Fake news, now fake knowledge?

Are universities still curators of ‘truth?’, Payal Arora asks herself.

Image by Levien Willemse

 

When we think of the academic peer review system, few of us think of a revolution. What comes to mind is glacial speed, with  a typical publication taking about a year, written and read with painful scrutiny. Claims are made carefully, after paying tribute to the gurus in your field. Citation politics galore. A few papers are read by a handful of people and even fewer garner public attention.

In this climate, when an article provokes speculation from The Spectator, The Washington Post and BBC Africa among others, we pay attention. When Change.org holds a petition for the paper to be retracted and garners 10,708 signatures, we get alarmed. When a third of a prestigious journal’s board resigns in protest, we take notice.

The Third World Quarterly published a ‘viewpoint’ piece by Portland State University professor Bruce Gilley, entitled “The Case for Colonialism.” The paper makes the argument that colonialism was not just beneficial, legitimate, but in some post-colonial countries should even be revived if they desire a civilised society.

I will not waste time going into the absurdity of this argument as many have written powerful pieces against this viewpoint, highlighting blatant historical inaccuracies, falsifications to justify genocide and implicit white supremacy. It is akin to publishing a paper on ‘was Hitler bad?’ or ‘did the holocaust happen.’

What I would like to talk about is this old school debate on retracting versus rebutting an article in this digital age. Academia is deeply buried in 20th century logic. It fails to see that today we are in the age of fake knowledge, much like fake news. When an article is out, it is permanently out there for anyone to read. Clickbait has arrived at the ivory tower. It’s no coincidence that the article’s title was designed to troll the decades of research on the case against colonialism.

If we apply the current debate on “fake news” to “fake knowledge,” it opens doors on who should be curating truth on digital platforms. Should it be Google through their search algorithms or Facebook monitoring our feed? If so, then what is the role of the university in the business of ‘truth?’

The fact is that, however much we desire a shared truth, it is an impossible task. In the classroom, we often start with this assumption, imposing our own biases to what is common knowledge. In doing so, we leave it to the digital oligarchs to curate truth.

Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication

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