an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 18, Fall 2021, ISSN 1552-5112
Inoculation, Climate Change and a Post-Factual, Hyperreal World?
Building upon the postmodern concepts of Jean Baudrillard and the branch of psychology and communication theory commonly referred to as “inoculation theory,” this essay explores the deadliest type of fake news in the post-truth era in the form of anthropogenic climate change. As a maverick philosopher who “prefigured a day when all information might become destabilized” in the digital age in which millions of people reside within the confines of a purely symbolic realm that is “beyond truth and falsehood,” Baudrillard’s bold rethinking of semiotics offers a rich lens for examining the baffling phenomenon of global warming skepticism (Coulter 6; 26). Specifically, the Baudrillardian notions of hyperreality and integral reality shed light on how we have arrived at this critical juncture in global society “where lies, false equivalences, and pseudoscience trump observable reality” in anti-science, anti-intellectual echo chambers or filter bubbles (Alterman 10). The advent of the post-factual world ushered in by late capitalism explains why conservative politicians and pundits have been able to “delegitimize the very idea of anthropogenic climate change” (Prasad 1222) through a steady stream of “alternative facts” despite “a strong consensus […] amongst climate scientists that the Earth is warming” (Williams and Bond 1). The Baudrillardian “epidemic” of simulation, or what theorists in several fields have labelled an infodemic, is responsible for sowing these seeds of doubt through calculated disinformation campaigns funded by the fossil fuel industry that has become the largest purveyor of fake news from an ecological standpoint (Baudrillard, Seduction 69).
Although Baudrillard’s concept of integral reality unequivocally implies that resistance is futile in a symbolic universe in which commonplace reality has been effaced entirely by banal, consumerist simulacra, the final section of this postmodern reflection counterpoints this radical claim by proposing counter-hegemonic techniques for undermining the hostile takeover of the real. It is difficult to refute Baudrillard’s position that “the matrix of information and communication” through which the majority of our quotidian experiences are now filtered has diminished our ability to discern between reality and its ubiquitous representation on a plethora of divergent screens. Even if a large segment of the global population has undoubtedly lost the capacity to “know what is real anymore” owing to the deluge of misinformation in which they are submerged in anti-science echo chambers that perpetuate climate change denial in the face of scientific certainty (Penaloza and Price 127), evidence compiled by scholars who study “attitudinal inoculation” and “misconception-based learning” proves that the “perfect crime” (i.e. the utter implosion of reality) to which Baudrillard alludes has yet to occur. The digital “toxins,” or the “widely distributed pieces of misinformation” that have created a polarized atmosphere in which the subject of climate change is politically controversial are certainly pervasive (Logan et al. 2; 2), but they have yet to substitute themselves for “evidenced-based knowledge resources” completely (Walker 135). Due to the severity of the impending environmental crisis that threatens the existence of all abundant life on this biosphere, “[w]hat non-scientists believe about science is literally a matter of life and death” (Williamson). If we are to stem the tide of the ecological calamity that is upon us, the key to our survival may be to fight against “the murder of reality” that is preventing us from taking action in defense of an imperiled planet (Smith 79).
II. The Transition from Hyperreality to Integral Reality and the Inception of a Post-Truth Society in Baudrillard’s Philosophy
This disquieting and potentially ecocidal lack of “trust in science” (Hopf et al. 1) inextricably linked to an ocean of simulacra in which the postmodern subject is engulfed at nearly every waking moment is a microcosmic reflection of the “state of hyperreality, where little distinguishes the real and the imaginary” (Wright 171, italics in original). Baudrillard posits that the “gigantic apparatus of simulation” which concretizes so many facets of postmodern life has resulted in a “crisis of representation” of epic proportions (The Intelligence of Evil 27; Forget Foucault 73). The philosopher highlights how millions of people across the globe “have mistaken the image for the real thing,” because of the self-referential semiotic networks in which they are encapsulated (Root 237). Decades before other French philosophers with the notable exception of Michel Serres would start to investigate the fundamental shift in the capitalist paradigm from a society revolving around the production of material goods and services to an economy driven by the incessant reproduction of images laden with symbolic value, Baudrillard began to reflect upon the repercussions of screen-based (hyper-) reality with the publication of his first essay The System of Objects in 1968. The unconventional, post-Marxist thinker would continue to hone his theory of hyperreality until his death in 2007. Baudrillard’s central thesis that “the image is no longer a pathway to real things, but has become a world unto itself” helps us to understand the initially befuddling anti-science discourse that reverberates throughout climate change denial filter bubbles (Root 240). The fact that “around 20% of the U.S. public” think that “climate change is a scientific hoax” in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary lends credence to Baudrillard’s conclusion that signs grounded in hyperreality take on a life of their own in a parallel universe of simulation (Cook 6; 6).
