Did Baudrillard foretell the advent of fake news? From disinformation to hyperinformation

Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) is not the most often cited of the post-war French philosophers. Yet, radical, nihilistic, prophetic, Baudrillard’s philosophical critique of post-modern society, and specifically his idea of the ‘hyperinformation society’ emanating from his more well-known concept of ‘hyperreality’, is surprisingly apt for understanding the current climate of fake news.

Today, ‘fake news’ has become a ubiquitous term. Itself a misnomer, the recent EU Report on Fake News and Online Disinformation notes that fake news is ‘not only an inadequate’ term ‘but also misleading’.1Independent High Level Working Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation, A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Disinformation, (2018) available at http://www.tgcom24.mediaset.it/binary/documento/97.$plit/C_2_documento_1140_upfDocumento.pdf, p. 10. Without any specific reference to Trumpism, the EU report goes on to name fake news as ‘a weapon with which powerful actors can interfere in circulation of information and attack and undermine independent news media’,2Ibid. ultimately causing a breach of ‘constitutional integrity’ and ‘a risk for democracy’.3Ibid, p. 12. As an alternative, the EU High Level Expert Group, who authored and compiled the report, use the term ‘disinformation’, broadly referring to ‘all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit’.4Ibid, p. 11. They also note that the phenomenon of fake news is ‘a problem that must be understood in the wider context of how information is produced, how it is distributed, and how people engage with it in the public sphere’,5Ibid. including the growth of digital media and platforms, such as Google and Facebook. Put differently, fake news has arisen as a kind of cancerous growth of the information society.

Yet, over 30 years ago, Jean Baudrillard was already contemplating the deficiencies of a growing information society. Writing at a time when personal computers were increasingly becoming a household necessity, when John de Mol was conceiving of Big Brother for Channel 4, and in what Vanity Fair describes as ‘The Tabloid Decade’ with ‘the tabloidification of news, culture and even human behaviour’, Baudrillard’s insights are remarkably farsighted. One of his key critical contributions is his idea of ‘hyperreality’, which he first developed in Simulacra and Simulation(1981).6Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Michigan: University of Michigan Press. Baudrillard arrives at the idea of a hyperreality having set out the concepts of ‘simulacra’ and ‘simulation’. In short, simulacra can be understood as the sign of a lost reality or a reality that was never there to begin with, where simulation is the state of the hyperreal where reality consists of a constant replay and recreation of the signs of reality, such that the sign becomes reality itself.7Ibid. As such, hyperreality names a historical condition wherein the real has been overtaken by reproductions and representations of reality: the real becomes indistinguishable from its representation; what is true becomes indistinguishable from what is false or fake; and meaning is irreparably lost in the endless orbit of communication and disclosure, sharing and click-bait.

More pertinently, Baudrillard associates the descent into hyperreality with the media and informationism. In a uncannily titled essay, ‘The Masses: The implosion of the Social in the Media’, published in 1985, Baudrillard writes:

We will never in future be able to separate reality from its statistical, simulative projection in the media, a state of suspense and of definitive uncertainty about reality.8Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media’, in Mark Poster, Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (1985), Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 210.

Baudrillard goes on to analyse this uncertainty which characterises the hyperreal, as produced by the informationism of the media:

[It] results not from the lack of information but from information itself and even from an excess of information. It is information itself which produces uncertainty, and so this uncertainty, unlike the traditional uncertainty which could always be resolved, is irreparable. … Overinformed, it [the masses] develops ingrowing obesity. For everything which loses its scene (like the obese body) becomes for that very reason ob-scene.

The silence of the masses is also in a sense obscene. For the masses are also made of this useless hyperinformation which claims to enlighten them, when all it does is clutter up the space of the representable and annul itself in a silent equivalence. And we cannot do much against this obscene circularity of the masses and of information. The two phenomena fit one another: the masses have no opinion and information does not inform them.9Ibid. (Italics in original)

Particularly poignant here is Baudrillard’s closing statement: ‘information does not inform’. Yet, more critically, for Baudrillard, the proliferation of information, in the mass media and elsewhere, disrupts the symbolic exchange of face to face communication, instead producing the constant simulation of meaning. In this simulation or hyperreality, meaning and reality has, according to Mark Poster’s interpretation of Baudrillard’s hypothesis, ‘no referent, no ground, no source. It operates outside the logic of representation.’10Mark Poster, ‘Introduction’ in J Baudrillard Selected Writings (1988) (ed M Poster), p. 7.

