Fake News®, Or ‘Living With Closed Eyes’

Dr. Eduardo Gastelumendi

‘Fake News’ has always existed. The ‘Fake News’ of today is of the interconnected world, of different quality to previous ones. It shows the use of defensive processes that deny external reality.


Fake news has always existed. Fake News is that and more: it is the Registered Trademark (®) of something that has been with us since the beginning of our civilization: the deceit, the lie made news and disclosed as truth. It is the fake news today, in our  Roaring Twenties, but amplified by the massive and vertiginous use of social media, by instant communication and is literally, within arm’s reach.   
In the light of this situation, psychoanalysis, with its almost one hundred and thirty years in tow, has something to say. Let us start by remembering the mechanisms of defense.   
The mechanisms of defense, discovered and systematized by psychoanalysis, play a central role in how we think and feel. On the one hand, some of the mechanisms, such as repression, structure the psyche by making daily life possible and smoother without permanent irruptions of the primary process. In general, the mechanisms of defense that we use unconsciously deceive us, to protect us from the psychic pain produced by the inner, the external or the relational reality. But, apart from protecting us, they can also limit the development of the mind, as this psychic development implies work and tolerating some pain.            
We consider, then, the acute belief in the FN® as an indicator of the massive and collective use of the mechanisms of defense in a regressive state. In 1921, Freud published Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, where he showed the psychic functioning of individuals when they form groups and masses. Today there are, in addition to the traditional masses, the virtual masses. In these years of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are the ones that prevail. We have discovered that the ‘in person’ mode is not a necessary condition for the functioning of the collective regression. The widespread belief in Fake News confirms that virtual masses function in a similar way to real masses. But there are differences. In the aforementioned text, Freud showed how individuals in a crowd project their ego ideal onto the leader, idealizing the person and becoming dependent of him or her. Unlike what happens in real crowds and the leader (the projection of the ego ideal), in virtual crowds the individuals seem to project their anxieties and fears onto a common enemy, joining forces with each other in an even more regressive way (by the immediateness and perhaps also due to the absence of corporality in the contact amongst individuals). In both traditional and virtual crowds, the main defensive mental mechanisms that have a role to play are projection (to attribute one’s unconscious emotions and intentions to others, including the projection of the ideal and, in the case of virtual crowds, of the unheimlich aspects of the individuals towards alleged enemies), disavowal (Verleugnung, which implies knowing and not knowing something at the same time) and repudiation (Verwerfung or foreclosure  that is, not being able to symbolize something, not being able to think about it, leaving a hole in that place of the mind… that can be sealed with convictions, such as those offered by FN). These mechanisms are present in all of us, but when they work regressively (in our case, when integrating a mass), their function is accentuated. The belief in FN allows to see the role of the defensive mechanisms that deny the external reality. The reality is complex, multi-causal; furthermore, chance always plays a role. Belief in FN is like closing your eyes and inventing an alternative, a more familiar story, in which to believe. I will illustrate the point with these verses from John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever (1967):   

Living is easy with eyes closed 
Misunderstanding all you see  
It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out It doesn’t matter much to me.  

In the third verse, Lennon talks about the difficulty of ‘being someone’. It has been suggested that FN is very attractive to those who are somehow marginal to society. The belief and disclosure of FN allows one to feel being a constituent and active part of it. They generate a very great attraction, as the New York Times pointed out four years ago:   

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that people prefer fake news over true news and for this reason, fake news travel faster,  farther and deeper than true news; false claims were 70% more likely to be shared with others than true ones. [1]

