From the 4th-6th July 2019, the Einstein Forum looked at the decline in credibility and the rise in fake news and conspiracy theories, asking how we got to this point and how we can turn things around.
Two alarming trends have left us in crisis: a decline in credibility and an increase in credulity. Traditional touchstones of credibility — empirical evidence, verifiability, historical awareness and reason itself — seem to have lost authority in a world where they no longer matter to many of those in power. At the same time, those who distrust expert knowledge have turned to conspiracy theories, fake news and unfounded claims that reject every attempt at confirmation. This conference, therefore, asked: how have we come to this morass of scepticism and gullibility and how can we think our way out of it?
Click on the titles below to find out more about the individual talks and speakers featured on this page.
Conspiracy (theory) panic and the fragmentation of the public sphere - Michael Butter
Conspiracy theories appear to be on the rise and many observers have claimed that they are becoming ever more popular and influential. With a conspiracy theorist in the White House and a party drawn to such ideas in the German Bundestag, this theory sounds very convincing, however, the reality is more complicated.
As this talk shows, conspiracy theories remain stigmatised amongst large parts of the public in both Germany and the United States. However, the fragmentation of the public sphere in both countries has created counter-publics with their own media systems and experts and, in some of these communities, conspiracy theories once more enjoy the legitimacy they benefited from in the past.
This leaves us with a situation in which some groups are worried about the harmful effects of conspiracies, whereas others are more concerned about the harmful effects of conspiracy theories. The clash of these different publics helps us to understand the heated debate we are currently witnessing, not only about conspiracy theories, but, more generally, about what is perceived to be true.
Michael Butter is a professor of American literary and cultural history at the University of Tübingen. He received his PhD from the University of Bonn in 2007 and his Habilitation from the University of Freiburg in 2012.
Michael Butter is the author of four monographs: The Epitome of Evil: Hitler in American Fiction, 1939–2002 (2009); Plots, Designs, and Schemes: American Conspiracy Theories from the Puritans to the Present (2014); Der »Washington-Code«: Zur Heroisierung amerikanischer Präsidenten, 1775 –1865 (2016); and „Nichts ist, wie es scheint“: Über Verschwörungstheorien (2018) ["Nothing Is as It Seems": On Conspiracy Theories], a German introduction to conspiracy theories aimed at a general audience.
We are all conspiracy theorists. Memes, speech acts and the conspiratorial mode - Eliot Borenstein
Scholars of conspiracies typically examine the phenomenon on the level of large master plots and superconspiracies, focusing on the phenomenon of semiotic overdrive. At times, we are also motivated by two particularly hygienic impulses: we try to cordon off “warranted” conspiracy theories from their “unwarranted” counterparts and we reject the label of “paranoid” to describe either the theories or the theorists.
This talk argues that, if we move away from intentionality, personal subjectivity and grand narratives to the level of the utterance and the meme, paranoia can be reclaimed and the relevance of the truth value of conspiracy can be reduced. Drawing on Derrida’s post-structuralist critique of speech, Eliot Borenstein argues that the persistence of conspiracies in popular entertainment points towards a paranoid subject position rather than a paranoid subject and a conspiratorial mode rather than a fully-fledged belief system.
Eliot Borenstein is a professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His publications include Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917 –1919 (2001) and Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture (2008).
A 2009 Guggenheim recipient, Borenstein is currently working on two projects: a monograph entitled Russia’s Alien Nations: Imagining the Other after Socialism and an essay collection called Catastrophe of the Week: Apocalyptic Entertainment in Post-Soviet Russia. He is also the editor of All the Russias, the blog site and web portal for the NYU Jordan Centre for the Advanced Study of Russia.
Automating credulity. The digital labour behind fake news and propaganda - Antonio A. Casilli
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, research has examined how unscrupulous politicians resort to content mills and click farms to influence public opinion. Understanding how such specialised online services operate provides insights into the production process of fake content, malicious ads and viral traffic for political messages.
Interestingly, it also reveals that much of the work done to influence public opinion is outsourced to developing or emerging countries, where it is performed by crowds of workers in exchange for remuneration of as little as one cent or less per task. This new phenomenon highlights technological and industrial trends that, if left unaddressed, are bound to negatively affect arenas of public debate as well as workers' rights.
Antonio A. Casilli is an associate professor at the Telecommunication School of the Paris Polytechnic Institute (Télécom ParisTech) and an associate fellow of the Critical Interdisciplinary Anthropology Centre (LACI-IIAC) at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS, Paris).
His main research foci are computer-mediated communication, work and politics. In addition to several scientific publications in French, English, Spanish, Hungarian and Italian, he is the author of En attendant les robots (Waiting for Robots, 2019), Qu’est-ce que le digital labor? (What Is Digital Labour?, 2015) and Les liaisons numériques (Digital Relationships, 2010).
Scepticism, trust and forms of life - Juliet Floyd
Though “fake news”, paranoia and canards have long been by-products of the modern press, the rapid decline of trust in mass media worldwide threatens both the role of the press in democratic culture and citizens’ conceptions of successful governance.
James Everett Katz predicted the internet's impact upon the press as early as 1998, drawing in the social dimension as a further driving force in his subsequent early studies of affordance effects on users of mobile technology.
The current demise of trust in legacy news organisations has been accelerated by economic realities, the power of “weak ties”, a lack of understanding of what algorithms are and do and the generally hierarchical but also disruptive and potentially reformative networking effects of certain voices and chatbots in journalistic gatekeeping and political spamming.
In general, there is still a lack of clarity about the usage, motivations and impacts of social media in different contexts, both in terms of different locations and cultures and the variety of different forms of human life and relationships involved. Though early studies are beginning to give us a better picture of the variables involved, discourse both on and about social media tends to remain epideictic.
Canvassing some of the most recent sociological work by the Apparatgeist school of Katz and the results of a recent Mellon Sawyer Seminar at Boston University, Juliet Floyd, therefore, argues that the social world, with its rapidly evolving forms of life, remains a necessary focal point for philosophically, humanistically and empirically informed research.
Juliet Floyd is a professor of philosophy at Boston University. Her research focuses on the interplay between logic, mathematics and philosophy in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries as well as on the philosophical implications of emerging computational technologies.
A specialist on Wittgenstein and Turing, Juliet Floyd has published on a wide range of topics, including aesthetics, modernism, rule-following, ordinary language philosophy and American pragmatism. She has also co-edited several books, including Future Pasts: The Analytic Tradition in Twentieth Century Philosophy (2001, with S. Shieh), Philosophy of Emerging Media: Understanding, Appreciation, Application (2016, with J. E. Katz) and Philosophical Aspects of the Legacy of Alan Turing: Turing 100 (2017, with A. Bokulich).
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