Media & Individuality in the Age of Fake News

In our time, there are far too many post-somethings.

We’ve had post-modernism, a false boogeyman still used in some religious, particularly evangelical, contexts.

We’ve had post-evangelical, a term for progressive Christians who are, by and large, still evangelical in many respects (I say this as one of them!)

And now we have post-truth, a term that has recently become “word-of-the-year” after the recent US Presidential election.  Post-truth – which is more accurately a state of affairs than a term – is when personal belief and/or opinion are valued more in decision making than objective facts. In the months leading up to the election, there has been a prominence of “fake news” that have a correlation with post-truth (for an excellent op-ed on this phenomenon, I suggest this piece by Michael P. Lynch)

It is no surprise that in an age of post-truth that fake news flourishes. When facts become trivial and discredited by our personal biases, we become easily swayed by what we want to believe. The compelling nature that truth should possess is ignored. The media certainly plays into this. While the major news media outlets may not blatantly propagate fake news, they certainly have a tendency to bend narrative to their own predetermined will. Their success is not their own. We as the recipient – the ongoing recipient, no doubt – grant them success by our willingness to receive and believe their slanted reporting.

Soren Kierkegaard, a man whose words were profoundly prophetic, speaks to the threat that press poses to our individuality and communities. Even in the 19th Century, at the dawn of the modern press, Kierkegaard saw problematic trends in reporting and its reception.

As an existential philosopher, Kierkegaard focused on aspects of philosophy that impacted the daily living for us as individuals. In his essay The Present Age, Kierkegaard  states that the press poses multiple threats to the flourishing of individuality and a “passionate age.” Mainly, the press speaks in abstract terms. Specifically the term public is most disconcerting. He pulls no punches. The public is “a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage…”.

Paradoxically, the public is something and nothing. Kierkegaard continues to write that the public is “the most dangerous of all powers and the most insignificant.” What he means by this is that when the word “public” is used by prominent figures (ex., political figures, mass media correspondents, religious leaders, etc.) it holds power because it is attempted to sway the opinion of the individual viewer. If it is effective, then the individual succumbs to something purely abstract. It is at this point where Kierkegaard says a person is deceived by the media – deceived by the power of abstraction.

Yet notice that in the quote above, Kierkegaard also says that the word public is insignificant. It is insignificant because the “public” is not anything. It’s a word devoid of representation, a word twisted in any direction to convince to the will of those in power. It is insignificant compared to the power of individuality. We as individuals have a power to learn about ourself and the world – to discern what is progressively good. Kierkegaard writes about a passionate individual, “one learns to help oneself, learns to love others as much as oneself.” The individual is not individualistic – it is community and other-focused. But that begins with the formation of a healthy self passionate about seeking good, not being told what to think by the media and being subjected to an abstraction like the “public.”

We live in polarized times, and in part due to the nature of media over us. Our fears and angers are preyed upon and used against us and others. Perhaps it’s time we dispense of the over-reliance on media to think for us and think for ourselves. If nothing else, it’s a new option. I think we can all agree the age of fake news just isn’t working.

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