, and is much less visible (especially in the short-run, which is the only time and energy span conceivable from the viewpoint of politics and certain powers) is that of working on teaching and training the “thinking heads” of the people/recipients: teaching the formulation of doubt, uncertainty, responsibility, critical thinking, complexity, a new “culture of error”; that is, an education developed by practicing and spreading the “scientific method” and an analytical curiosity towards everything, an attitude that cannot help being other than investigative, poised towards the comparison with others, to the decoding of more or less complex symbols, to the search for “proof” in support of our own and others’ argumentation. An education that could at last empower people and citizens to understand how to both verify and falsify hypotheses, arguments and information of every genre, and to know how to measure themselves, in particular with those who do not have their same ideas or opinions, and who, perhaps, have been labeled/recognized as “diverse” –different from us. A kind of training and education that, evidently, would have a significant impact on the management of change and on the individuation of truly innovative solutions (?) as well.

While the dominating approach and attitude to these questions (and not only to these), including the consecutive phases of individuation and definition of actions and strategies (a theme which conjures up typically hegemonic narratives and certain types of story-telling), may have the best of intentions and objectives that can be shared without hesitation, they continue to be centered, other than specifically on instruments and technology, on a view of the Subject (of the individual and collective actors) as totally passive and easily manipulated (there are many criticalities in this sense). However, these rationales, instruments and objectives, often with a positive side, at times valid from the perspective of emergency management, — which, I would like once again to remind readers, should be educational and cultural — may have little or no effect on the more deeply-rooted dynamics that distinguish groups (inclusion vs. exclusion, identity vs. recognition, labeling, power, conflicts etc.). Hetero-direction, conformism, social needs and needs for belonging, respect and recognition (from others); but also the shaping of stereotypes, prejudices, and clichés are, in fact, the terrain where “fake news”, disinformation, narratives, post truth(s), as well as the most aggressive strategies of persuasion and marketing, sprout and thrive.

To put it another way, we keep on reasoning and working only by using short-term instruments and short-term solutions (and whenever possible, simplistic ones), continuing to treat the people and the subjectivities that must/will have to interact with these same problems and with the ecosystems of communication as somewhat secondary. What we should constantly be asking ourselves is this: who should we be focusing on? Where should we start so that we can correct structural errors, questions and problems that pertain, evidently, to the educational and cultural dimension? A strategic dimension—we stress – strategic for the very survival of modern democracies, an issue which is too often underestimated, or at any rate, not adequately considered.

The essential task which needs doing – and is not being done – is to work on/around the people and the relational/communicative spaces that they inhabit, keeping in mind that it is not, and cannot be, technology and the digital realm to guarantee citizenship and inclusion. Similarly, technology and all things digital cannot defend us against deceit, fraud, fakes, conformism, post-truths and so on. Our main lines of defense are and will always be education, teaching, training and constant updating and research.

What we are up against is a far from secondary aspect (we will come back to this later): there is, in the so-called knowledge society, in the so-called society of digital transformation, a widespread feeling, even in scientific sectors, tied to/based on a utopian illusion that sheer technology and technology alone will be able to solve any kind of problem – even in terms of protection and security; that our technologies will defend us from propaganda – even from the most sophisticated kinds – from advertising and from marketing strategies – even the most aggressive kinds – and more generally from falsehoods, from disinformation, be it haphazard or planned, from fake news, from fraud, and from every kind of risk or danger. Technology will always be useful, and even indispensable, but – I repeat – certain questions must also be solved by focusing mainly on other variables and concauses, enlarging our assortment of fields of knowledge and skills, calling them into play from a perspective that can be nothing short of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary.

I will never tire of repeating this: propaganda, manipulation, more or less hidden forms of persuasion, disinformation, fake news (and fact-checking itself), storytelling, post-truthing and so on, have always existed. The design, realization and systematic diffusion of these processes, dynamics and structures are as old as the hills – what has changed is the (global) ecosystem of information and communication and its related architecture(s), which undoubtedly render their dissemination much more viral and invasive, especially as regards speed.

When the sage points at the moon, the fool looks at. . .

