The following vignette attempts to illustrate how the culture of fake news seemed to have invaded the sanctity of the therapeutic setting. One may argue that the underlying motivations for this invasion are multi-determined. No single interpretation could embrace what at first glance may be viewed as an acting out or an enactment. The case of E highlights the indestructibility of wishes underlying fake news, coupled with the permeability of the therapeutic frame.
A regular morning at the office during pre-pandemic times. My 10:00 a.m. patient just left the waiting room. I have a brief break before my next appointment, which is with E—a businesswoman who began treatment over a month ago. It crosses my mind that E has remained ambivalent about committing herself to her treatment. During the last session, she expressed skepticism about increasing the frequency as discussed on a previous occasion.
Closer to 11:00 a.m., I pour myself a glass of water, anticipating the impending loud buzzer from the front door. I sit. My cellular phone’s exact clock indicates it is already 11:10. “She is not coming. I knew it,” I mumbled. “Acting out already.” I engaged in an internal debate on how to proceed should she fail to notify me of her reasons for not making it to the session.
As happens with every new patient, a veil of anxiety colors my reflections. Writing a few notes seems to ease the wait. At 11:20 the bell rings. I feel somewhat relieved by her arrival. Shortly after the second buzzer, the door to the waiting room opens. Aware that the session will now be twenty minutes short, I move to invite E into the consulting room. To my surprise, upon opening the door, I am confronted with an unfamiliar face. A perfect stranger is standing next to the magazine rack. Confused and mildly disoriented, I take a few minutes to recover. Who is this woman? Have I mistakenly scheduled a new patient during E’s time? Am I so much the prisoner of negative countertransference to a diﬃcult patient that I’d rather replace her with a less resistant one? At that moment, the ability to discern what’s really going on eludes me.
Yet, despite my unregulated state, I manage to say, “May I help you?”
The proper stranger replies, “Aren’t you Dr. T?
“Yes, that’s me,” I declare.
The stranger standing a few feet from me says, “E called me early this morning and told me that due to a work-related emergency, she won’t be able to make it today. Rather than wasting it, she offered the hour to me. Here I am. I am very curious about therapy and would like to know how it works. A sample would help me decide one way or another.” Explaining that I only see people by appointment, I rush to wishing the stranger good luck while retreating into the safety of my offce.
As could have been predicted, the rest of the day I felt quite uneasy and irritated. E had used me, treated me like an object in her possession, replaced or disposed of me like a tool with limited value. E attempted to control the therapeutic situation by exerting power over me. It triggered something in me, brought me a sense of unreality, as if the brief exchange with the stranger was not a real encounter but rather a fictional one, a scene of a movie longing to be produced.
The following session, E shows up on time. Overtly enraged, she accused me of betraying what she called “the contract.” E brought up her own version of how we were supposed to work. She claimed her hour belongs to her, and “Who are you to take possession of it?” E was convinced that an appointment is to be considered like a theater ticket—if for any reason one can’t make the show, it is always possible to offer a friend the ticket. To E the no-show session was the equivalent to a voucher with no expiration day. She declared knowing that many practitioners she came in contact with approved, even welcomed, the transfer of missing sessions to friends and relatives.
My internal response was a phrase that was becoming popular on the national political stage: more FAKE NEWS.
E’s psychic reality was flooding the field. I felt gaslighted, and it crossed my mind that E and the stranger had plotted the scenario, constructing a homemade conspiracy aimed at perverting the analytic setting and attacking the frame. Fake news provided E with a degree of comfort she couldn’t attain by distorting the frame I so carefully discussed during the initial consultation. For my part, my countertransference resonated with E’s fake news, leading me to conjure conspiracy theories.
In hindsight, I realized that speculating about the patient’s fake news led me to the creation of my own counter fake news—E and her friend having plotted an “insurrection” to demote me from the analytic chair. The virus of lies had contaminated the treatment and the analyst’s function as well. A perverted transference rendered the frame fake, thus sterile.
Has the political zeitgeist of lies and deception at the macro level exerted a ripple effect at the micro level? A splitting of the ego allows for foreclosing aspects of reality. E’s fake frame may be viewed as one that subverts the established one, which is thought to be limiting and restrictive.
The pull toward disseminating fake news finds fertile soil on social media. The ever-growing posting of fake news operates as an industry devoted to the production of lies and misinformation. Fake-news generators assist cybernauts to create their own private, custom-made fake news. At times they are benign pranks aimed at friends and relatives; at times they are at the service of aggression—inciting individuals or groups to violent actions. E’s intentions to make fun of the treatment—was it a prank or the ultimate attempt to defy reality in favor of gratification?
