intellectual self-defence

The organising functions of fake news

Lots has been written about the dangers of misinformation, including how to innoculate people against it, or debunk it once people have swallowed it. A common theme is the idea that the risk of fake news is that people will believe it.

But fake news has other functions besides getting people to believe something that isn’t true, and understanding these other functions may be as important as understanding its belief-altering properties.

Topic change. When a blatent untruth is put out, it becomes something to talk about, orienting attention. This can be deliberate – as in the dead cat strategy.

Energy sink. Untruths evoke refutations, further orienting attention and redirecting the energies of your opponents.

Loyalty test. Propaganda doesn’t exist to be believed, it exists as a flag around which people must organise, or display their opposition. The more blatant the untruth the stronger the test of loyalty.

Status display. What better display of power than asking people to humiliate themselves by affirming an untruth merely because you said it?

Misinformation is about power. As long as we try and deal with it as a class of information we’ll be vulnerable to its use by the powerful.

More: “On Bullshit” by Harry Frankfurt

Update: Fake news is a terrible bucket term which is used to cover everything from incorrection information to state propaganda, via all sorts of misinformation.

Related: Podcast: YANSS 157 – The psychology behind why people don’t speak out against, and even defend, norms they secretly despise – which covers, inter alia, norm engineering