The Unconscious is Fake News

Dr. Patrick Merot

Like the unconscious that creates psychic reality, fake news alters material reality. But such phenomena can only be understood in light of the enigma of authority – a transference phenomenon.


The existence of fake news should not surprise anyone – fake news have always existed. They might have gone by another name before – false news – but they were always part of our reality all the same. What intrigues us today is the magnitude of their success. 

Wars and politics are the privileged grounds for their proliferation because the binary perception of the world fosters them. When the world is split between good and bad, the wish to remain among the good – namely the winners, in this instance – imposes itself regardless of the price to pay in relation to the truth. But beside the fake news that are made up from scratch, sometimes industrially, there are the spontaneous fake news which are much more interesting to understand and which are produced in good faith by the subject, even out of a wish to contribute to the truth. And their reception is what brings together the two types of fake news, insofar as their recipient is most often unaware of their sources and is not equipped to make a distinction. 

Fake news peaked at the turn of the decade with the US elections, politically speaking, as well as with the global Covid 19 pandemic, scientifically speaking. 

The fake news that were instrumental in the success of Donald Trump's campaign belonged to the former type and they stood out due to their systematic nature and the support they lent to explicitly delusional theories. The fake news pertaining to the Covid virus were more aligned with the latter type; equally wild, they claimed to provide answers to questions in an area where the unknown initially prevailed. 


On the proliferation of fake news, there are famous precedents and reflections that remain utterly relevant. In 1921, Marc Bloch wrote a remarkable text on the question of rumors: ‘Reflections of a Historian on the False News of the War’ [1]. He refers to his personal experience as an observer and a combatant in the trenches and he pinpoints their basic motives. His own experience consisted in finding himself ready to believe a leader's announcement that Berlin had been bombed by the Russians. We easily believe what we want to believe (in some cases, we carry on believing out of necessity – out of a need to believe – when the false news were written in blood letters [2]). He supports his account with the examination of a concrete situation that tore apart the two countries at war and remains a textbook case: the assumed reality of the brutalities perpetrated by Belgian civilians on the one hand and by German troops on the other. The atrocities perpetrated by the German troops in Belgium seemingly began as early as the first battles, Marc Bloch writes, when accounts featuring Belgians as blood-thirsty beasts spread among the troops. The outstanding quality of Bloch's work consists in showing how false news acquire the status of reality and can have a formidable impact on reality itself. His conclusion is perfectly clear: 

an item of false news always arises from preexisting collective representations. [...] But this setting in motion occurs only because imaginations have already been prepared and are secretly fermenting. [...] [F]alse news is a mirror wherein the 'collective consciousness' contemplates its own features’. He specifies: ‘these men had been nourished on stories about the war of 1870; from childhood, their ears had been filled with the atrocious exploits attributed to French snipers’.

Bloch's reflection is remarkable in the sense that, on the basis of the limited material he could access, he put forward an analysis that will take 80 years to be confirmed when John Horne and Alan Kramer's exhaustive international enquiries established that there were no uprisings on the part of Belgian and French civilians against the invaders but most German soldiers genuinely believed it was the case. Therefore, the power of the imaginary could hold concrete sway over the ‘real’ [3]. There are no pure events, only the impact of these events and the account that is made of them: according to these authors, events are historical facts only insofar as we perceive them and only in what we perceive in them. These are the words of historians but they could have been found in Freud's writings on the topic of historical truth. 

With Freud, this interrogation acquires its unconscious dimension and becomes articulated in terms of material reality / psychic reality. 

Very early on, Freud detects that the statements issued by the subject are not the factual memories of what actually happened: as soon as he abandons his neurotica, the discovery of the phantasy element sets up a prodigious gap between the events the subject was confronted with and the way in which they became inscribed internally: the drive is here to inform the phantasy. But it took a long process of maturation in his thinking for Freud to get to the point of formulating this gap in terms of psychic reality and material reality (Moses and Monotheism).

