A lot of people are no longer susceptible to advice and information campaigns from authorities: “Respondents for whom social media provide the main source of information about the virus have less trust in the government and other institutions and are more often not-vaccinated and do not plan to be vaccinated,” researchers from Erasmus University Rotterdam note. But why do people turn away from ‘legal or scientific truth’? The question I would like to answer here is: How is it possible that many people seem to take on information from dubious sources and reject the information authorities provide, and what role do fake news and stories on social media play in this process?
Why do so many people embrace fake news?
Fake news and 'alternative facts' are dividing society more and more. The vaccine debate in the Netherlands, for instance, like elsewhere in Europe and America, is overtaken by claims from obscure sources. Both advocates and adversaries are crying out loud on social media platforms. And it's not always easy to separate sense from nonsense. But it's not only about vaccines. Fake news on all kinds of topics spreads like a flu across those platforms. Sometimes it causes major social disorder, as we could see in the winter of 2021 in the United States when an angry mob of Trump-supporters stormed The US Capitol because they believe Trump's false claim that 'the elections were stolen'. And I'm wondering: did they really believe this story, or did Trump cast a spell on them?
In democracy, like in journalism, as in society as a whole for that matter, there is no consensus on what is the truth or what is reality and what is not. But these realms of society still ‘work’ on the common assumption that there is only one reality. Donald Trump's 'alternative facts’ challenged this premise. These two words from a White House official who defended a tweet of the newly inaugurated president undermined the very foundations of democracy. She simply supposed a second 'reality', a parallel universe that coexists next to the reality of the rest of the world. Not only the journalists who attended the press meeting at the White House were flabbergasted, but I also remember this moment very well because it seemed to me The White House created a ‘magical’ wormhole to a parallel universe, like Neo's escape from reality through a telephone line in the popular film The Matrix.
Without stories, we would be living in a plotless world
But how to fight ‘alternative facts’ then? Let us just stick to the facts? No, it is not that simple. First of all, because facts simply bear no meaning. Facts are like a wildlife documentary on television with the sound turned off. What you see are facts, but without the voice-over, a gripping story about a cub who has lost his mother on a savannah teeming with predators turns into a series of meaningless images. We experience the world in the form of stories. Without stories, we would be living in a plotless world.
Secondly, some politicians are very keen on creating political facts based on imagery events. In the current political climate of the United States and also of Europe, political activists seem to be inspired by the famous theorem of the American sociologist William Thomas: “If people define situations as real, then they are real in their consequences.” Seeking the truth in an objective reality is a noble quest, but we cannot ignore human experience and imagination.
The fewer people understand how society works, the more vulnerable they are to the spell of imaginary stories. The German sociologist Weber noticed the tendency to rationalize our world when he wrote about an inescapable ‘iron cage’ of increasing bureaucracy that divides people's living space into separate domains. Many people experience a loss of existential or spiritual 'unity’ or ‘holism'. If people are unable to reach for the truth, they will rely on alternative, 'metaphysical' or 'supernatural' explanations. “Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker thinks people divide the world into everyday reality and the abstract 'mythical' world beyond their own experience: They will construct a reality that unites the group or tribe. You can call that the 'mythological mindset', within which we are less inclined to worry about whether the stories are literally 'true' or 'false',” NRC reports.
So people tend to 'construct their own reality' as a result of their inability to create a comprehensive worldview. But how do they do this? The French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss noticed that many primitive world views, despite their non-scientific knowledge base, hold an internal structure that is quite coherent and 'logical'. Lévi-Strauss argued that 'mythical thinking' has universal characteristics. In our modern Western view, mythical thinking is believed to be a primitive cognitive activity we should better leave behind. But 'mythical thinking' is not primitive, Lévi-Strauss argues. It is of a different kind, not of an inferior kind: “Any form of classification is better than chaos; and even a classification at the level of the sense-perceptible properties is a step towards a rational order” (Lévi-Strauss, 1966). Pre-scientific thinking is a way of thinking that is inherently rational, according to Lévi-Strauss.
