The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
Since 24 February, the world has witnessed the invasion of a sovereign state in Europe, the likes of which have not been seen since World War II. The Russian war in Ukraine, including troop deployments, artillery fire and missile strikes on both military installations and civilian living quarters, has resulted in a refugee crisis on a scale not seen either in recent times. Besides the collateral damage the ground attacks have caused to the civilian population and the Ukrainian infrastructure at large, equally menacing Russian attacks have been launched in the information sphere, media landscape and cyberspace against an extremely precious value to human cognition when it comes to deliberation, decision and action but also democratic rule at large—the truth.
Indeed, in 1918 Republican US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson (1866-1945) is purported to have said:
“The first casualty when war comes is truth”.
Senator Johnson died in 1945, the year World War II ended, only to be replaced by another, the Cold War, running until the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Following the new Russian war in Ukraine, the world is in the most dire situation since the Cold War came to a close.
And it is a war, although Russia recently and unanimously passed a law making the mentioning of the word war in a sentence like, “The Russian war in Ukraine includes attacks on innocent civilians” and other “false information” deemed so by the Kremlin punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment. The powers that be in Russia have called the war a “special operation” to free the Ukrainians from a neo-Nazi government populated by drug addicts, and they have a surplus arsenal of misinformation, disinformation and fake news in stock to peddle to social platforms (the ones they have not blocked access to already), state media and other outlets in attempts to control their preferred narrative. But controlling a narrative is not the same as taming the truth; the two may very well be 180 degrees from each other, which is what was exactly called out on March 14, 2022 by a journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova, working for Russia’s state Channel One. Ovsyannikova interrupted a live TV-broadcast holding up a sign behind the anchor, accusing the Russian state of peddling disinformation to the public and admitting in a pre-recorded statement video that while carrying out her job for Channel One, “I spread Kremlin propaganda”. Marina Ovsyannikova has now been apprehended and so far fined by the authorities for calling out the “bs” issued by the Russian state. Calling out “bs” may come at high price because, albeit a toxic product in the information market ruled by an attention economy, it may be quite profitable in winning over the dominating attention-grabbing narrative in times of information warfare accompanying the real war.
“bs” = Bullshit
In 1986, American philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University publishes an essay with the seemingly lewd title “On Bullshit”. The essay is later reworked into what becomes a world-bestselling book of the same title. The book is one of the prime examples of philosophical, semantical and rhetorical determination of an everyday idiom and the real, tangible and quite severe epistemological consequences bullshit may have for us cognitively, communication-wise and collectively. The bullshit phenomenon heavily impedes our ability to see, understand and act individually and collectively.
The original essay starts out by rehearsing the fact—and this is way before public space came into private BigTech hands—that, “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit”. That bullshit is such a salient feature of our times is due to reasons eminently anticipated by Frankfurt in the mid-1980s, eventually and in no small measure responsible for the scores of misinformation and fake news seen today.
It is routinely repeated that misinformation is false and fake news are…fallacious news. This presupposes inadvertently that there is a distinction between true and false that is accepted and possible to maintain. According to this distinction, even a liar is honest and sincere, insofar that it would be impossible to define what a lie is if the distinction between true and false is not observed.
It may very well be that a liar says thus and so that is perpendicular to the truth in order to deceive, cheat or instill some idea in others which the liar knows to be false; but it doesn’t change the fact that something is true, and yet something is false. Even the classical skeptics accepted the discrimination between what is true and what is false.
Carneades and Arcesilaus, who took over Plato’s academy in ancient Greece, subscribed to the Socratic dictum that the only thing they knew was that they knew nothing. They inadvertently accepted the distinction between true and false all the same. Otherwise they exactly could not know that they knew nothing because it was apparently true to them, that they knew of…nothing. Similarly, the stockpile of skeptical arguments, which have been presented in the history of philosophy against knowing, all rest on the idea of presenting relevant possibilities of error undermining knowledge claims, but the very possibility of error implies that something is correct, i.e. true. Relativistic moulds of skeptical arguments—making truth a function of paradigm, culture, class and even country; or true-for-me-but-false-for-you—still subscribe to the distinction between true and false.
Fake News and "bs"
In this context, bullshit is next level. A bullshitter does not accept that there is difference between true and false to be observed. Truth and falsity may be mixed as one sees fit, as one is not committed to the differentiation and may be as careless as one is indifferent. The bullshitter is a bluffing, feigning noisemaker with no regard for the real state of the world. That’s the essence of bullshit according to Frankfurt:
Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit. (…) For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.
Fake news is not fallacious news but feigned or phony news, on the bullshit understanding that simulates journalism and thus truthfulness. It is exactly this indifference as to truth and falsity that makes bullshit and feigned news not only such toxic but also quite potent information products in the attention economy, which in turn may short-circuit public discourse, boost conspiracy theories, initiate weaponised narratives, stoke polarisation, complicate the editorial guidelines for content moderation on social platforms or undermine liberal democracies, as World Economic Forum has been rehearsing for since their 2013 Global Risk Report:
The global risk of massive digital misinformation sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyber attacks and the failure of global governance. This risk case examines how hyperconnectivity could enable “digital wildfires” to wreak havoc in the real world.
Plenty an information challenge and their causes were anticipated in “On Bullshit” back in 1986, and according to Frankfurt much of it has to do with:
- IGNORANCE: “Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic”.
- OPINION OMNIPOTENCY: “… it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything”.
- SKEPTICISM: “The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are”.
- AUTENTICITY: “Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature”.
Especially the latter seems to characterise the rule and reign of the current Russian power in place. Calling out the bullshit doesn’t necessarily cancel the bullshitter immediately. But apathy or agnosticism will forever pollute the global information environment and make clean up nearly impossible if left alone or downright impossible if allowed or upheld by law. Calling out the bullshit in information warfare has never been more important than now in our globally hyperconnected world with real tangible consequences for real people—in Ukraine and beyond.