Significant, too, is Baudrillard’s emphasis of the obscene. From the Latin ‘ob’ denoting ‘to stand in the way of’, and ‘scene’ as the place of meaning-making (also obscènein the original French): meaning is entirely dispersed in the violence of the hyperreal. In the description above, this obscenity becomes a feature of ‘the masses’ themselves, and what is produced is the impassive and depoliticising uncertainty where ‘the masses have no opinion and information does not inform them’, as information is itself a simulation of truth and meaning.11Note 8 above.

By The Transparency of Evil, which Baudrillard originally published in 1990, the endless reproduction of signs and simulation marks an interminable depoliticisiation, expressly because the political has already happened: we are now ‘after the orgy’.12Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena(1990), London: Verso. But, as Baudrillard readily articulates, the question we have to ask is: ‘what do we do now the orgy is over?’13Ibid, p. 3. His response is further simulation:

We may pretend to carry on in the same direction, accelerating, but in reality we are accelerating into a void, because all the goals of liberation are already behind us, and because what haunts and obsesses us is being thus ahead of all the results — the very availability of all the signs, all the forms, all the desires that we had been pursuing. But what can we do? This is the state of simulation, a state in which we are obliged to replay all scenarios precisely because they have all taken place already, whether actually or potentially. The state of utopia realized, wherein paradoxically we must continue to live as though they had not been. But since they have, and since we can no longer, therefore, nourish the hope of realizing them, we can only ‘hyper-realize’ them through interminable simulation.14Ibid, p. 4.

Yet, at this point we reach an impasses. Baudrillard offers no further elucidation: the exchange of signs continues ad infinitum, and with it disappears, or disperses, other contingencies and possibilities within which any kind of resistance or repoliticisation can be kindled. As such, Baudrillard exhausts critique — a point taken up in the interviews with Sylvère Lotringer published in Forget Foucault.15Jean Baudrillard, Forget Foucault, (1997) Cambridge: MIT Press Critique is exhausted not because it is taken to its limits as such, but because critique becomes consumed — overtaken — by a new schematic of exchange and simulation which, according to its logic, is ahistorical, apolitical and without alternative.

So, how far do Baudrillard’s insights help us to understand the phenomenon of fake news? On the one hand, it may not be all that helpful to generalise about the societal condition of which fake news is a symptom. As policy-makers responding to the issue have pointed out, initiatives to address the problem ‘need to be context-specific and context-sensitive and continuously evaluated as responses that work in one context may not work in others’.16Note 1 above, p. 14. More restrictively, Damian Tambini has stated that the only legitimate ground to regulate fake news is where it constitutes ‘deliberate falsehood with intent to compromise national security’, in order to safeguard freedom of expression, freedom of information and media independence.17Damian Tambini, LSE Media Policy Brief 20, Fake News: Public Policy Responses (2017), available at http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/73015/1/LSE%20MPP%20Policy%20Brief%2020%20-%20Fake%20news_final.pdf, p. 14.

Yet, on the other hand, Baudrillard’s sobering description of hyperreality may serve as an important warning for the kind of society we wish to resist. Baudrillard’s prophetic analysis of a hyperinformed society where information no longer informs and where truth is indistinguishable from its counterfeit simulation, becomes immediately recognizable within today’s climate of fake news and disinformation, perhaps adding, too, to the related tech-lash debate. However, although moments and forms of the hyperreal can be recognised within contemporary society, it is important not to let these partial events of hyperreality characterise society as a whole.

Dr Rachel Adams is an Early Career Researcher with the Information Law and Policy Centre, Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, University of London

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