Psychic reality consists in the subject's perception and memory of facts, a perception subject to drive-related dynamics and transferential attachments. The subject constructs his or her reality not so much on the basis of material reality but starting, rather, from psychic reality. Ultimately, the subject's wishes and repressions will call the shots when constructing this reality. Such psychic reality is also referred to by Freud as historical truth where history is understood as narrative. It would be no exaggeration to posit that the unconscious is a patented manufacturer of fake news: the unconscious is fake news. The reshuffling of memories seemingly pertains to the same mechanism, at least when dealing with the honest kind of fake news, the kind that does not involve any malignant intention when its author gains full consciousness of delivering fake news. For the same reason, on the side of the recipient, the subject will be prone to welcome fake news that fulfill an expectation: believing what one wants to believe. Analysis possibly consists in the infinite work of deconstruction of this psychic reality: unravelling the distortions imposed on what we could call the subject's truth as a result of the pressure of desire as well as repression, splitting and all the defense mechanisms. This is how Freud consistently defined psychoanalysis in its relation the truth [4].
Likewise, fake news are identified as such and deconstructed, only at the end of a long and difficult process. In fact, there is an asymmetry between the ease with which fake news can be produced and the time required to demonstrate their falseness. On the subject of rational knowledge, Freud pointed out that we could never accept the idea that the core of the earth might consist of jam, a product of human cooking; but, despite its absurdity, that this core should consist of soda water is not inconceivable, if it can be demonstrated [5]. Certain human theories deserve our attention regardless of how improbable they may seem.
This treatment of fake news implies a form of consensus among those who decide on it, but this consensus raises an issue: for the upholders of fake news, there is a reversal – others settle for error whereas they themselves endorse the truth. Let us attempt to understand what we now see in many supporters of fake news, sometimes in conjunction with conspiracy theories: they present an overall rejection of any information whose validation relies on a societal form of consensus. War and the implementation of censorship do not pave the way for fake news; on the contrary, the idea that ‘they deceive us’ spreads in a world where information is overabundant. ‘They’ refer not only to the government, the scientific community is also included and, ultimately, a whole universe: politicians; academics, researchers, statisticians; the pharmaceutical industry; labs; research centers; regulation and control authorities; hospital clinicians and basic doctors; all forms of media, newspapers, television; underground networks, secret powers, a deep state and, in fine, capitalism for some, communism for others. Such monstrous manipulation unfolds across the whole world in a context of immense collusion. The rhetorical efficiency of this tabula rasa is tremendous because, from now on, no reasoning will ever get through to whoever completed this operation: the argument opposed, however impeccably rational it may be, comes from a world whose authority has been discarded; the subjects who took that step are then led to assume and imagine complex apparatuses mobilized to impose upon them a truth which they denounce. This paves the way to the idea of conspiracy. But what do we know about the authority thus put into question in such absolute fashion? 
Bearing in mind that this current of thought is inscribed in critical relation with authority is key to an understanding of the radicality of such strange conversions. Some endorse fake news and become utterly impervious to all rational argument. They have, at one go, rejected the followers of established authority – here again, psychoanalysis could, for the benefit of all, shed some light on the unconscious elements involved in this dismissal – and, from now on, anything originating from the mainstream is no longer taken into account, however evident and proven it may be [6]. They choose, instead, alternative representatives that are endowed with authority, even if it means endorsing unfounded, if not completely irrational truths; at least, they do not come from those whose discourse has been invalidated. Social media are now in first place to claim this privilege, with no regard for any procedure of validation for their discourse. 

For these resistant fighters, the site of truth is located in any statement opposing dominant discourse and it most often arises from figures who are overtly outside the system, paving the best way for the wildest lines of reasoning. Fake news can then take on a delusional dimension. 
But this notion of authority remains distinctively hard to pin down, however pivotal its role may be in social life: authority refers to whatever imposes itself mysteriously, without the use of force. There is no mystery in giving way to force but there is something elusive about submitting to authority. Hannah Arendt [7] underlined this opposition, with regard to the political field, and she described a lost world where power pertained to the State and the authority of the Church. Kojève [8] undertook an inventory of authority figures in their various occurrences: father, master, leader and judge. But the philosophers experience a difficulty when attempting to account for a societal reality they can observe but whose origin remains enigmatic; psychoanalysis conversely has a concept to account for this and it namely consists in transference. Freud tackles this question of authority – and he postulates a genesis for it. There is but one explanation: for the child, the relationship with parents (or with their superego, more specifically) and then, by extension, with teachers, heroes, society agencies and collective discourse underlies the formation of the child's superego and the recognition of authority. One of the aims of analysis consists in deconstructing this relation to authority and give it a fair place: psychoanalysis is undoubtedly aligned with the aim of any philosophy but it tackles the unconscious dimension of this attachment. In his exchanges with Einstein, suffused with pessimism, Freud deplores the fact that the vast majority of men who are dependent and subject to authority – elsewhere he states that ‘you cannot exaggerate the intensity of people's inner lack of resolution and craving for authority’ [9] – and since a release from this paternal figure is necessary, he expresses a wish: ‘The ideal condition of things would of course be a community of men who had subordinated their instinctual life to the dictatorship of reason’ [10].
The immense paradox is that conspiracy and fake news advocates speak in the name of freedom and autonomy. But the critique of authority that should foster more freedom is in fact made to serve the supremacy of fake news because of its mass indiscriminate nature – a sad and all too perfect illustration of Lichtenberg's aphorism: ‘With most men, disbelief in one thing is founded on blind belief in another’ [11]. A blind belief indeed, methodically discarding a whole chunk of reality: it is therefore hardly surprising that we should struggle to lead these men and women back into a community of thought that takes on board the complexity of the world. 
[1] Bloch, M. (1921). Reflections of a historian on the false news of the war. Trans. J.P. Holoka. Michigan War Studies Review, 2013.
[2] We can think of the invasion of Iraq on the pretext of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Many Americans have carried on believing in this, even after the Bush administration acknowledged the facts. 
[3] Horne, J. &  Kramer, A. (2001). German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial. New Haven & London: Yale UP.
[4] Merot, P. (2009). Guérison et vérité [Healing and truth], in Quelle guérison ? Mal, maladie, malaise, Annuel de l’APF. Paris: PUF, 2009.
[5] Freud, S. (1932). New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Lecture XXX). S.E. 22 (p. 32).
[6] In Russia, the population's deep seated suspicion towards the government led to the failure of the Covid vaccination campaign, even though local scientists were able to create an effective vaccine quite early on. 
[7] Arendt, H. (1960). The crisis in culture. In Between Past and Future. London: Penguin Classics, 2006.
[8] Kojève, A. (1942). The Notion of Authority. London: Verso, 2014.
[9] Freud, S. (1910). The future prospects of psycho-analytic therapy’, S.E. 11 (p. 146).
[10] Freud, S. (1933). Why war?', S.E. 22 (p. 213).
[11i] G. C. Lichtenberg, (1800-1806). Philosophical Writings. New York: SUNY Press, 2012 (p. 172).
Image caption: On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles announced an alien attack on American territory.

Translation: Dorothee Bonnigal-Katz

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