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Faking It: The Real News About Fake News and Our Emotional Rollercoaster



Despite the widespread discussion, tweeting, and concern, you might assume we have a deep understanding of fake news. To some extent, we do. We recognize its role in influencing elections, propagating conspiracy theories, and even creating false memories. Yet, the term "fake news" itself has been so overused and misapplied that it's lost its initial purpose.


Why is this? And why does fake news continue to be impactful despite our considerable knowledge about it? Exploring our emotions, with insights from contemporary language philosophy and neuroscience, provides answers.


Our grasp of emotion's impact on our lives is often muddled. We'd like to believe, following Plato, that logic governs our minds, controlling our emotional impulses. Yet, as Hume suggested, emotions frequently guide our reasoning. This blurring between feelings and reality leads us to label things as bad simply because they make us feel bad.


This confusion extends to how we communicate daily, often acting as conduits for unacknowledged emotional expression. This concept, emphasized by mid-20th-century "expressivist" language philosophers, reveals that we might think we're discussing facts when we're actually expressing emotions. This observation, particularly relevant to ethical debates on right or wrong, sheds light on the dynamics of sharing or retweeting news, whether genuine or not, on social media.


In sharing or retweeting, we often see ourselves as disseminating knowledge, an act philosophers term "testimony". Though not universally true due to the existence of irony, sincere sharing implies endorsement, a fact underscored by disclaimers that retweets do not equal endorsements.


However, this perspective might misrepresent online communication's true nature. Research indicates that a majority of news articles shared online aren't even read by the sharer. Instead, content that evokes strong emotions, from affection to moral indignation, is more likely to be shared, with morally charged emotions significantly boosting a post's shareability. This suggests that the main goal of sharing news isn't to impart knowledge but to express and amplify emotions, particularly outrage.


Ruth Millikan, a prominent philosopher, argues that the persistence of a communicative act hinges on its underlying function, such as the way shouting "Air ball!" at a basketball game serves primarily to distract, not to inform or entertain. Similarly, social media users may think they're sharing news to spread knowledge, but the primary function is often emotional expression, especially to signal outrage and foster communal bonds.


This misunderstanding is precisely what manipulators of misinformation exploit. They recognize that our actual motive for sharing differs from our perceived one, making us susceptible targets.

The transformation of "fake news" into a term of hostility rather than a descriptor of misinformation underscores expressivists' insights. It's become an expression of contempt, illustrating the ironic turn where efforts to distinguish truth from falsehood devolve into mere expressions of anger.

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