Note that Lévi-Strauss describes ‘magical thinking’ as opposed to 'chaos', indicating the lack of any classification at all. For Lévi-Strauss, magical thinking is a step forward for people towards an understanding of the world and of their place in it. But I would not want to imply that Lévi-Strauss embraces relativism and advocates the principle of ‘anything goes'. In our days, science has proven to be a reliable source of knowledge, especially in the field of medical and epidemiological expertise, therefore not every argument in the current political and medical disputes carries the same weight, although not all social media users would agree.
Mythical thinking is a way of getting a hold on the world we live in. The world is a complex and undefined place, which we are inclined to re-imagine, restructure and recreate in a symbolic representation that is recognizable and holds a meaningful coherence. It is a common practice; we all create coherent world views in our minds. And in order to restructure this known world we use symbols; language, signs, and stories we collect from the surrounding symbolic environment. Pre-scientific man 'borrows' all kinds of images, representations, and symbolic structures from the surrounding world, from nature in the first place, to ‘tinker’ fairly coherent world views. Lévi-Strauss came up with his findings in studying cultures of various indigenous tribes of the Amazon region and he introduced the term 'bricolage' as ‘the science of the concrete'. Modern man inherited this pre-scientific mindset and even today we use this mindset to remember and understand everyday life. People reorganize their world by processing events into stories and linking them up to pre-existing stories, stories that helped constitute their world views and their identities.
Another kind of symbolic representation is fiction. “Fiction, like art in general, can be explained in terms of cognitive play with pattern,” Brian Boyd notes in his book On the Origin of Stories. In his book, he asks himself "... why do we spend so much of our time telling one another stories that neither side believes?" (Boyd, 2009). Boyd is an expert in the field of literature and evolution, a rather unexplored field of literary theory. Play with patterns is ingrained in human nature, Boyd claims. The game of fiction resembles the way we create a new order by copying and pasting symbols in cultural practices. By removing elements out of their context and replacing them in a different configuration, meanings are altered. And like in a game, fiction creates an order of its own.
This form of play has a social function with 'magical' repercussions. In Homo Ludens Dutch historian Johan Huizinga argues that play and religion have a common background. Like French founder of sociology Émile Durkheim, Huizinga believes the essence of religion in all its manifestations is the distinction between the 'everyday' and the 'sacred'. And according to Huizinga we also make this distinction in playing a game: “The arena, the gaming table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the film screen, the ‘vierschaar’, they are all [...] enclosed, hallowed areas, making-up their own rules. These are temporary worlds consisting within the ordinary every day life, for the performance of an enclosed act” (Huizinga, 1940). So there is a striking resemblance with the cultural practice of bricolage. Bricoleurs define their own order, according to Lévi-Strauss. Huizinga convincingly demonstrates that play creates its own internal structure as well: “... it creates order, it is order. In the imperfect world and the confused life, it realizes a temporary, limited perfection.”
By 'tinkering with the truth' bricoleurs seek refuge in 'magical' solutions, as Lévi-Strauss describes: "From this point of view, the main difference between magic and science, that magic postulates a total and all-encompassing determinism, while science proceeds with a distinction of levels, with only a few levels admitting forms of determinism, which in turn cannot be applied to other levels.” The ‘magic’ Lévi-Strauss unveils is not the kind of 'sorcery' as displayed in the books and films of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. It is a symbolic practice that transforms distinct elements into a coherent and meaningful whole. The enchantment works like a good story 'enchants', a story that can only come to life if the readers are willing to play along, that even if they don’t believe in sorcery, they are willing to assume that ín the story Gandalf is a real sorcerer.