In the so-called “second genealogy” (Rubenstein 12), Baudrillard maintains that “we are entering a final phase of this enterprise of simulation” that he terms integral reality in works such as The Perfect Crime, The Transparency of Evil, and The Intelligence of Evil (The Intelligence of Evil 34). According to Baudrillard, we now live in the “golden age of simulation” (The Intelligence of Evil 69) in which all signifiers “have lost their referents entirely” (Penaloza and Price 127). After nihilistically proclaiming that “the (hyperreal) substitution of the world is total,” Baudrillard ironically longs for the “happy days, when the simulacrum was still what it was, a game on the fringes of the real and its disappearance” before concluding that “[t]his heroic phase is now over” (The Intelligence of Evil 27, my insertion; 69; 69). Baudrillard steadfastly argues that there is no cure for the “acute crisis of simulation” that has culminated in the inception of integral reality in which objective reality has disappeared buried deep under an avalanche of meaningless simulacra (Baudrillard, Seduction 48). The strong version of Baudrillard’s notion of integral reality does not even provide a faint glimmer of hope related to “the inevitable fate of all those who mistake the image for reality” (Leak 130). Whether we like it or not, Baudrillard affirms that “the murder of the real” and the “death of (all) meaning” are interrelated problems that cannot be solved (The Perfect Crime 25; Seduction 81). Based on research findings from several different fields, the final section of this essay will deconstruct Baudrillard’s prognosis that we are condemned to dwell in a post-factual world uniquely comprised of a “web of stray signs” (Baudrillard, Seduction 74).
III. The Hegemonic Force of Proliferation in the Post-Truth Era
Baudrillard may occasionally overstate his main point, but his key concept of proliferation explains how “alternative facts” that sometimes border on the absurd have generated their “own horizon of meaning” (Vincenti 196, italics in original). As Alan Logan et al. reveal, “the term post-truth era emphasizes the sheer scale and rapidity with which falsehoods and dark conspiracies can and do travel within our modern, interconnected world” (8). Baudillard hypothesizes through his theory of proliferation that there is “no exit” from the screen-based images that the postmodern subject passively devours on her-his computer, smartphone, or tablet (Kellner 128, italics in original). Baudrillard’s notion of proliferation implies that when simulacra are everywhere, any frame of reference to an outside reality vanishes. For Baudrillard, “profusion is the most striking characteristic” that renders the destruction of reality through omnipresent signs possible (La Société de consommation 19). With the birth of the digital revolution, Baudrillard describes the phenomenon of profusion as “a carnival or mirrors reflecting images projected from other mirrors” (Kellner 128). For those who seek refuge from the unending onslaught of seductive simulacra, Baudrillard declares that it is too late.
Offering an operational definition of his theory of proliferation connected to what he refers to as integral reality, Baudrillard muses, “by giving you a little too much one takes away everything […] the more immersed one becomes in the accumulation of signs, and the more enclosed one becomes in the endless over-signification of a real that no longer exists” (Seduction 30-33, italics in original). Owing to the “vast and extensive media networks and techno-sciences in which our lives are immersed,” Baudrillard avers that we have lost our already tenuous grasp on reality entirely (Coulter 4). When we are constantly saturated with a flood of empty images, “the system cracks up from excess” leading to the “collapse of the information systems” that we are witnessing firsthand in the post-factual world (Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil 192; 193). It is through the hegemonic force of proliferation that “virtual reality substitutes itself for the real world” (Barron 391). Baudrillard maintains that the post-truth era is concretized by “the invention of an increasingly artificial reality such that there is no longer anything standing over against it or any ideal alternative to it, no longer any mirror or negative” (The Intelligence of Evil 34). In the context of climate change denial fueled by post-truth metanarratives, Ajnesh Prasad probes the dangers of living in a world in which “all representations of knowledge are equally valid and equally valuable” (1217). We have reached an alarming point in which millions of people can no longer discriminate between truth claims that are grounded in evidence and sound logic and “alternative facts” inspired by ludicrous, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories because of proliferation.
IV. The “Illusory Truth” Effect Disseminated through Climate Change Denial Echo Chambers or Filter Bubbles
The “illusory truth effect” empirically examined by researchers from multiple disciplines supports Baudrillard’s theory of proliferation. Scholars have discovered that “repeated information is often perceived as more truthful than new information” for a large percentage of the global population (Hassan and Barber 1). Moreover, mounting evidence suggests that “repeated statements are easier to process” for many individuals as well (Fazio et al. 993). It is perhaps in this sense in which Trump’s “post-literate,” redundant rhetorical speech should be understood (Moyd and Komska). Although it has been speculated that the extreme repetition that is emblematic of Trump’s conversational style is a reflection of a limited lexicon, it is also possible that the former president is keenly aware of the power of the illusory truth effect. In this regard, Trump’s incessant repetition of the same words that some people find to be mind-numbing may be strategic. As Seong Hong observes, “U.S. President Trump recently highlighted fake news on global warming when he revealed skepticism toward global warming by repeatedly tweeting that humans are not the primary cause of global warming. He has tweeted more than 120 times on global warming since 2005” (2). Instead of possessing a weak vocabulary, Trump may understand that “repeated exposure to fake news causes it to be judged as more accurate and repeating information increases its continued influence” (Drummond et al. 3). Armed with the knowledge that people can be skillfully manipulated through redundant tweets and retweets originating from ostensibly fake news sources, it is plausible or at least possible that Trump et al. intentionally reinforced patently false and misleading post-truth metanarratives about controversial topics, such as climate change and subject matter for political gain. Regardless, the illusory truth effect explains why a recent report uncovered that “more than half of American adults are unaware that a consensus (about climate change) exists, with 28% believing a great deal of uncertainty remains” (“Fake News Threatens a Climate Literate World,” my insertion). “The structural and social features of social media have facilitated the development of echo chambers” (Cook 9) that “destroy truth altogether” through proliferation and the illusory truth effect (Gabler qtd. in Lopez and Share 2). “Outlets […] known for peddling in conspiracy theories and disinformation” related to global warming recognize that repeating dubious truth claims ad nauseam that have been thoroughly debunked by the scientific community will increase their perceived veracity (Lutzke et al. 2).
