The special issue opens with two commentaries on the nature of truth. In our introductory commentary we (MacKenzie and Bhatt 2019a) explore the difference between a lie, bullshit and fake news, and whether it is ever defensible to lie or bullshit. We argue that some lies are defensible, even necessary, but that lying should not be promoted as a moral good. Lying can destroy trust, and trust acts as the foundation of relations among human beings. The continual assertion of falsehoods and the sheer volume of information on digital environments make it very difficult to know what can be trusted. One consequence of all these lies is the unfair distribution of power wherein power rests with the liar, while the deceived are excommunicated from the realm of truth.
Suzanne Soohoo (2019) laments the current situation in the USA in which truth, and what we can count as true, has become endangered, sunk in a ‘swamp of falsehoods’. So extensive are the lies that lying has become normal and ignorance legitimised. Anything that contradicts the fantasies is scornfully dismissed as ‘fake’. The consequence of ‘truth decay’ is ‘paralysis, alienation and disengagement’. In a not dissimilar argument to MacKenzie and Bhatt above, truth is a ‘common good’ the defence for which we need to immunise ourselves to resist and challenge the malign effects of lies and ignorance.
Oliver (2019) draws from infrastructure studies, an area of Science and Technology Studies, to explore the relationship between social media and political rhetoric. Oliver’s analysis forces us to question technologically deterministic accounts of technology’s relationship with society. Twitter, as a platform with a certain set of infrastructural logics, is implicated in the rise of post-truth rhetoric, in that it both creates new norms for discourse and enables new forms of inequality to operate.
Carr et al. (2019) present a case study on Spanish immigration and how fake news, disinformation and misinformation have been used to limit or eliminate the ‘other’. Rumours, fear, stereotypes and prejudice have been deployed to persuade, deceive and manipulate people by very strongly appealing to their emotions. As there is no easy way to cope with the ‘hydra’ that is the digital world, digital literacy needs to be addressed through intersectoral work: the State, NGOs, civil society, education and citizens.
Sinclair (2019) uses parody to explore fake news. Parody, like fake news, is imitative, but while fake news aims to deceive, parody does not; it aims to provoke laughter and to expose and ridicule, and can be a necessary weapon in countering fake news. The primary aim of lies, bullshit and fake news, in contrast to the jests, jokes and exposees of parody, is to deceive and to deflect from what is true.
Jiang and Vetter (2019) examine bots in Wikipedia, and consider implications for cultivating students’ critical media literacy. They argue that information validation processes through bots in Wikipedia are entangled across a series of human and non-human relations and agencies. Despite the platform’s claim that these bots are for combating misinformation, their efficacy is challenged by the emergence of misogyny, systemic bias, and conflicts of interest. Studying the function of Wikipedia bots, therefore, makes space for developing models for critical media literacy in education.
Özdan (2019) explores the art of diplomacy and how Trump’s diplomacy and foreign relations by tweet are imperilling this art and the country’s international standing. A diplomat, he argues, should give the right judgement, have a steady mind, have an evenness of temper and be courteous, civil and polite. Unfortunately, Özdan argues, bullshit is the only ‘art’ inherent in the foreign policy engagements that Trump exercises by tweet with dangerous consequences.
Wright (2019) offers a philosophical analysis of how naïve scepticism, a willingness to endorse unsupported scepticism, and how it predisposes us to ‘bullshit openness’. We accept bullshit because it conforms to deeply held convictions, because it expresses what group members should believe, or because we are intellectually lazy. The answer to bullshit is not to fight it on social media—it is too diverse, too fast, too limiting, and fosters incivility; we need collaborative strategies in which meanings are not imposed on students but are co-constructed.
Focusing on the Yes Men, Kedar (2019) uses tactical media, an activist-artistic approach that developed in the museum, to show how hoaxes, like parody, exposes lies, bullshit and fake news. Tactical media is also subversive but it focuses on the doing of the act, not the talking, to move us from critique to mobilisation, and the Yes Men are examples of this kind of subversion. Tactical media is an act of temporary deception that seeks to create belief in an event only to reveal the truth behind it. Kedar gives a sophisticated analysis of the differences between the fake of Trumps tweets, and the fake of the Yes Men’s stunts.
Wagener (2019) does not directly explore lies, bullshit and fake news. Instead, he focuses on how online communications and interactions trigger the production of fake news, bullshit and lies. Wagener suggests that we are in an era of hypernarrativity, or storytelling, in which what matters is not the truth of the story, but whether the story is a ‘good’ one, and use the rise of the gilet jaunes movement in France. Like MacKenzie and Bhatt (2019b), he explores how truth has become relativized in a bid to tell the good story.
Khan (2019) argues for an approach that draws a link between trust, which is crucial to democracy, and media and information literacy (MIL). She outlines how, through the negotiability of greater trust, MIL, and democratizing principles, civic agency might be advanced by educating a citizenry to be more literate about media and information systems, to generate democratic institutional change.
Lydia Rose and Teresa Bartoli (2019) speak of the ‘intellectual darkness’ that has descended on the USA, where contention seems to be more important than facts. Using the framework of agnotology, they examine how culturally induced ignorance has resulted in a rise in fear and xenophobia, distrust in evidence, and how covert actions undermine the evidence of, for example, climate change and the efficacy of vaccinations.
Jennifer Rose (2019) attends to what it means to be a diligent knower and how online news consumers can acquire knowledge. She argues that the epistemological magnitude of online fake news is a barrier to knowledge acquisition and democratic decision making. Jennifer Rose, like Wright, argues that combatting online fake news is not a simple matter—fact checking alone will not help. The measures Rose proposes to combat the susceptibility to consume fake news are the development of virtues such as intellectual humility, for example. These will take time to develop but are necessary if we are to acquire knowledge we can trust.
We end the special issue with a discussion on truth and trust (MacKenzie and Bhatt 2019b). Truth, we argue, must be respected and safeguarded because it is important to the integrity of the person, institution and nation. If we are indifferent to truth, or engage in practices which distort or fake the truth, then we undermine trust. Critiquing the arguments for the relativity of truth, we explore the means by which truth can be established, in addition to the differences between lies and bullshit, and how we can come to know and trust that something is true.
In their various ways, then, these articles expose the dangers of lies, truth and fake news, and acknowledge that combatting these vices will not be easy. At best, we must be vigilant and questioning, and literate about how lies insinuate their way into our belief systems.