'Fake News' and Conspiracy Narratives in the Context of Regimes of 'Posttruth'

An Analysis from the Perspective of Nihilism

Der Vortrag fand am Höchstleistungsrechenzentrum (HLRS) Stuttgart statt. Bereits der dortige Kaffeeautomat ist beeindruckend (Foto: Oliver Zöllner).
Der Vortrag fand am Höchstleistungsrechenzentrum (HLRS) Stuttgart statt. Bereits der dortige Kaffeeautomat ist beeindruckend (Foto: Oliver Zöllner).

Am 1. September 2022 hielt HdM-Professor Oliver Zöllner einen Vortrag auf der Konferenz "Trust and Disinformation", die vom High Performance Computing Center Stuttgart veranstaltet wurde. Sein Thema war "'Fake News' and Conspiracy Narratives in the Context of Regimes of 'Posttruth': An Analysis from the Perspective of Nihilism".

The presentation sought to analyze why "fake news" and conspiracy narratives have been able to embed themselves in much of digital everyday life. To this end, it traced the concepts of truth that have increasingly faltered in modernity, as well as the normative consequences of this development, and looks at them from the perspectives of media history, communication studies, and philosophy. The presentation's central thesis is that disinformation, lies, and "fake news" are expressions of a nihilistic attitude in society (Gertz 2018).

In seven analytical steps, various aspects of a "crisis of truth" were dissected, focusing in particular on conspiracy theories, right-wing populist media messages, so-called postmodernism, and constructs of the not-true. In this context, the presentation detailed the extent to which shocks to the presuppositions of knowledge, and a nihilism of "kitsch" - the tacky falsehood that seems so attractive - are observable. In concluding, the presentation outlined possible solutions for dealing with disinformation and truth crises. It argued that one building block of this solution lies in narrating and developing a freedom-oriented approach to ethics and education, an idea that reiterates Karl R. Popper's concept of an "open society" (Popper 2002).

The considerably accelerated technical developments of the last decades have changed the epistemology of man: the basics of processing and rationally sorting knowledge and cognition. Mediatization and especially digitization have brought new, non-linear forms of organization of knowledge as well as a multitude of new channels and platforms. Harry G. Frankfurt (2005; 2006), looking at the current handling of truth in media society, famously developed the symbolic leitmotif of "bullshit" as the central image of the loss of social agreement when it comes to referring to truth. "Bullshit" is a residue of what has divorced itself from the fundamental concern of truth: its main purpose and goal is the creation of an impression, which may be false and untrue, while focusing on the person that is presenting the bullshit, which is thus distracting from the real matter at hand. Recent examples of this bullshitting attitude include former U.S. President Trump or former British prime minister Boris Johnson. A strong tendency towards bullshitting can also be observed among the doubters and deniers of the Corona pandemic.

Jayson Harsin (2015) calls such systemic dominance of the not-true in a social and political discursive space heavily influenced by social media and other online platforms a "regime of posttruth." It seems to be characteristic of "post-political" societies, i.e., an expression of a disruptive transition from traditionally ordered politics to new forms of political action. It can be posited that this posttruth is in essence "kitsch." Kitsch is based on falsehood and merely simulates the real. Seen as kitsch, conspiracy theories and fake news puff themselves up into absolute, hermetic models of world explanation that do not bear or tolerate falsification. We can easily identify such disinformation, following up on Hans-Dieter Gelfert (2000), as "ideological kitsch". Underlying kitsch are forms of nihilistic denial.



Frankfurt, Harry G. (2005): On bullshit. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Frankfurt, Harry G. (2006): On truth. New York: Knopf.

Gelfert, Hans-Dieter (2000): Was ist Kitsch? Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Gertz, Nolen (2018): Nihilism and technology. London, New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Harsin, Jayson (2015): Regimes of posttruth, postpolitics, and attention economies. Communication, Culture & Critique 8(2), 327-333.

Popper, Karl R. (2002): The open society and its enemies. London, New York: Routledge [first published 1945].

Zöllner, Oliver (2020): Klebrige Falschheit. Desinformation als nihilistischer Kitsch der Digitalität. In: Petra Grimm & Oliver Zöllner (eds.): Digitalisierung und Demokratie. Ethische Perspektiven (Medien­ethik, Vol. 18). Stuttgart: Steiner, 65-104



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Prof. Dr. Oliver Zöllner  Elektronische Visitenkarte
Digitale Ethik, Empirische Medienforschung, Soziologie der Medienkommunikation, Public Diplomacy
Medienforschung, Soziologie der Medienkommunikation, Digitale Ethik, Public Diplomacy, Nation Branding, Hörfunkjournalismus
Medienwirtschaft (Bachelor, 7 Semester)
Fakultät Electronic Media
216, Nobelstraße 10 (Hörsaalbau)
0711 8923-2281
0711 8923-2206
Oliver Zöllner

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Prof. Dr. Oliver Zöllner  Elektronische Visitenkarte

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