Given that “users online tend to acquire information adhering to their worldviews” from certain sources (Cinelli et al. 1) where they “are mostly exposed to viewpoints they already agree with” (Cook 9), the problem of confirmation bias is one of the psychological and structural issues undergirding the evolution of anti-science, climate change denial filter bubbles. For those who have already convinced themselves that global warming is a hoax, “information silos” (Pulliam 35) abound where they can validate their unfounded, post-truth conviction that “climate science is illegitimate” (Cook 9). Online echo chambers are the latest and the most perilous form of obscurantism where millions of web surfers only take into consideration “news stories that are in line with preexisting narratives” (Grüner and Krüger 1). When internet subscribers only “search for information that supports their beliefs and ignore or distort data contradicting them,” they will essentially believe any conspiracy theory no matter how outlandish it is from an objective perspective (Peters 1). A case in point is the purported “QAnon conspiracy about pedophilic Satan worshipers in politics and the media” to which many conservatives in the United States adhere staunchly (Witze 23). From an ecological angle, the issue of confirmation bias is revealing in the context of anthropogenic climate change. Whereas evidence in support of the theory of global warming has been nearly irrefutable for decades, climate change denial propaganda continues to proliferate itself throughout cyberspace in the post-truth age.
The dilemma of confirmation bias, which has fostered a “herd mentality” (Logan et al. 5) within anti-science, global warming denial filter bubbles, is linked to the disconcerting phenomenon referred to by several theorists as the “death of expertise.” In his influential book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters that has resonated throughout academia, Tom Nichols “lays out the case for why we are turning away from the experts and professionals in our lives” (Pulliam 35). As opposed to trusting the opinions of actual experts who have dedicated much of their lives to exploring climate science, Nichol’s concept demonstrates why “fake experts and spokespeople conveying the impression of expertise on a topic while possessing little to no relevant expertise” have been able to polarize public opinion about the ecological crisis (Cook 5, italics in original). Due to the nefarious effects of proliferation and the problem of confirmation bias, millions of television viewers or internet surfers readily accept “so-called insights or recommendations about a subject from people who lack the qualifications for offering them” on various outlets that incessantly disseminate anti-science, anti-knowledge viewpoints (Lutzke et al. 5). The notion of the death of expertise reveals why “people no longer respect the opinions of experts” in a post-factual world comprised of floating signifiers that stand in for reality if they are repeated or retweeted enough in cyberspace (Yoo 4). For conservative talk show hosts who often express their skepticism about climate change, “[t]he purpose of the fake expert strategy is to cast doubt on the high level of expert agreement on human-caused global warming” (Cook 5). Unfortunately, this hegemonic technique for altering the perception of reality, or creating an alternative version of it through the force of proliferation, is so pervasive that it has eroded public confidence in how knowledge is objectively and methodically constructed in scientific circles. Instead of relying on true specialists who possess a veritable wealth of erudition, millions of individuals place their faith in political commentators or fake news sources to which they turn for answers that are “consistent with their […] ideologies” (Drummond et al. 3). Furthermore, Nichols notes how “the advent of the Internet has made it easier than ever for every person with access to become their own ‘expert’ in all things” (Pulliam 35). The widespread mentality that Google can solve all of life’s mysteries with a simple mouse click has greatly contributed to the death of expertise and climate change skepticism. From the standpoint of confirmation bias and the illusory truth effect, the issue is that many people lean heavily on purveyors of fake news and conspiracy theories when they are scrolling through (dis-) information on their screen. In the Baudrillardian sense, a ubiquitous code that finds its “origins outside of concrete reality” has supplanted the real in the simulacral imagination of a considerable segment of the population (Jordan and Haladyn 253).
V. The Main Forms of Climate Change Denial and the Nefarious Effects of Mimesis
John Cook and Jean-Daniel Collomb identify the most common forms of climate change denial that manifest themselves in hyperreal echo chambers where millions of people are sheltered from reality through the power of simulation. Based on the results of empirical studies, Cook outlines “three main categories of misinformation: trend (global warming isn’t happening), attribution (humans aren’t causing global warming), and impact (climate impacts aren’t serious)” (Cook 4). In addition to these misleading, post-truth arguments that echo throughout a self-referential network of signs supporting anti-science perspectives, Collomb observes that “climate change denial stems from the strong ideological commitment of small-government conservatives and libertarians to laissez-faire and their strong opposition to regulation […] US climate deniers often rest their case on the defence of the American way of life, defined by high consumption and ever-expanding material prosperity” (21). The “debate” is settled regarding climate change, but the deliberate transmission of a deluge of anti-science signs pinpointed by Cook and Collomb represents an effective “strategy of ‘manufacturing uncertainty’ (that) has been used with great success by polluters […] to oppose public health and environmental regulation” (Michaels 149, my insertion). Given that there is an “ever-growing consensus within the scientific community that we have entered into a sixth mass extinction” connected to human activities, time is of the essence (Wagler 78). It is the “misperception that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists over whether global warming is happening” that is standing in the way of conceiving and implementing a more sustainable roadmap for the future (Ceccarelli 206). The current infodemic or information dystopia that Baudrillard calls “the murder of the real” could soon lead to the demise of all sentient and non-sentient organisms on this planet. While “the ocean’s temperatures are rising” and “the level of biodiversity is being reduced,” millions of people dwell in a symbolic universe where these established scientific facts have been eclipsed by hyperreal simulacra (Prasad 1223; 1223).
