Fake News and Anthropology: A Conversation on Technology, Trust, and Publics in an Age of Mass Disinformation Part I

Emergent Conversation 9

A discussion with Andrew Graan, Adam Hodges, Meg Stalcup moderated by Mei-chun Lee

Truth vs Post-truth by Martin Shovel (https://twitter.com/martinshovel/status/804968341471457280).

This Emergent Conversation is part of a PoLAR Online series, Digital Politics, which will also include a Virtual Edition with open access PoLAR articles. Anthropologists Adam Hodges, Andrew Graan, and Meg Stalcup joined this virtual conversation to share their thoughts on fake news, disinformation, and political propaganda. It was moderated by PoLAR Digital Editorial Fellow Mei-chun Lee. The conversation will be published in three installments. This is Part I of the discussion. Part II is available here and part III is here.

Mei-chun Lee: The first question I want to pose is how to define the problem space of so-called “fake news.” After the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election, fake news has emerged as a political crisis that is believed to jeopardize democracy and even national security. The Oxford Dictionary selected “post-truth” as the word of the year 2016 to describe “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Are we living in a world where truth no longer matters and “truthiness”—“something truthish or truthy, unburdened by the factual” (Zimmer 2010)—dominates? Is the very concept of “truth” being redefined by beliefs, relationships, and feelings? Furthermore, how are we to understand the political impacts of fake news when on the one hand, it is used as a weapon for politicians to discredit media reports that do not align with their best interests (see Sullivan 2017), and on the other hand, more and more evidence shows that fake news is just the tip of the iceberg in bigger disinformation campaigns?

Adam Hodges:  First off, I think it’s important to recognize that “fake news” as a term has undergone substantial semantic change over the past few years. In the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election, the term “fake news” was used in the way we’re using it here—namely, to mean false news stories disseminated under the guise of real news reporting.

Well before 2016, the term “fake news” mostly referred to satirical news shows, such as Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” or Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.” These shows spoofed the real news for comedic effect. During the early 2000s, Jon Stewart became known as “the most trusted name in fake news.” “Fake news” in this usage context was meant for laughs.

Then came the 2016 presidential campaign with Russian troll farms and bot armies disseminating false news stories aimed to mislead and misinform. “Fake news” in this usage context had nothing to do with political satire and everything to do with the deliberate spread of disinformation. In many ways, fake news in this sense was nothing new. False stories have long been a central component of government propaganda used by authoritarian societies both within and without to sow doubt and confusion. But now we saw misinformation deliberately aimed at the US public, its efficacy amplified by social media.

So the US public talked quite a bit about “fake news” (in the sense of deliberately false stories) in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Collins Dictionary even designated “fake news” its word of the year in 2017. But Trump quickly appropriated the term and inserted it into a wholly different usage context where he wielded the term against any news outlet or story that he perceived to be critical of him or his policies. By April 2018, a poll by Monmouth University found that most Americans understood “fake news” as not only applying to “stories where the facts are wrong” but also applying “to how news outlets make editorial decisions about what they choose to report.”

Within a short time frame, a new Trumpian meaning of “fake news” entered into widespread usage, designating as “fake news” anything ideologically at odds with Trumpism. This meaning has nothing to do with truth or falsity. It’s all about ideological fidelity and “truthiness.” The irony, of course, is that while masquerading as an instrument for supposedly distinguishing between truth and falsity, the Trumpian usage erodes trust in authentic news sites while elevating the status of those sites that really do spread fake news.

So the news that portions of the public now accept as genuine or fake has less to do with the truth value of the stories and more to do with the way the stories resonate with beliefs and feelings. In my new book, When Words Trump Politics (2019), I refer to this as the “typification of a worldview.” Erroneous information does political work for Trump by building a compelling narrative that aligns with what his base of supporters “already know and accept as true regardless of what the facts say.”

The problem with this trajectory as we head into the 2020 presidential election—not to mention as we navigate the dueling realities of impeachment and its aftermath—is that we no longer require interference from outside actors to spread disinformation and sow confusion. Americans are now fully capable of generating and spreading our own fake news. In a recent segment on National Public Radio, journalist Hanna Allam interviewed Bret Schafer, who studies misinformation at the German Marshall Fund, noting that “the disinformation he sees these days isn’t manufactured in a Russian troll farm. It starts as partisan spin or conspiracy theory on American sites.”

Social constructionists have long recognized the social process behind the production of knowledge and truth. In some ways, the “truthiness” of our current political moment is an extreme example of that social process gone awry. Bruno Latour recently underscored how “facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media.”

