Quest for an Ethics in an Era of Fake News

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At a time when fake news is ruling roots, a renewed interest in Soren Kierkegaard  might help us understand critically as well respond  conscientiously to   it.  Although, communication scholars have not invested much into Kierkegaard’s model of communication in the past,  today  several scholars seems to have come to a heightened awareness  that his thought  can open us ways of analysing communication in an era of post-truth.  Kierkegaard wrote with several pseudonyms and communicated without authority. In the wake of fake news in a post-truth era, we can trace not just writing without authority but also writing without responsibility. The disguise of pseudonyms provided a guise through which Kierkegaard presented aesthetic, ethical and religious categories. Unfortunately, the disguises provided by the social media platforms only make room for the aesthetical and no space for the ethical and the religious. Hence, in a country like India where aesthetics masks as ethics under the garb of cultural nationalism of the right wing, the communication model of Kierkegaard is profoundly relevant. Today we not only face challenges to the ethics of authorship but we also have challenges to empower the reader or the receiver of communication as it has led to gruesome mob lynching on several occasions.    Hence, writing without authority and responsibility challenges us to build a culture of critical reception among our people. In an environment of fading ethics of authorship, we have an imperative to develop an ethics of reception.   We urgently need a new way of reading and responding to the text that is produced and circulated in the post-truth era. This new way of receiving, reading, and responding to the text that is communicated both without authorial authority and responsibility opens an ethical relation to the reader or receiver.   Therefore, as Roland Barthes succinctly puts that ‘a text’s unity lies not in its origin (Author) but in its destination (Reader)’, we draw our attention to the reader, receiver of the text and hope that his/her response would be guided by an ethics of reception.  In this project, Kierkegaard who practiced the vanishing of the author to perfection in his writings becomes a great inspiration for us to imagine a reader’s response to a text in the absence of the author.  We do need to pay heed to the ethics of authorship that chooses to communicate without authority and responsibility (as in the case of fake news). The absent author opens the communicated text for an ethical reading with profound responsibility.   The disappearing author calls the reader / receiver to an ethics of reception.  Today more than ever before, we need an ethics of reception. The reader is challenged to take responsibility of being the author of his/her own readings of the text which is often orphaned by the author in a post-truth scenario. Unfortunately, the absence of the author is also accepted by the reader without much complains. Perhaps, the amount and speed at which we receive communication/information has something to do about the reader forgetting the author. Given this precarious condition, an ethics of responsible reception might be a vital response to communication in our times.  

 The question why we readers get seduced and not alienated by the text dished to us through social media is indeed revealing the power that these texts weld over us. These texts do not remain silent but speak to us without the authority of the author.  They seem to defy what Jesus said, ‘let those who have ears hear’ as they speak indiscriminately to everyone luring the receivers into dangerous zones that might halt with violence and murder.   The producers of these authorless texts employ varieties of strategies in order to entice the readers into their narratives. These strategies are manipulative and unethical.   While the texts that are circulating enact their own deaths of the author, it is important to understand how uncritical readers get sucked into their scheme of circulation of the message as the text goes viral.  The author is certainly dead and is insignificant.  But in the absence of the author, the significant other who passes on the text lends legitimacy and authority to the text. This means who has passed on the message produces acceptance of the message. Maybe this might also explains why in a post-truth scenario new agencies and media houses have become propaganda tools of the ruling classes across the globe.  The media houses in our country are no exceptions. They are also bought and co-opted by the ruling alliance. This and other reasons make it imperative for us to work to empower the reader to acquire critical competence to receive these manipulated texts and develop responses that would emancipate our captive society.  This quest for the ethics for a reader is an unavoidable ultimatum that we face as a society today.  The post-truth condition that faces us becomes an opportunity for us to bring us to higher level of morality. Kierkegaard says that he employed seductive style of writing ‘to deceive into the truth’.  He proposes maieutic and ethical aim of his own deceptive writings. For him deception was to lead people to find truth. This reminds us of method of Socrates which led people to think straight while they are made to think in circles. This means that deceptive text of writings that are circulated in our media today carry the conditions and possibilities for the reader to make a way of rising to the truth. It has the best possibilities for the birth of a critical reader in us who has the gumption to view deception and manipulation straight into its eyes. We are not trapped into a dark corner. We have a way of becoming enlighten readers and have possibilities of   letting our society embrace emancipative truth. There is curative power embedded with the post-truth condition.  It is for us to reject the fallacies of uncritical reading and embrace critical and emancipative reading strategies that will read ethical responsibly texts that attempt to speak to us without authority and responsibility.                                                                                                                                                                                                            


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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao