Fake News and Imagined Narratives

Marianna Bergamaschi Ganapini is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at Union College (NY). She got her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 2017. She works in Epistemology and Philosophy of Mind.

Marianna Bergamaschi Ganapini is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at Union College (NY). She got her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 2017. She works in Epistemology and Philosophy of Mind.

A post by Marianna Bergamaschi Ganapini.

Fake news can be found everywhere, from traditional news outlets to personal websites and social media. Examples of fake news are conspiracy theories, trolls’ social media campaigns, and some of RT’s headlines. There is now a vibrant debate on how to define the term ‘fake news’. Here I will attempt to shed some light on the type of speech act the term ‘fake news’ refers to by looking at the kind of reactions this speech act is meant to elicit in the audience.

Speech acts are acts performed by uttering words. There are different types of speech acts (e.g. promises, assertions, orders), and these different types of acts are usually distinguished by considering the mental attitude they express (Searle, 1969) or the speaker’s ‘perlocutionary’ intention behind them (Grice, 1957). Asserting that p, for instance, is uttering the sentence ‘p’ with the intention to produce a belief that p in the audience.

The term ‘fake news’ is usually used to describe news-worthy claims that are false and poorly supported. Presenting fake news, however, is not the same as lying, and those who put fake news out there are not simply trying to mislead or slander someone. In fact, my suggestion here is that the point of fake news is not to make assertions at all. In contrast, I believe that fake news is a speech act in its own right. Behind fake news, there is the defining perlocutionary intention to produce in the audience a mental attitude that very much resembles imagination (and which I will call ‘imagined narrative’).[1] This intention hides an ulterior motive, however: to strengthen the ideological views people hold. In fact, qua speech act fake news mostly speaks to specific groups ultimately creating an echo chamber effect.[2] As a result, whereas it is common to label fake news as problematic because false and epistemically irresponsible, I would argue that the problem with fake news is also that it is a tool for propaganda that strengthens preconceived, ideological positions by blurring the lines between reality and imagination. [3] However, it does so not by simply using traditional linguistic acts but by using imagination.  

Notoriously, the difference between imagination and belief is that belief accesses practical reasoning and systematically influences other mental attitudes. Belief is also subject to epistemic norms, and is usually sensitive to evidence. Imagination behaves quite differently. Imagination is usually insensitive to actual evidence even though it may be sensitive to what counts as evidence for it within a certain context or story (e.g. while playing, children may take it that wearing a certain color is evidence for having ‘magical powers’). Although games, stories and narratives have some internal coherence, imagination is generally inferentially patchy and admits contradictions. Finally, although it can influence action, imagination usually motivates in restricted contexts and its effects are often limited (O’Brien, 2005; Van Leeuwen, 2009).

I believe that fake news shows very similar traits. Not only is the content of fake news backed up by little actual evidence and resistant to any contrary evidence, but the evidence provided to support it is also often distorted. For instance, Donald Trump’s claim that “global warming is a hoax” was presented as supported by the facts that it was “snowing in Texas and Louisiana” and that there were “record-setting freezing temperatures” that year (Tweeter, Jan 29, 2014). If that is so, whatever counts as legitimate ‘evidence’ in the context of fake news has little relation with what we commonly take the word ‘evidence’ to mean. And as with imagination, the content of fake news may often contradict things believed, and admit contradictions (e.g. Obama is an ISIS co-founder and a socialist). That suggests that the norms that govern fake news are overtly not the same norms that govern beliefs or assertions. And this is shown also by how fake news relates to action. In fact, fake news campaigns are not necessarily meant to push people to act. Even those who agree with the content of fake news may hardly feel compelled to act on it. Conspiracy theories (such as, for instance, the well-known ‘Pizzagate’) do not usually prompt people to react in the way normal belief would, strongly suggesting that conspiracy theories are not “treated as ordinary information” (Stanley, 2018).

It is important to clarify that even if fake news is linked to imagining, fake news is not simply a form of fiction. This is because the type of imagination involved in the production and consumption of fake news is not the exact same as the type of imagination used in fiction or pretense.[4] That is, fake news is usually produced with the intention to create an “imagined narrative” that makes sense within a specific system of beliefs (Currie and Jureidini, 2004). This imagining may over time mutate into actual believing, but because it starts as an imagined narrative for those who endorse it, this narrative is not subject to the same constraints and scrutiny beliefs are subject to.

The attitudes we have toward some religious doctrines and ideas may offer an example of what imagined narratives do. For some believers, the mysteries of faith (walking on water, immaculate conception, etc.) may serve the function of creating a narrative that squares with their deep-seated religious belief that Jesus was in fact the son of God. And yet I suspect that many ordinary Christian believers do not take this narrative to be literally true.[5]

And for some, the content of fake news may have a similar function by fitting into a ‘narrative’ that makes sense – or at least is meant to do so – of some of the emotions and beliefs they already have and do not want to give up. If so then the ‘Pizzagate’ fake news saga was produced as part of a narrative about Clinton’s character and dispositions: even those who did not believe it may have seen it as somehow in line with their beliefs that she is not to be trusted. Indeed, they may agree that Pizzagate is probably false, while believing this ‘story’ is actually revealing of her true character.

To make things worse, there is now substantial evidence that imagination subliminally influences our beliefs through undetected cognitive contagion (Gendler, 2006; Brodie et al., 2001). As a result, even if at the beginning fake news simply promotes imagining in some people, it may end up becoming an integral part of their cognitive systems strengthening already held beliefs and creating new ones that follow from those (Levy, 2017). That means that by appealing to imagination, fake news in fact promotes and sediments people’s epistemically distorted views of the world.

[1] This is not to say that fake news is never initially believed or interpreted as an assertion. Sadly, some people take fake news literally and not only believe it but act on it as well (as recent events in, for instance, Myanmar and the US show).

[2] Stanley (2018) points out that conspiracy theories are aimed at a specific audience and that they are linked to imagination. Also, Ichino (MS) argues that conspiracy theories are confabulations and express non-doxastic attitudes. 

[3] Speech acts theorists usually point out that a speech act’s ‘perlocutionary’ intention needs to be ‘overt’. This happens also with fake news where the perlocutionary intention to produce an imagination-like effect in the audience is fairly explicit.

[4] Currie (1990: 35) describes works of fiction or fictive utterances as produced with the intention to make the audience make-believe or imagine something.

[5] Also see Van Leeuwen (2014) for why some religious credences are not beliefs.


Brodie, M., et al. (2001). Communicating health information through the entertainment media. Health Affairs, 20:192-9

Currie, G. (1990). The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Currie G. and J. Jureidini (2004). Narrative and Coherence. Mind and Language, 19:409–427

Gendler, T. S. (2006). Imaginative Contagion. Metaphilosophy, 37: 1-21

Grice, P. (1957). Meaning. The Philosophical Review, 66: 377-88

Ichino, A. (MS). Superstitious Confabulations.

Levy, N. (2017). The Bad News About Fake News. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6: 20-36.

O’Brien, L. (2005). Imagination and the Motivational View of Belief. Analysis, 65: 55– 62.

Searle, J. (1969). Speech acts. Cambridge University Press.

Stanley, J. (2018) How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Penguin Random House

Van Leuween, N. (2009). The motivational role of belief. Philosophical Papers, 38: 219–246

---- (2014). Religious Credence is not Factual Belief. Cognition, 133: 698-715.