With this in mind, I would say that our so-called post-truth era is more aptly conceptualized as a post-trust era. The truthiness of Trumpian discourse and Russian disinformation campaigns both have the similar effect of eroding trust in public institutions—from investigative journalism (labelled “fake news”) to career government officials (labelled “the deep state”) to science itself (labelling climate change “a hoax”). It is an erosion of trust in the skills and competencies associated with networked communities of professionals—denigrated as “the elite” in Trump’s brand of right-wing populism—that opens the door to a new social network of knowledge producers with its own revered spokespersons (think Trump or Hannity) and means of distributing their own truth claims (think Fox News or the Internet Research Agency).

In this era of fake news, the typical response is to double down on fact-checking and correcting the record, as if the problem merely stems from a lack of correct information. Such a response is based on the dubious premise that a baseline level of trust exists among the public—trust in fact-checking journalists, trust in career government officials, trust in academics. But this approach will inevitably fall short if that baseline level of trust is missing and continues to be eroded as different sides cling to their own sets of facts and “alternative facts.” The antidote must therefore focus on ways to stop the erosion of trust in public institutions and to rebuild the relationships that those institutions are founded upon.

Andrew Graan:  Wow. Thanks, Adam, for launching the conversation! You offer such an astute and useful dissection of the term “fake news.” And, I think that your diagnosis, viz., that fake news is symptomatic of a shift in social trust, hits the nail on the head.

My own approach to fake news has been to situate the phenomenon—whether as a descriptor of “deliberately false” news reports or as an epithet leveled against ideologically contrary news items, to follow Adam’s distinction—within a broader framework of publics and publicity.  Following work in linguistic anthropology, I conceptualize publics as what Susan Gal (2018) eloquently phrased as a particular “social organization of interdiscursivity.” That is, publics are constituted by the circulation and recontextualization of discourse but also by a set of participation norms, metadiscourses and language ideologies that mediate how one (and thus who) participates in public spheres (cf. Warner 2002).

This conceptualization, I believe, can help us understand the similarities and differences between what we might call a “national news media public” and publics centered on—you name it—BDSM, Biblical interpretation, the coding language Python, professional tennis, or celebrity gossip. It is not simply that these publics center on different topics or themes, but that they are “organized” differently. A sexually explicit vocabulary might get you expelled from a national news public but might be required to participate in a public on BDSM. Genres of Christian witnessing (Harding 2000) might be included in a public on Biblical interpretation but be anathema to the default secularism of mainstream news.

So, where does fake news figure into all of this? I would like to suggest that fake news—both as deliberately false news stories and as a political epithet—constitutes a particular way of participating in a public. Let me explain.

For sometime now, we have lived in a world with professions that are dedicated to “engineering” the discourses that circulate in publics and the ways in which participants take up these discourses. This is the mission of marketing, public relations and brand management. They are multi-modal professional practices that intervene in the public circulation of discourse in order to motivate particular forms of popular uptake: a purchase, brand loyalty, a vote, a donation, an endorsement. Specifically, these professions seek to advance preferred representations of some object, whether a retail product, a firm, a political candidate, a humanitarian organization, etc., and to sanction or marginalize unfavored representations (e.g., through “damage control” in the face of scandal or through legal apparatuses that adjudicate intellectual property claims, charges of defamation, etc.).

I have analyzed such “discursive engineering” in my research on nation branding (Graan 2016).  But, many other examples abound, including, I would argue, Douglas Holmes’ (2013) study of the communication strategies deployed by central banks, Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein’s (2012) study of political advertising in the US, and Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa’s (2015) analysis of hashtag activism following the tragic murder of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In all of these cases, we see sustained, concerted efforts to advance preferred representations of some issue and to challenge, marginalize or silence unfavored representations. Such practices thus work to shape the public circulation of discourse and even to re-shape or re-organize how discourse circulates in the first place.

From this perspective, I would argue, fake news is another form of discursive engineering. That is, fake news, when considered as fabricated news reports, is the result of professional practices that seek to shape the public circulation of discourse. The creators of fake news, whether Macedonian teenagers (Graan 2018), American extremists (Marantz 2019), or Russian troll farms (see Jessikka Aro’s posts), work to advance preferred representations of some issue. As we know, these preferred representations are often sensational and salacious so as to be monetized as “click-bait.” They might also serve malevolent efforts to spread “disinformation” and sow distrust within a public. (Here I make the important disclaimer: just because practices of discursive engineering seek to shape the public circulation of discourse doesn’t mean that they always or often succeed. Just ask New Coke. I also tend to follow Masha Gessen and Adrian Chen in arguing that the moral panic over Russian interference in the 2016 election exaggerates the agency and power of the Russian state.)

