“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit”, Harry Frankfurt wrote in On Bullshit (1986).
In some areas of life it’s taken for granted that bullshit prevails. Marketing, for instance, may have some truth to it, but usually people treat most of what comes out of marketing departments as wistful thinking at best and outright lies at worst.
Politics, too, has had a perception of having a tenuous relation to the truth. It is, for example, encapsulated in a well-known joke:
How do you know a politician is lying? Their lips are moving.
However, even politicians are usually held somewhat to account on what they say and statements about policy are given more lenience than statements about personal life.
But while people might be held to account on lies, it’s much harder to deal with the onslaught of bullshit. There is a crucial difference between the two, one which makes bullshit thrive in our age of constant internet connectivity and online sharing.
While it’s necessary to know the truth to lie, there is no such requirement for bullshit. The liar has to know the truth and care about it enough to try to cover it up with a lie. The bullshitter doesn’t care for the truth at all: they simply choose to say whatever is useful for them at the moment. They may even accidentally venture upon the truth, but feel no duty to stay within its confines.
Most people assume that they are able to distinguish truth from bullshit, which may even be true when we are discussing the bullshit artist who looks us in the eye, smiling, and spouts bullshit. Or we might not, but one can hope.
But we are at an disadvantage when dealing with the deluge of bullshit rushing at us from our screens.
The most obvious one is the increasing amount of fake news sites that peddle falsehoods and fictions for advertisement revenue. Web sites are easy to set up and writing news is easy, if stories are based on nothing more than fiction. Apparently, political fiction sells well, so the industrious entrepreneur can simply pick a hot issue and start churning out journalism.
Social media sites have started combating the problem, but it is not easy to stop something that is so intimately tied to the logic of their existence. Many users have clicked on this thing, so it must be important. Whether it is true is less interesting, especially when it leads to increased revenue.
Other forms of automated labour can also help in spreading bullshit: bots are good at spreading a simple message over and over again, substituting endless numbers for actual arguments. Hundreds of thousands of Twitter users can’t all be wrong, can they?
If bullshit was one of culture’s salient features in 1986, surely this is the age of bullshit.
Frankfurt, Harry. “On bullshit.” Raritan-A Quarterly Review 6.2 (1986): 81-100.