Nevertheless, we should be careful not to complicate matters: as said before, the “real” problems, in my view, are not so much fake news and post-truths, (which must be exposed and contradicted, first of all by asking ourselves a rather banal question; whether we are looking at the causes or the effects of these complex dynamics (not that I go along with such a linear outlook, I merely wish to simplify the issue). In other words, whether they actually constitute the “pathology” of a system — and here I am not referring only to IT systems – or whether they are instead symptoms of other, much more critical situations that for many reasons are not being exposed. Furthermore, beyond the strategic centrality of teaching, training, education and research that has often been called for in these years, we must take another issue into account, the question of politics and democratic regimes, which have not been capable for quite some time of defining and carrying out the counter-measures that would truly be necessary to weed out these worrisome deviations at every level, deviations that are economic in the first place, linked to power systems and to the so-called “digital cannibals” that hold the reins of the new ecosystem and are, in reality, governing it. However, politics –as we wrote years ago – has for some time been the “handmaiden of the economic power system and of the global technocracy”, and no longer appears to be capable of carrying out its fundamental role of “mediation” and negotiation in the case of conflict and of the exploitation of conflict, which are now designating the new inequalities and the new asymmetries, both on local and global levels.

What we are facing is a very tangible risk with a high degree of probability – which is correlated to another series of risks (opportunities); namely, that if we do not immediately attempt to correct this approach/viewpoint and these generalized (and in some cases, international) default settings, we will most likely have, in the not-so-distant future, less fake news and disinformation in circulation (a result which would be positive but not sufficient!) but, as the data on (not only functional) analphabetism and educational poverty illustrate, we will continue to be challenged by – and to have to cope with – a civil society and with a public opinion made up of hetero-directed individuals, who will be hyperconnected and perhaps even super-informed, but substantially isolated and easily manipulated. The famous sociologist Franco Ferrarotti, long before the term came into vogue, used to speak of “frenetic, well-informed idiots”! And it is by no means a coincidence that years ago, I was speaking about a new Hyperconnected Mass Society (2005, 2014) and of the risk of reaching a sort of “citizenship without citizens”.

Thus it will come as no surprise to find ourselves having to cope with an ever more hyperconnected and interconnected system that, for example, might aim towards eliminating certain kinds of information deemed “non-aligned”, “inadequate”, not in harmony with certain guidelines and dictates, not conforming to a certain “correct” vision.

The impression we get is that we will forever continue –– in a sort of eternal return to the self-identical – to fend off these critical problems by falling back on the age-old logics of emergency, enriched by narratives through the well-oiled techniques of contraposition – that everyone only professes to want to leave behind, (those who view “the digital” from apocalyptic and fundamentalist viewpoints alike, from techno-skeptics to techno-zealots) – and likewise by recurring to the typical but intolerable polarization of every debate, which irremediably leads to seeing everything through the lens of ideologies, of one-sidedness, of political partisanship. Deviations and trajectories that hinder any and all attempts at in-depth analyses, reinforcing opinions, clichés, stereotypes and worldviews which have already become far too well-consolidated. All of which, I hope against hope, will not come about this time as well.


[1] The concept of hetero-direction was coined by David Riesman in 1950, who defined it as an “active attitude” in search of behavioral conformism, through an exceptional sensitivity to the actions and the desires of others; this attitude regards social actors and subjectivities, who then show themselves to be incapable of autonomous judgment or decisions.


About the fundamental issue of Education, you can see:

For an inclusive innovation. Healing the fracture between the human and the technological in the hypercomplex society, in, European Journal of Future Research, Springer, 2017 – DOI: 10.1007/s40309-017-0126-4



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Contents extracted from a peer reviewed scientific journal* ( DOI:10.3280/SISS2017-003014 )



N.B. Feel free to share and reutilize this published material, provided that you have the courtesy to always quote authors and sources, even when mentioning conceptual categories and related functional definitions. Let us share knowledge and information, but let us attempt to interrupt the vicious and non-virtuous cycle of the “cut and paste” routine, perpetrated by those whose know-how consists merely of “using” the work of others.

Citations should be made, in the first place, on the principle of honesty, and secondly, because our work (our intellectual production) is always the result of the work of many other people who, like OURSELVES, study and carry out research, helping us to be creative and original, providing us with orientation for our working hypotheses.

I still say that the rewards of sharing are well worth the bitterness for the dishonest behavior on the part of many. My contributions are the concepts, the studies and the topics of research that I have been conducting for twenty years: the principle of sharing carries many risks, but coherence means practicing what you believe in. Read and enjoy!



Picture: René Magritte