In parallel, fake news, when considered as an epithet against ideologically contrary news reports, can be seen as a practice of metadiscursive sanctioning. That is, it is a practice of policing a public, of labeling some contributions as inappropriate to, or illegitimate within, a public. We can see this on both sides of the political divide in the US. Again echoing Adam, those invested in the liberal mainstream of American politics marshal accusations of “fake news” to delegitimize fabricated news reports and to subject them to test by fact-checking. Those supporting Trump’s neo-right populism level charges of “fake news” against news reports and outlets deemed to be ideologically opposed to Trumpism. Thus, although the ideological and moral principles of these sanctions differ significantly—one based on truth as fact verification and the other on ideological fidelity to Trump—they nonetheless both function to police participation in a public.

Obviously, at present, neither of these contrasting practices have achieved hegemony across American news publics. That is, there is an open struggle between those who assert truth as fact verification as a participation norm and those who assert truth as ideological and emotive fidelity to Trumpism as a participation norm. This point dovetails with Adam’s on post-trust and the bifurcation of American news publics organized around facts and “alternative facts,” respectively. Indeed, the illusion of an integrated, American national news public seems to have been eclipsed by what Arvind Rajagopal (2001) dubbed a “split public” in his analysis of the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, that is, two publics claiming to represent one and the same national space but organized by rival and “different languages of politics” (Rajagopal 2001, 25).  Arguably, current popular discourses on silos, echo chambers and bubbles index and perpetuate such a phenomenon, as James Slotta (2019) has explored recently in an excellent essay.

At any rate, by situating the fake news phenomenon in relation to publics, I feel we can learn a few things. First, as Adam contended, fake news (understood as deliberately false news reports) is not new.  Furthermore, I would add, it is also not exceptional. It is kindred with many other practices of discursive engineering that intervene in publics in pursuit of instrumental ends. To be sure, the difference in one’s goals matters. It is one thing to intervene in publics in pursuit of social justice, or even in pursuit of commerce, and quite another to do so to foster confusion and distrust. But, I do think it worth considering how fake news production is part of a larger type of practice that is endemic to many contemporary publics.

Second, and to return to Adam’s point on fake news and the erosion of social trust, I would simply add that when we see fake news as a technique of publicity, that is, of participating in a public, it underscores how the social distrust that conditions fake news is also being organized and reproduced through practices of publicity. That is, neo-right populism results not simply from a wellspring of White discontent over lost entitlements and heightened precarity. Such populism is also mediated. And specifically, it is mediated by practices of publicity that do not merely express discontent and distrust but that also produce them.

“Disinformation. Fake news. You’re ready to vote. Go on!” by Gilmar. (https://gilmar.blogosfera.uol.com.br/2018/09/25/a-quem-interessa-fake-news/)

Meg Stalcup:  Many thanks to both of you, Adam and Andrew. These are such substantive analyses. It’s clearly a helpful prompt, Mei-chun! I like how you position us in a problem-space, since to my mind that makes this squarely about the questions we’re asking. It seems especially crucial to keep an eye on our questions, and to make doing so a methodological principle, when “discourse engineering” (in Andrew’s great phrase) the news narrative is clearly part of the phenomenon we’re studying. Whoever has the most extreme or shocking claim often shapes the debate of the day, so we have to keep checking that the demand to which we are responding “is indeed one with a palpable claim on us” (Scott 1997). Otherwise we’ll get caught up ourselves in the reactive cycles that have much of the mainstream news media in the hands of whoever plays that game best. Right now on the U.S. political scene, it’s the president, Donald Trump, and in Brazil, where I work, it’s also the president, Jair Bolsonaro (the forum over at Cultural Anthropology goes into this in depth).

I second Andrew’s point that fake news (in the sense of deliberately false stories) is often the product of professional practices that intervene in publics: a kind of publicity. I first realized this tracking down rumors about the Zika virus in Brazil (see the series of posts on Somatosphere), analyzing them along classic anthropological lines, that in one way or another they represented the voice of the people or symbolic substitution for a range of injustices. Then I realized (using a variety of tools) that they were actually almost all clickbait. Someone was sitting around translating the international conspiracy theories and making up local versions that linked to monetized sites and YouTube videos. A lot of stories with the same bogeymen reappear with every pandemic, including the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). They are connected to people’s concerns and fear, or hopes, although not as their “voice.” Instead, they present and shape sentiments in the way a good advertising campaign does, because it knows its audience.

At the same time, as said above, fake news can also be one tactic in a broader disinformation campaign. Journalists and academics have focused on computational propaganda in politics, especially elections. But—and this connects with Adam’s point about the erosion of trust in a wide range of public institutions—we know that there are devastating fake medical news stories about vaccines, active disinformation campaigns on climate change, false anecdotes that circulate in the wake of every major disaster. COVID-19 has reminded people of this, but it’s striking that the reminder was necessary, given that the Zika events were only a few years ago. I’ll just reiterate the more general point that the problem space of fake news­­ includes many significant domains, in addition to politics. It’s something to be kept in mind about conspiratorial ecosystems, in the long term.