E perverted the frame, resulting in a kind of delusion/distortion. The therapeutic setting existed only as it related to herself. She rendered the landscape of therapy into a self-referential one. Consenting to work under the agreed analytic frame must have been experienced as an imposition of a reality that did not fit in her quest for gratification. In order for E to get what she wanted, she needed to rely on psychic reality rather than on material reality. Creating a fake analytic frame embodied a wish which the persistence of primary process helped to sustain.
Mental functioning is ruled by a dynamic choreography of the two mental principles that govern mental life: the reality principle and the pleasure principle. While the pleasure principle aims at reducing tension to a minimum, the reality principle attempts to regulate and modify the demands of the pleasure principle.
Fake news represents the failure of the reality principle to exert its regulatory function. It runs counter to the commands of external reality. Like wishes, fantasies, and irrational beliefs, fake news is a signifier of conscious or unconscious pulls mobilized to foreclose what is deemed to be unacceptable fact and fabricated evidence. Fake news seems never to go away, and like unconscious wishes, it is indestructible. Under an umbrella of misinformation, secondary process is replaced by the logic of primary process. The logic of primary process is one that wants gratification without delay. Regarding fake news, secondary process fails to provide thinking, reasoning, and postponing of gratification. In this manner, fake news serves as a buffer against narcissistic wounds. It bypasses a potential unbearable confrontation—the confrontation between external reality and internal. Limitations are thus denied, and perceptions became dominated by the comfort (pleasure) derived from the indestructibility of wishes.
Wikipedia defines fake news as “a false or misleading information presented as news. It often has the aim of damaging the reputation of a person or entity…The term doesn’t have a fixed definition and has been applied more broadly to include any type of false information, including unintentional and unconscious mechanisms…” Fake news is also defined as information pollution.
The quest for power is often at the root of fake news, as if holding on to power relies on the fabrication of a suitable narrative based on lies. To purge that which does not fit into a given narrative favors the creation of fake news.
Social media—Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp—is nowadays a fertile soil for the growing of fake news, that is to say, dissemination of info/pollution. Technology offers cost-effective tools for unchecked news to reach out to millions in a matter of minutes. Once posted, fake news seems to propagate as if it has a life of its own. It operates like a virus capable of contaminating human endeavors ranging from the most personal and intimate domain of people’s private lives to the larger and multilayered ideological arena of political discourse. Across the world, cyber aficionados fail to sort out what is fake from what is not. Cybernauts are prone to embrace a reality defined by anonymous others who are masters in the field of selling seductive conspiracy theories.
Fake news is not a new phenomenon. Although the late twentieth century’s cyber-technological revolution made the spread of fake news easier and expedient, fake news has exerted powerful influence from the dawn of civilization. It was, and continues to be, a faithful companion to changing ideological constructs. Fake news often evolves into elaborate conspiracy theories. Once posted, these conspiracy theories prove to be too diffcult to eradicate. Like viruses that do not respond to treatment modalities, fake news mutates into variances that elude logic while strengthening its hold on entire populations. In the Middle Ages, some Christians clung to a belief that Jews killed children to consume their blood during Passover.
This centuries-old construction continues to thrive in the twenty-first century albeit in different versions—e.g., the belief that the American election was stolen.
As stated above, fake news multiplies at an unforeseen pace due to the dominance of digital technology. Technology has become a vehicle for the rapid transmission of fake news as never before in human civilization. Online communications have enriched consumers’ imaginations with mixed results. On one hand, creative enterprises developed, contributing to economic and social advances, while on the other hand allowing the proliferation of statements that attack truth and consensual reality.
Fake news is highly contagious. Its effect spreads across time and space of a world made flat by the internet. Online texts are like a double-edged sword: they facilitate connectivity, while being capable through false narratives of attacking the same connectivity they promote, fostering hate and division. Indeed, the internet opens doors to psychological lands hitherto unvisited. Isolated cybernauts may find others who share similar views and who trust the unifying mission of social media. Yet the internet also erects a forum for the discharge of aggression disguised as fake news. The potential damaging, if not dangerous, outcomes of fake news are displayed almost daily on monitors. Roaming around cyberspace stimulates uncanny disinhibition, offering a green light for hate to run amok under the shield of anonymity.
A version of this article was originally published in Psychoanalysis Today, Vol. 16, April 2022.
- Isaac Tylim, PsyD, is a fellow at the International Psychoanalytic Association and a faculty and training analyst at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. He is an associate professor and consultant in New York University’s Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Dr. Tylim was a cultural correspondent for the Buenos Aires Herald. He was also the founder of IPTAR’s Art and Society program. He maintains a private practice in NYC.
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