It has become difficult to talk about fake news. So powerful is its polarising power that any commentary on fake news also immediately gets characterised as fake or not. However, given the amount of misinformation and dangerous disinformation that we are subjected to daily, it is necessary to find a language and story to understand the key conditions of fake news. And I intend to do it today through cat memes — LOL Cat and Hello Kitty — to see if they might help understand what is at stake.
LOL Cat, the original meme of the social web, was the first embodiment of what I understand as fake news. At the heart of LOL Cat was a performance of vulgarity and commonness. With its cheeky “I can haz cheezeburgers” captions, LOL Cat played on various stereotypes of class, race, and education. As a meme emerging out of the USA, the riff on cheeseburgers was a reference to the Internet joke that a middle-class American would eat fast-food chain cheeseburgers even when presented with a healthy diet or haute cuisine. The “bad grammar” of that meme was mimicking “black grammar” which was often used in the discussion boards and blogs as a way of depicting black English speakers as broken speakers. The wrong spelling was a jibe at the democratic declaration of the Internet, clearly derisively pointing out all these people who can’t master English.
However, the people who used the LOL Cat meme were generally the exact opposite of this profile —people who were early adopters of the Internet, were racially privileged, and had the education and wealth to afford the use of the Internet as a playground. They used the meme as an inside joke, trying to filter out the unwanted, the newbies, the infiltrators who were finding their way on to the web. Every time the LOL Cat was used in a discussion board, it was standing in for those who were choosing to hide their privilege and in performing a pedestrian subjectivity, were laughing and silencing voices that were indeed marked by lack of education and resources.
This emergence of the LOL Cat meme is not a straightforward rehash of that faraway New Yorker cartoon which showed two dogs browsing the Internet, and one telling the other, “On the Internet, nobody knows that you are a dog”. Instead, LOL Cat was showing how the first condition of fakeness was not the anonymity but the performance of a contradictory identity without consequence or verification. It showed how the ironic aesthetics of the then emerging web could produce the first instances of fake news — the fake user.
Hello Kitty is a different story. Christine Yano, in 2014, charged with curating a retrospective on the most recognisable cat on the Internet was corrected by Sanrio, the company that holds the reigns of the Hello Kitty empire, that Hello Kitty is not a cat. She is, in fact, a teenage British girl, who has a pet cat. After 40 years of milking the misguided loyalty of every cat lover, the company declared that our delightful childhood memories and hidden adult obsessions with Hello Kitty were invalid. In one fell swoop, they changed everything that any fan ever knew about Hello Kitty, turning her into a symbol of fake news.
The Internet almost broke as fans went into the rabbit hole of arguing, fighting, dissecting, and discussing the massive cultural production around Hello Kitty, giving evidence and fishing out forgotten anecdotes to prove their point. The world, temporarily, was divided into people who swore by Hello Kitty and people who swore at her. But largely, these groups were spending their energy and vitriol on each other, trying to identify Hello Kitty as a girl or a cat, forgetting that their opinions and evidence counted for zilch. Hello Kitty’s disavowal of cathood was not just about Sanrio exercising its powers of fixing what the truth is, but also of how digital information introduces in us an insurmountable instability. To not know what we have always known; to have a truth that is universally accepted, suddenly appearing as a confirmed non-truth; to not know how to trust our own memories, experiences, and knowledge, is a scary and bewildering thing.
It is precisely this that fake news does — it doesn’t just give us false information or deliberate lies. Instead, through algorithmic repetitions, harvest farm driven trolling, and social media feed led echo chambers, fake news produces in us, a doubt about our own capacity to tell the truth. This is the second condition that propagates fake news. It forces us to suspend our belief in our own capability to discern truth, thus succumbing to the only two digital information actions that count: click and share.
It is important, when we talk about fake news, that we do not reduce it to a technological problem that the technology companies will solve. Fake news is necessarily an aesthetic problem that allows for the user to be produced as fake, and an informational problem that thinks of humans as incapable of truth-telling replaced by algorithms that can verify facts.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Get Your Facts Right’