Alan Logan et al. note that the dominant post-truth metanarratives used to defend global warming skepticism derive much of their strength from our unfortunate biological predilection to imitate the behavior and attitudes of others that René Girard terms mimesis. As Logan et al. assert, “It can be argued that many of the Anthropocene’s grand challenges are linked to the human tendency to unconsciously copy and mimic the behavior of others; from an evolutionary perspective this has been an adaptive strategy, and yet imitation in unhealthy behavior and consumption in the modern era has been detrimental at scales of person, place and planet” (15). Girard illustrates in seminal essays such as Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat “the pervasive and primordial role of imitation in human life” (Garrels 47). According to Girard, “the pressure to conform is so powerful that it defies any form of rationality” (Sfetcu 54). Girard’s theories about mimetic desire, which underscore our evolutionary penchant to imitate without reflection for the sake of belonging to a certain social group connected to the process of identity formation, elucidate why climate change deniers embrace fake experts and attack renowned scientists. Although it may seem and is indeed illogical to undermine the reality of global warming, “Human beings are the sorts of beings that are bound to imitate one another” (Romero 2). Girard’s concept of mimesis helps us to understand why so many people jump on the proverbial bandwagon in defense of far-fetched conspiracy theories like Trump’s declaration that “climate change was a hoax that China had devised to secure an unfair trade advantage” that should be dismissed automatically (Wong).
Heavily influenced by the work of Girard with whom he taught for many years at Stanford University, Michel Serres decries the illusory truth effect to which Baudrillard alludes in his reflections about the perils of hyperreality. Pondering whether we will soon find ourselves on the brink of the inception of a post-truth society, Serres declares, “From mimicking flows our desires […] We imitate, we reproduce, we repeat […] The major danger facing our children, here it is: we immerse them in a universe of replicated codes, we crush them with redundancy” (193). Baudrillard insists that the postmodern condition is even more dire because of “new forms of virtual mimesis” that bear little (if any) connection to reality (Lawtoo 89). To be more precise, Baudrillard theorizes that late capitalism takes advantage of “forms of mimesis and mimetic rivalry typical of primates” including Homo sapiens in order to ensure that the monetary wheels never stop spinning (Grace 12). In an economic landscape in which “all of the basic needs of the masses have been satisfied,” the capitalist paradigm had to evolve if it was to survive (Messier 25).
Baudrillard posits that marketers began to promote unbridled consumption of goods whose symbolic importance far transcends their practical use value by instigating mimetic rivalries compelling “consumer citizens” to “keep up with the Joneses.” Specifically, Baudrillard points out that the economic system creates artificial models including allegedly subversive subcultures to which consumer citizens are expected to conform by purchasing a wide array of clothing items and accessories corresponding to these hyperreal images generated on a digital screen. Highlighting that these supposed expressions of individuality are void of any real significance, Baudrillard affirms, “so personalization consists in a daily realignment to the smallest marginal difference (SMD)” (The Consumer Society 90-91). The philosopher reiterates,
Differences of the ‘personalizing’ type no longer set individuals one against another; these differences are all arrayed hierarchically on an indefinite scale and converge in models […] As a result, to differentiate oneself is precisely to affiliate to a model, to label oneself by reference to an abstract model, to a combinatorial pattern of fashion, and therefore to relinquish any real difference, any singularity, since these can only arise in concrete, conflictual relations with others and the world (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society 88).
Baudrillard’s theories regarding how the simulators of hyperreality have harnessed the force of mimesis like never before explain why climate change deniers imitate the behavior of others in online echo chambers without a passing thought. Global warming skepticism is fueled by this genetic trait that appears to be hardwired into the DNA of all primates from an evolutionary angle. No matter how preposterous that anti-science discourse may be in cyberspace, it is effective because we are mimetic organisms whose constitution of a stable sense of Self is linked to reactive, unreflective imitation.
VI. The Semiotic Pollution or Disinformation Campaigns of “Big Carbon”
Baudrillard’s explanation about how capitalism had to transform itself given that the limits of production had been reached offers insights into the intentional disinformation campaigns that lie at the heart of climate change denial. In a global financial system dominated by multinational titans that possess nearly all of the capital, “[i]t is important to consider who would benefit from a post-truth era in which science and facts are free for any interpretation” (Lopez and Share 2). Antonio Lopez and Jeff Share provide the following answer to this question: “In their role as watchdog and Fourth Estate, the mainstream and corporate media was manipulated by Big Carbon, whose strategy (honed by the tobacco and chemical industries), was to create doubt about climate science, and hence delay action” (4). Directing blame toward the fossil fuel industry, Jean-Daniel Collomb concurs with the assessment that “the climate change denial movement is part and parcel of this larger corporate effort to hinder regulations” (3). Official documents have surfaced that unequivocally prove that “Exxon was aware of climate change, as early as 1977, 11 years before it became a public issue, according to a recent investigation” (Hall). Additionally, John Cook reveals, “80% of ExxonMobil’s internal documents from 1977 to 1995 acknowledge that climate change was real and human-caused” (3). Worried about protecting their unheralded profits as opposed to transitioning to a green economy, fossil fuel executives would soon change strategies entirely. The petroleum industry would cynically assume the risk that 97% of the world’s eminent scientists were wrong about global warming, thereby becoming the primary source of anti-science rhetoric and disinformation in both traditional and online media. Big Carbon would abandon evidence altogether in an effort to “greenwash reality and deny the science about anthropomorphic climate change” (Lopez and Share 9).
Since regulations related to lobbying are virtually non-existent in the United States, it was easy for the petroleum industry to bribe politicians and other public officials and to sway public opinion with their “campaign contributions.” As Sandra Laville uncovers, “The largest five stock market listed oil and gas companies spend nearly $200m […] a year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change.” From an environmental, political, and philosophical standpoint, the consequences of this semiotic pollution and corruption have been catastrophic. It is only because of the calculated efforts of Big Carbon to misinform the masses that any controversy about global warming exists at all. The fossil fuel industry is the main culprit in the transmission of hyperreal signs designed to manufacture uncertainty about a subject for which there has been a consensus for a long time within the scientific community. In his article entitled “Simulacra in the Age of Social Media: Baudrillard as the Prophet of Fake News,” James Morris observes, “The controversy over climate change denial is a case in point. Even when 97 percent of scientists believe that climate change is a real phenomenon, many still refute its human causation […] because believing in climate change would force them to force them to fundamentally alter their way of life, and those companies that rely on this way of life for their income encourage this situation, such as those in the fossil fuel business” (324). It is more convenient and lucrative for oil and gas companies to fabricate their own “alternative facts” than to accept reality. Their dissemination and funding of hyperreal simulacra intended to plant seeds of doubt about global warming is like playing Russian roulette and loading all six chambers.
The investigative journalist Chris McGreal reveals that the petroleum industry decided to alter its approach with the dawn of the digital age. Recognizing that “the simulated highway of internet” is the fastest way to proliferate “counter-evidence” grounded in hyperreality (Nunes 316), “research shows the fossil-fuel industry has moved away from outright denying the climate crisis, and is now using social media to promote oil and gas as part of the solution” (McGreal). Perhaps, the most salient example of this new strategy is the ridiculous notion of “clean coal.” Although “contradictory evidence for domestic resource depletion, poor regional air quality, and global climate change” linked to coal mining is nearly impossible to discredit, big carbon has spent millions of dollars funding conspiracy theories and fake news promoting the idea of clean coal throughout various media outlets in the United States and around the world (Kuchler and Bridge 136). Moreover, students in some regions of the U.S. have been indoctrinated by a book entitled “‘Natural Gas: Your Invisible Friend” that depicts natural gas “as an ideal, clean way to cook food, power vehicles, and heat and cool buildings” (Kempe). These corporate-funded pamphlets fail to mention that “burning natural gas emits greenhouse gases and contributes to climate change” (Kempe). It is in this same sense in which recent debates about fracking should be understood. Regardless of the dirty energy source in question that only serves to exacerbate the ecological crisis, fossil fuel companies realize that many routes along the information superhighway are sold to the highest bidder. After decades of trying to bury the findings of climate scientists, big carbon has once again started to admit that climate change is real. However, their “alternative facts” present the petroleum industry as the solution instead of the problem.
VII. The Problem of Media Consolidation and The Rise of the Corporate Establishment Media
The hyperreal fallacy of eco-friendly fossil fuel technology is part of the larger issue of media consolidation and the rise of the corporate establishment media. When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relaxed their ownership rules, a handful of transnational corporations would begin to take over the mainstream media apparatus. The six multinational entities (General Electric, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, CBS) that now control approximately ninety percent of the news channels that Americans watch have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo from which they have derived unparalleled profits (Lutz). The former host of the Daily Show Jon Stewart would often satirize American news outlets across the country for literally repeating the same lines verbatim from a carefully prepared script. This fundamental shift in the media landscape has significantly eroded the quality of coverage resulting in journalists on national and local networks being presented “[w]ith a script, a screenplay, that has to be followed unswervingly” (Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil 125). For Baudrillard, this extreme redundancy connected to the illusory truth effect is “merely the visible allegory of the cinematic form that has taken over everything-social and political life, the landscape, war, etc.” (The Intelligence of Evil 125). Baudrillard argues that those at the top of the social ladder have taken advantage of simulated reality to brainwash the masses and to conceal unprecedented economic disparities in the neoliberal age. The six aforementioned corporations that possess a stranglehold over the means of transmitting (dis-) information to the public cannot possibly play the role of a benevolent fourth estate or a watchdog because they have to answer to their shareholders and board of directors driven by the profit motive. From an ecological standpoint, research about global warming that conflicts with their purely economic interests must be minimized or challenged. The so-called “life-blood of American democracy” has been corrupted by the integrated political and social elite through semiotic pollution (Wellstone 552).
The corporate hijacking of the U.S. media also “set into motion an increasing polarization of news” (West and Bergstrom 4). In particular, it enabled “the conservative movement and especially its think tanks (to) play a critical role in denying the reality and significance of global warming […] by manufacturing uncertainty over climate science” (Dunlap and Jacques 699, my insertion). In the United States and Australia, Rupert “Murdoch gets away with pretty much everything,” despite the “intellectual corruption at the heart of the Murdoch empire” (Alterman 11; 11). The news organizations “owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch in Australia and the United States […] give disproportionate oxygen to deniers” (Robie 22). The manner in which anthropogenic climate change is framed on Fox News and News Corp is so egregiously distorted that “James Murdoch and his wife, Kathryn, issued a rare joint statement directly criticising his father’s business for their ‘ongoing denial’ on the issue” (Waterson). Armed with billions of dollars and a sophisticated means of shaping public opinion, venture capitalists like Murdoch have succeeded in creating “doubt where it is unmerited” by validating the previously mentioned corporate propaganda (West and Bergstrom 4).
In addition to its misguided decision that facilitated the corporate takeover of the mainstream media, the FCC’s fairness doctrine originally enacted in 1949 would be weaponized and misused by corporate titans to whitewash reality for “their own ideological objectives” (Prasad 1218). The concept of “balanced” coverage representing all sides of a debate may sound good in theory, but it is “critical to discern what constitutes neutrality” (Jones et al. 65). The problem with balanced reporting, as it is commonly misunderstood, is that this principle implores journalists to give equal weight to opposing viewpoints even when all of the evidence is squarely on one side. The “conventional journalistic practice of being ‘fair and balanced’ by allowing different sides of the climate discussion equal time” has created the misperception that scientists are divided about the reality and gravity of the ecological crisis (Lopez and Share 4). Within anti-science echo chambers, “the prevailing norm of balanced reporting has resulted in uncertainty among members of the public about the factuality of anthropogenic climate change” (Prasad 1225). Conservative networks that traffic in climate change denial like Fox News while pretending to be “fair and balanced” are indicative of the “alt-right fervor of fake news and alternative facts (that) has brought into focus the so-called post-truth era” (Kirkpatrick 312, my insertion). The idea of balanced reporting is an appealing concept, but it has been misappropriated by the simulators of hyperreality as a hegemonic tool for fabricating a post-factual filter bubble that has rendered “any and all truth claims” to be equally valid (Prasad 1228). This journalistic standard has obfuscated the reality that there may be two sides to every story, yet only one of them may be legitimate based on evidence.
Another unintended consequence of turning over the reins of the media to transnational conglomerates is that having solid ratings is paramount for all journalists. Competitive ratings generate a solid revenue stream for corporate media outlets. The issue is that many individuals have a stronger desire to be entertained than to be informed about the actual state of affairs. Citing Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Alan Logan et al. note that this “increasing need to be amused in all critical aspects of social discourse, political, academic and otherwise” has led to an “emerging apathy for truth” (6; 6). It is no surprise that the multinational giants who own the media would readily give in to this demand, since they are incessantly exploring ways to increase their profit margins, even at the expense of the truth. For this reason, the entertainment value of television anchors and talk show hosts is much more important than the veracity of the truth claims that they make on air. Compared to sensational stories about celebrities that have proven to be lucrative for all major news channels, “climate change is a ‘ratings killer’” that does not line the pockets of corporate CEOs (Lopez and Share 5). Consequently, even when the establishment media acknowledges the severity of the ecological crisis, segments devoted to climate change are often too short and superficial.
VIII. The Advent of Late Capitalism and the Incessant Promotion of Consumerist Metanarratives
As scholars like Ernest Mandel and Fredric James theorize in their analyses of the origins of late capitalism, the new media landscape dominated by six multinational corporations in the U.S. is also complicit in “legitimizing dubious ‘truth’ claims” that serve to promulgate consumerist metanarratives (Berthon et al. 144). The corporations that control the major news outlets, which are a byproduct of the aforementioned dramatic paradigm shift in the capitalist system, could be described as the greatest cheerleaders of neoliberal globalization. Stories about climate change are usually inadequate at best, because most journalists promote materialistic messages that encourage frivolous consumption and waste upon which the financial system depends for survival that are destroying the planet. When the limits of production had been effectively reached in Western civilization, an economic system centered around the idea of continual growth and expansion shifted to a throwaway society in which marketers and journalists would endlessly peddle signs of happiness through consumer goods laden with purely symbolic value to stimulate the economy and allegedly maximize contentment for all citizens. In reference to the crisis of late capitalism that forced the financial model to evolve or disappear, Adele Flood and Anne Bamford underscore, “Needs are created by objects of consumption and exist because the system needs them” (92). Hence, marketers and journalists spin the simplistic, binary logic that an increase in GDP is always positive and vice versa in order to fulfill these manufactured “needs” linked to ecocidal overconsumption.
Baudrillard explains in The Consumer Society that companies are always scrambling “to keep pace with the explosive growth of ‘needs,’” since the system in its current shape would collapse if the wheels were to stop turning momentarily for any reason (2). Baudrillard maintains that our understanding of capitalism “thus needs to be revised in light of a much more general social logic in which waste, far from being an irrational residue, takes on a positive function, taking over where rational utility leaves off to play its part in a higher social functionality-a social logic in which waste even appears ultimately as the essential function” (The Consumer Society 43). This new stage of capitalism announced by Baudrillard representing a post-Marxist perspective sheds light on how “marketers became proponents and propagators of a postmodern world view, one in which reality gives way to hyperreality” (Berthon et al. 144). Baudrillard’s theories also reveal why a key cog in the neoliberal machine (i.e. the establishment media) continues to disseminate the consumerist metanarrative that all growth is positive, even forms of development that are depleting the earth’s limited “resources,” thereby placing the existence of all sentient and non-sentient beings in jeopardy. The transnational entities that own the information superhighway cannot be a watchdog for consumers or the biosphere, for they are part of “a system which is contingent upon the domination of human and natural life” (Hardwick 372). The unsustainable concept of unending growth and “progress” is a type of violence that has been unleashed against the remainder of the cosmos.