Without believing in the 'magic of a story,' the story won't work
"You know what Trump is like? He's like a magician," Trevor Noah claims in The Daily Show when Trump has just won the 2016 elections and blatantly admits he was just fooling around when he repeated the words 'Drain the swamp' to attack Hillary Clinton, the Democrats and the Washington elite: "Funny how that term caught on, isn't it?" Trump tells his audience in a video that is shown ionthe television program. And Noah continues: "Telling everyone how he did the trick, and still some people are like, "Wow, magic. It's magic... Ooh. Magic." Without believing in the 'magic of a story,' the story won't work. And the same goes along with the 'magic' of a game. When people play a game, they agree to commit themselves to the rules of the game and those rules are valid as long as the game goes along. And because this set of rules forms a coherent unity, there is no way of opting out; to play the game is to accept all or nothing.
Missing pieces in a puzzle
Fake news can be understood as missing pieces in a puzzle, in a game of creating a coherent symbolic world. The stories that people read and share fit their moral sense and add to their shared worldview. Whether stories are supported by facts has become less and less relevant in recent years. What links together the conspiracy theorists with the left-wing New Age movement, and right-wing populist politics is a desire to rearrange the symbolic world into a coherent harmonic symbolic environment. This new cultural practice provides users of online culture a new perspective for action, a form of agency. Most of us are aware of the fact that it is just a game we play or just a film we watch, most fake news consumers are aware of the fact that messages are ‘manufactured’, as the Trump voters demonstrate by laughing at his remarks in The Daily Show fragment.
Social media platforms play a dubious role in this 'game'. In order to commit users to their platforms and hold their attention for as long as possible, the big tech companies deploy algorithms that confirm the opinions people already hold and add new, even more extreme opinions to their timeline. In the long run, this reaffirmation of biased opinions can lead to extremist positions. And in addition, many individual internet celebrities or influencers have been able to make a profit out of their audience by posting increasingly extreme content. These lucrative businesses are the cause of an unprecedented boost in the spread of disinformation and fake news.
This new cultural practice provides users of online culture a new perspective for action, a form of agency
And for some people, the thin line between magic and reality disappears, like the guy in the pizzagate incident who followed false rumours of child abuse and satanic rituals allegedly practiced by members of the Democratic party in a Washington D.C. pizzeria. The question is, of course, how far you can go with this game. For example, hooligans often cross the boundary between play and reality. And in the film The Experiment, a depiction of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, the participants in a psychological experiment forgot the basic rules of conduct the investigators laid out at the beginning of the experiment. This ‘game becoming reality’ culminated in January 2021 in Washington when Trump's claim that the 2020 Elections were stolen by the Democrats was adopted by hundreds of thousands of his supporters, many of them believing Trump’s 'tinkered truth', at least to some extent, and his call to storm the Capitol led to chaos, violence, deaths and an unprecedented dent in faith in American democracy.
Knowing the rules of the game
Without a doubt, fake news has the ability to undermine democratic institutions and public health care. But in order to win the battle against fake news, it's not enough to stick to facts. Debunking fake news will help to some extent, but the core beliefs and values of people will not change. World views consist of a symbolic harmonic coherence that is not easily broken up into pieces and the constituent elements are not easily detached from the whole. Together with other stories, fake news plays a part in the coherent symbolic structure. Creating a ‘magical world’ satisfies our need of ‘being in control’, it can provide stress relief and adds to our sense of self-confidence, invoking feelings of autonomy and self-determination. So to fight fake news, trolls, and conspiracy theories and to survive post-truth we have to be more conscious of the 'rules of the game'. Not only by countering fake news with facts, or restricting platforms and banning people from those platforms, but also by understanding how the game is really played.
Boyd, B. (2009). On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Huizinga, J. (1940). Homo Ludens. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink & Zoon.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The Savage Mind. Chicago: University Press.
Thomas, W.I. & D.S. Thomas. (1928). The child in America: Behavior problems and programs. New York: Knopf.
Weber, M. (2002). The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. London: Penguin Books.