Let us remember that lies are intended to be sweet and that the truth is usually bitter, so courage and effort are required to tolerate it.        
In addition to the desire for greater participation in society, and the mechanisms of defense, the credibility given to FN seems to reveal the high prevalence of two personality structures: paranoid and psychopathic. Let us take a look at the first one. The etymology of the concept of paranoia implies the belief or conviction of ‘something parallel to reality, something possible but wrong’.  The person can be completely wrong and convinced of being right (that is, out of reality) or partially wrong, by giving a real fact a certain value and specific weight greater than it has [2]. In other words, it is a way of attributing to a single player the cause of a situation that is the result of multiple factors. This is how it is possible to transform something that generates intense anxieties into a certainty. Then you do not need to think any longer. And it does not matter that much, either. Now there is certainty.  
Paranoia also produces the experience that oneself, the subject, is the center of events and of the attention and intentions of others.  Of course, as they are reminiscences of the child’s psychic organization of the first months and years of life, we all carry a paranoid nucleus inside that can be reactivated by regression, in situations of tension. From there comes the certainty of being deceived (by someone) and the need to find the liars and originators of the evil.    
Many FN have an intentional origin, although their going viral is due to various factors. In history we see that the disclosure of false news has been used intentionally and even psychopathically, for political, economic, strategic and personal motivations. Authoritarian rulers often use a variety of media to spread news that stimulates conspiratorial thinking, thus gaining greater influence and political power [3].               
What is true in this context of fake news? There is no single answer, let alone a simple one. To contribute to this thinking, I will quote from a recent journalistic essay in the Washington Post (‘American Tradition’: Lessons from a year covering conspiracy theories), a passage where the journalist José A. Del Real [4] shares the conclusion he has reached about it:  

Now I see a grander lesson about truth […] one I have been circling for years. That The Truth is not something merely to be found and disclosed, but rather, that in the broader sense, it is something that is negotiated, something that is mediated over time through credibility and trust. And that, in the absence of those things, evidence can be so very easily overtaken by fantasy, and stay that way.

Credibility and trust. For psychoanalysts, these two concepts immediately refer to our theoretical and clinical knowledge about their meaning and value in the development of a healthy personality, of a well-integrated narcissism, of our relationship with others and with the outside world. These are fundamental emotions that are consolidated thanks to nurturing experienced feelings during the first years of life and that, in the absence of them, the mind tends to generate the opposite: disbelief, mistrust, and an inability to discern truth from lies. So, it is better to close your eyes to the world and build your own, tailored to your fears and desires.      
Let us devote a few words on deceiving and being deceived. This polarity is part of the game of life and death. We find it very early in the evolution of the species: in animals, of course in mammals, but also in other vertebrates such as fish (e.g. some have a dark spot that looks like an eye on their tail to fool their predators), molluscs (as we saw in the moving documentary My Octopus Teacher), insects that blend in with their environment and even in plants (the best example are the carnivorous ones, which attract their food with various lures. Deceiving and being deceived is universal. It is part of the political game, of competitive sports, of community life and of daily coexistence.     
This game acquires, in us, another weight.  By having the capacity for self-reflective consciousness, we can recognize ourselves as human beings, similar and different. From this mutual recognition (as Jessica Benjamin puts it) an ethical need arises: that of respect, and, eventually that of care, for the other as a subject similar to oneself. This is an evolutionary step that has never happened before, and from what we see happening around us, it might never happen.      
What can we do, as psychoanalysts, beyond understanding the collective and regressive mental functioning in which we find ourselves? In her greeting of well wishes for the year 2022, IPA President Harriet Wolfe had this to say:   

Psychoanalysis is both a method of treatment and a way of thinking about human reactions to uncertainty, loss and trauma. Psychoanalysis promotes better awareness, understanding and resolution of interpersonal and societal conflicts.   

The place where we can promote that better awareness is in our offices. But it seems not to be enough. We know that Freud was optimistic about the evolution of an individual, thanks to psychoanalysis, but pessimistic about our civilization as a whole. Yet psychoanalysis hit the streets years ago, ready to engage with the community. Its participation in these territories outside the consulting room is growing, but it is still insufficient. We have the need and the duty to participate even more in public debate, in the mass media and – how awful! – perhaps even in politics. As Hanna Segal said, regarding her concern with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the 1980s, ‘the real crime is to be silent.’
[1] The New York Times, March 9, 2018.
[2] As the Peruvian psychoanalyst Saúl Peña likes to say, ‘sometimes, the best defense against neurosis is reality’.
[3] See texts on the internet regarding Joseph Goebbels as the ‘father of the Fake News’ or Edward Bernays, nephew of Martha and Sigmund Freud, as the inventor of the theory of propaganda and public relations. On Bernays, see Adam Curtis’ remarkable documentary: ‘The Century of the Self’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ3RzGoQC4s&t=21s
[4] Jose A. Del Real, The Washington Post, December 29, 2021. 

Translation: Shirley Matthews

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