The ecolinguist Arran Stibbe identifies this post-factual myth as one of the deadliest stories-we-live by, or “stories in the minds of multiple individuals across a culture” in Ecolinguistics: Language, Ecology and the Stories We Live By (6). Inspired by postmodern insights, ecolinguists deconstruct “discourses such as those of economic growth, consumerism and neoliberalism that are at the core of an unsustainable society” (Alexander and Stibbe 107). Although the reductionistic neoliberal view of growth is more like an overt declaration of war against the hand that feeds to paraphrase Michel Serres, “in Western society, the words ‘growth’ and ‘progress’ have inherently positive connotations” (Alexander and Stibbe 108). Refusing to acknowledge the scientific consensus that our “endless pursuit of economic growth is destroying the planet” and our “obsession with GDP is driving the climate crisis,” most mainstream journalists repeat from the same script that is uniquely focused on the monetary measure of Gross Domestic Product (Steward). Degrowth viewpoints that are more ecologically sound are entirely absent from the conversation, since they are at odds with the corporate agenda of the establishment media.
Luis Pradanos notes that the viability of the financial paradigm itself is rarely called into question in our corporate-driven news world. As Pradanos outlines, “We are immersed in a socially and environmentally unsustainable globalizing system that promotes a teleological conception of progress based on relentless competition, capital accumulation, over-consumption, energy depletion, and debt-driven economic growth. Neoliberal globalization generates and exacerbates the present ecological crisis” (153). The visible scars of the neoliberal “world war” in the Serresian sense are all around us, yet the faulty logic of unchecked growth is still being transmitted to the masses. There is virtually no dialogue about the concept of “‘degrowth’ as a powerful discursive tool to facilitate the emergence of new social imaginaries and creating new socio-economic models that will provide beneficial ecological consequences for living in the Anthropocene” on corporate news outlets (Reichel and Perey 242). In the face of evidence suggesting that neoliberalism and rampant consumerism are the problem, journalists on corporate networks laud the virtues of consumption and celebrate increases in GDP that are wreaking havoc on the planet.
IX. Counter-Hegemonic Techniques for Resisting the “Murder of Reality”
Owing to the effects of corporate media saturation and the ubiquity of consumerist metanarratives, Baudrillard nihilistically proclaims that resistance is pointless with the emergence of integral reality. According to Baudrillard, the hyperreal realm in which the postmodern subject now resides is so “extreme in the absence of critical distance it grants us” (The Intelligence of Evil 8) that “any form of resistance is readily incorporated and assimilated back into the code” (Norris). Depicting a tragic “world from which all reference has disappeared” (Coulter 3), the philosopher avers, “We should entertain no illusions about the effectiveness of any kind of rational intervention” (Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil 119-120). Given that concrete action is urgently required in the Anthropocene, “[t]he greatest difficulty with Baudrillard’s analysis is that he does not propose a way out of the condition of hyperreality” (Mannathukkaren 428). For a frustrated climate scientist or an environmental activist, Baudrillard’s radical semiurgy initially appears to lead to a dangerous impasse. If “the murder of reality is a crime that alas cannot be solved […] precisely because all ‘critical distance’ […] has vanished into the play of signs,” there seems to be no hope for avoiding the apocalyptic doomsday scenarios outlined by the scientific community (Smith 79).
Nevertheless, if we reject the strict version of integral reality, Baudrillard’s framework for deconstructing banal, commercial simulacra represents a point of departure for conceiving counter-hegemonic techniques connected to the erosion of reality in anti-science echo chambers. The budding field of inoculation theory in psychology demonstrates that people of all ages, especially young students, can be taught to identify and dismiss the “alternative facts” that Baudrillard denounces. As John Cook et al. summarize, “one approach showing a great deal of potential in countering misinformation comes from inoculation theory: a branch of psychological research that adopts the vaccination metaphor-just as biological vaccination neutralizes viruses by exposing people to a weak form of the virus, misinformation can be neutralized by exposing people to a weak form of misinformation” (7). Furthermore, Cook et al. pinpoint several empirical studies which support the theory that individuals can be taught to recognize fake news stories about climate change through attitudinal inoculation. These findings were replicated by Matt Williams and Christina Bond who “found that providing information about the scientific consensus on climate change increased perceptions of scientific consensus, as did an inoculation provided prior to provision of misinformation” (1). Instead of succumbing to despair or apathy, “this growing body of research” implies that “scientists (should) communicate the consensus in order to close the consensus gap” (Cook et al. 5; 5, my insertion). Without painting too rosy a picture of the serious infodemic, these studies undermine the extreme view of integral reality by offering proof that a rather large segment of the population can be at least partially vaccinated against fake news and anti-science rhetoric.