Adam and Andrew both bring up, in really fruitful ways, how fake news erodes social trust and produces distrust.I do think that this happens, but for some people what’s going on is that different relationships of trust have been established. Adam’s point about the importance of how stories resonate with beliefs and feelings, perhaps over their truth value, has been a major part of fake news debates, centered by the Oxford Dictionary post-truth definition that Mei-chun mentioned. In my research, I’ve focused on these same themes, although at a somewhat different intersection. I want to know how a story comes to resonate as true, and, conversely, the way that what one opposes ideologically becomes understood as false. Clearly, this is just a subset of what’s happening, but I think it’s an illuminating one. Only slightly facetiously, I’d say that fake news has a “mode of truth”: its claims, like others, are made within a sphere or regime of veridiction.

Part of what’s important in these spheres, and the “mediated practices of publicity” occurring in them, is aesthetic. If you think about what’s circulating on social media, truth claims are at least as likely to be made through images and sound—memes of photos with text or gifs or a comic, spoken word in a video or audio recording—as through written text (which anyway also has an aesthetic). So I’ve approached fake news as a form of aesthetic politics (Stalcup 2016), the intentional deployment of aesthetics to political ends. A significant element of the infrastructure in Brazil, but also in India, and a host of other countries, is the messaging service WhatsApp, while in other places or for subpopulations it might be other platforms, each with their own formative, technical capacities. WhatsApp, for example, allows for groups of up to 256 people. Anyone can be an administrator if they create the group or are assigned the role and issue a URL invite. All kinds of media circulate on WhatsApp—audios, videos, forwarded text messages, images, urls to external sites and other groups, and the dominant aesthetic is memorable and impactful. This style traces from early clickbait and the sensationalism of tabloids, which increased as they competed with companies such as Facebook. If you think about memes or cartoons, the opinions they’re presenting are right there. They are out in the open. And if that is the aesthetic of truth for someone, professional journalism, particularly fact-checking, will not read as true. Claims to objectivity won’t get read as balanced and fair but like the speaker is hiding something, or dissembling. Adam’s identification of the problem of trust is central, although in the “split public” case I am describing here, I see it as replaced rather than broken. There were many fact checking initiatives during the Brazilian elections in 2018, but there was already an aesthetic language trusted by a lot of people and it wasn’t what looks like serious journalism. To be clear though, this is only part of the story. I also see the elements of the aesthetics of professional journalism used online, co-opted even while it is mocked, mixed into the same thread as the forthright declarations of partiality.

It’s fair to ask, as William Mazzarella (2017) has, if this is really a problem-space of truth. Are trust and belief at stake, or is this a matter of affective engagement—in Mazzarella’s terms, the enjoyment of efficacious resonance, or mana? Bolsonaro says outrageous things, the kinds of things people repeat whether they agree with them or not. It’s stimulating, as is reading, commenting, and forwarding media. To borrow a phrase from Dominic Boyer, as these media move, they lay down “affective grooves” (2018). Even when the stories are false, the sensations they produce are real. But I don’t think fake news is only about affective pleasure (some sort of “invested intensity” might be better, since it can be agonizing to read critical comments of a favorite celebrity or stressful to watch virulent diatribes, even if too mesmerizing and involving to look away). I see these practices of participation as ways that people produce and enter into a given mode of truth, a popular epistemology, not a replacement for truth or belief.

Andrew Graan is a Lecturer in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Helsinki. A cultural and linguistic anthropologist, his research examines the politics of public spheres in North Macedonia. He earned his PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2010. His current project, “Brand Nationalism: Neoliberal Statecraft and the Politics of Nation Branding in Macedonia,” examines how the coordinated efforts to regulate public communication that are found in nation branding projects constitute a wider program of economic and social governance. 


Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. His books include When Words Trump Politics: Resisting a Hostile Regime of Language (2019, Stanford University Press) and The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative (2011, Oxford University Press). His articles have appeared in the American Anthropologist, Discourse & Society, Language & Communication, Language in Society, and the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology.


Meg Stalcup is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Ottawa, where she does research and teaches on media and visual anthropology, science and technology studies, ethics, and methods. Her current project, “Sensing Truth: The Aesthetic Politics of Information in Digital Brazil” looks at institutional and epistemological aspects of media in four cases: health, politics, environment, and security. Previous work has been published in Anthropological Theory, Visual Anthropology Review, and Theoretical Criminology, among other places.

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