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Wake up! Foucault’s warning on fake news

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Saturday, 6 Oct 2018, 07:02

How new is fake news? Is it a feature of a contemporary ‘post truth’ society, or does it have a longer history? A new short film links the phenomenon back to the famous thinker Michel Foucault. In this week’s blog for Advancing social psychology (DD317), Professor Paul Stenner writes about the film, and about the influence of Foucault’s thinking on social psychology.

In partnership with the OU, the BBC have recently been making a series of ‘ideas’ short films. Each is only a few minutes long, and the aim is to get an ‘idea’ across in a quick but effective way. One of the latest of these short films asks how the French polymath Michel Foucault might have responded to the recent phenomenon of ‘fake news’, and to the idea that we now live in a world that is ‘post-truth’. ‘Fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ point to similar things, but the latter is a more academic concept whilst the former is now firmly associated with Donald Trump’s repeated complaint that ‘the media’ is politically motivated to make up negative stories about him. The short film is called Wake up! Foucault’s warning on fake news and it was written and narrated by Angie Hobbs from the University of Sheffield with Paul Stenner (an OU Social Psychologist and current Chair of DD317) and Cristina Chimisso (an OU Philosopher) acting as academic advisors.

Foucault, who died in 1984, is one of the most cited thinkers of the 20th Century. He is difficult to label because his style of thought moved easily across disciplinary boundaries, mixing philosophy, psychology, history and political activism. After his death, his ideas about the relationship between knowledge, power and subjectivity (or sense of self) began to have a big influence on social psychology, and indeed they crop up on various occasions in DD317 Advancing Social Psychology. Instead of assuming that sciences like psychology and economics provide objective truth about the human condition, Foucault created new ways of using historical data to demonstrate that these human sciences emerged under quite specific circumstances as part of new ways of governing and disciplining people. He did not approach these sciences by asking ‘are they true?’ but instead asked ‘what do they do?’ and ‘how do they actually function socially and psychologically?’ If Foucault is right, this means that ‘truth’ cannot easily be separated from ‘power’. Indeed, Foucault thought of them as two sides of the same thing called power/knowledge and he was particularly interested in how power/knowledge shapes people’s sense of self or ‘subjectifies’ them.

Ironically enough, some people are now inclined to blame thinkers like Michel Foucault for eroding the difference between knowledge and power and for ushering in a new world of post-truth in which a new breed of trickster politicians can act as if the truth were whatever they say it is, so long as they repeat it loudly on social media. The short film does entertain this hypothesis, but it also suggests that Foucault, had he lived to witness it, would be highly critical of the notion of the ‘fake news’ of a ‘post-truth’ era, and would assert the truth of the oppressed to those in positions of power, inviting us to ‘wake up’ to the unequal realities of our present moment. To judge for yourself, you can see the short film at https://www.bbc.com/ideas/videos/wake-up-foucaults-warning-on-fake-news/p06gzcn4

Paul Stenner is Professor of Social Psychology at the OU. Find out more about him by clicking the ‘meet the ou experts’ link here: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/tv-radio-events/events/bbc-ideas#meet-the-ou-experts  Paul chairs the new presentation of DD317 Advancing social psychology, starting October 2018. To learn more about DD317, you can look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0


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