Media literacy training in elementary schools also demystifies Baudrillard’s pessimistic position that “there is no critical distance from which to oppose” the takeover of the real in online filter bubbles (Nechvatal). Similar to the field work conducted by psychologists, educational theorists have discovered that pre-exposure to misinformation, or what is often referred to as “prebunking,” can “trigger a cognitive process that generates counterarguments to disinformation like a form of ‘cognitive antibodies’” (“Fact or Fake” 10). Baudrillard was correct to have sounded the alarm, but the perfect crime has not yet been actualized since “prebunking still has value” (Witze 4). Although it may seem like an uphill battle against the sea of simulacra that have hollowed out our ability to distinguish between reality and its representation, research from the classroom proves that “echo chambers may be disrupted through critical media literacy training” (Melki et al. 2). Based on the core principle of prebunking, many public-school science teachers have started to create misconception-based lessons in which “misconceptions are first activated then immediately countered with accurate information or inoculating refutations” (Cook et al. 8). For educators who employ this approach, their students have “improved argumentative and critical thinking skills” in the digital age (Cook et al. 8). Despite Baudrillard’s stance that it is no longer possible to perform “an act that punches a hole in our artificially protected universe,” the concept of prebunking and the application of misconception-based learning illustrate that our ability to engage in critical reflection has not been effaced entirely by the simulators of hyperreality (The Transparency of Evil 95).
Not only do schools have a pivotal role to play in the fight against fake news, but research also highlights the responsibility of museums to debunk climate change denial. Since many “visitors trust museums to provide objective and accurate information on climate change” (Jones et al. 68), museums are “cultural brokers in collaborative efforts around public understandings of climate change” (Salazar 123). In an attempt to close the consensus gap, or to inform visitors that a consensus has been reached within scientific circles, several museums have discovered that “exhibitions and programs can increase climate literacy and call people to action” (Sutton 618). Even if trust in museums “is conditional” (Jones et al. 68), “the purpose of museums more broadly is ripe for reimagining in the era of climate change” (Sterling and Harrison). As long as they do not fall into the trap of being too didactic or politicizing the climate “debate,” findings from recent studies strengthen the argument that museums can become counter-hegemonic spaces where anti-science discourse is weakened. After visitors have been inoculated against fake news perspectives, they possess the necessary tools for “constructive climate change engagement” (McGhie et al. 183).
Another counter-hegemonic strategy for combating climate change denial is to find new angles that appeal to conservatives. Even though the conservative movement in the United States and abroad is not a monolithic coalition, climate change skepticism is usually associated with the right or alt-right. As opposed to viewing voters on the conservative end of the spectrum as a lost cause, several researchers have urged scientists and other stakeholders to reach out to individuals on the right using slightly different tactics. Specifically, numerous studies indicate that “reframing climate messages using moral values that are valued by conservatives (e.g. purity) has been shown to neutralize ideological influence” (Cook et al. 10). Antonio Lopez and Jeff Share explain that “national and regional coverage can focus on food security (production and safety), health, immigration and sports (i.e. it’s too hot to play baseball in the summer)” instead of the usual framing (6). When climate change has been (re-) contextualized as a matter of national security and protecting the American way of life, the above studies have found that conservatives are more amenable to having discussions about the ecological crisis. Moreover, climate change could also be effectively presented as an economic problem that costs taxpayers billions of dollars every year in an effort to sway fiscally conservative voters. Many governments have already been forced to implement “strategies to minimize the socioeconomic impacts on climate change refugees” who have been displaced by rising sea levels, desertification, soil erosion, and natural disasters that are increasing in intensity and frequency (Yusuf 1).
In conclusion, Baudrillard’s highly original theories shed light on how climate change denial has proliferated itself in cyberspace through the illusory truth effect. When online users are only exposed to viewpoints that confirm their preexisting biases on their digital screens, there is not enough resistance to fake news about climate change or any other issue. For all intents and purposes, millions of people around the world live in their own alternate (hyper-) reality. As Baudrillard meticulously outlines from 1968 to his death in 2007, simulated reality sometimes appears to be on the verge of eclipsing the real entirely. This troubling and potentially ecocidal phenomenon linked to late capitalism, media consolidation, and the creation of the corporate establishment media and its “fairness doctrine” that has served to legitimize all truth claims is the nexus of climate change disinformation. The corporate titans including fossil fuel executives that control the (dis-) information superhighway that has spellbound the masses are undeniably powerful. Nonetheless, compelling evidence suggests that certain counter-hegemonic devices can be utilized to tear a hole in the pervasive fabric of the hyperreal before integral reality sets in completely and the planet that we call home is irreparably annihilated. Unless we are able to inoculate a much larger percentage of the populace against deleterious post-truth metanarratives that question the reality of climate change, our swan song may be on the horizon.
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 18, Fall 2021, ISSN 1552-5112
 This point will be further addressed in a later section of the essay.
 All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.
 As I highlight in my recent book chapter “Simulacral Imagination and the Nexus of Power in a Post-Marxist Universe,” Serres makes a vital distinction between “active” and “passive” mediums that ultimately leads him to different conclusions about the birth of the digital era. For a more comprehensive explanation of how Baudrillard and Serres’s visions regarding the age of information diverge, see this piece published in Imagination and Art: Explorations in Contemporary Theory (2020).
 This point will be briefly revisited in a later section of the essay.
 The expressions “consumer citizen” and “purchaser citizen” have been used by numerous researchers since the 1950’s. For instance, see David Steigerwald’s essay “All Hail the Republic of Choice: Consumer History as Contemporary Thought.”
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