Between Truth, Legitimacy, and Legality in the Post-truth Era

Anna Maria Lorusso | University of Bologna

Between Truth, Legitimacy, and Legality in the Post-truth Era

The starting point for the following considerations is the strong feeling that today we are not faced with some accidental and transitory “pathologies” of communication (such as fake news, infodemic...) but with some communication patterns which are part of a new, discursive regime (in the Foucauldian sense) that has changed in depth and that must be studied in its systemic aspects. We are facing a profound epistemic change, not a moment of confusion; more specifically, the change – which I have called epistemic – has to do with the technological, and consequently informational and ontological changes that all the great ‘industrial’ revolutions entail. It happened in the past centuries too; in short, nothing strange.

In order to argue about the characteristics of these changes, first of all I will try to outline the old categories that are no longer suitable for the new regime; then, I will outline two new models which, in my opinion, are becoming widespread and are more adequate to the “new” reality; finally, I will suggest a sort of alternative criterion of truth instead of our traditional and beloved one.

1.     New criteria for our sense of truth and reality

When I speak in terms of “regime” I mean that our new tools of communication (evidently, the digital ones) are not just instruments which allow us to transmit content. As already De Kerckhove said in The Skin of Culture (1995, p. 246) media change reality: “reality is technology-dependent, it changes every time new technologies invade it. A worldview based on print is challenged and weakened by the appearance of TV, just as a worldview based on TV is deeply threatened by computer networks. Reality is a form of consensus supported not only by the goodwill and the language of the communities that share it, but also framed and maintained by the principal medium of communication used by that culture”.

But, moreover, media define the criteria of reality: they contribute to the creation of a sphere (that is mediatic and empirical, as is the world of social networks, or the world of Google Maps) with its own logic, its own criteria for legitimation, its own standards, and its own rules. These rules define what is possible, what is legitimate, what can be considered true in our world. According to Foucault, it is both a problem of truth and of power management. This is why, in my view, the problem of post-truth (as it often happens today) is not merely a problem of communication, of mediatic poisoning. The problem is deep, and it has to do with the criterion of truth and where the authorization to set all of the abovementioned criteria comes from.

In Discipline and Punish (1975), but also in another very interesting text on this subject (the interview on “The Political Function of the Intellectual”, 1976, pp. 12-14), Foucault clarifies that each society has its regime of truth, focusing on:

1. “The types of discourse [society] harbors and causes to function as true”;

2. “The mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true from false statements” and

3. “The way in which each is sanctioned”;

4. “The techniques and procedures which are valorized for obtaining truth”;

5. “The status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true”.

“Truth” is “a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and functioning of statements”. And this belief should be the frame of our thoughts on communication today.

If we pay attention to the criteria of truth production and regulation today, we see that some certain central categories of modernity have entered into crisis and seem to be inadequate: that of truth as correspondence, that of truth as verification, and that of truth as sincerity.

2.     Some old ideas to overcome

The idea of correspondence entails a dimension of accessible and observable factuality that is independent of us. On the one hand there is reality, on the other the discourses on reality, and the more these two elements correspond, they will be superimposable, the more the discourse will be true, and the reality will be manifest.

In my opinion, the point is not if this “objective” level of reality exists or not. I can even assume that it exists. Instead, the points that need to be investigated are what I mean with “reality” (even if I think that a level of reality exists) and how I can access to it, in order to shape an adequate discourse.

About reality, I think that, thanks to a slow evolution of traditional media and textual media genres, this category has profoundly changed.

Thanks primarily to traditional media, the category of reality that we use today (I mean: what seems normal for us to consider reality) is much more complex and much more hybrid (see Lorusso 2018).

On the one hand, the mix that TV has been carrying out between different genres since the 1980s (information, entertainment, real politics...) has confused different criteria of reality: what is real in a living room is not real in the same sense as in a scientific laboratory. Today we use adjectives like real, true, objective, authentic, as if they were synonyms. However, the synonymy, or at least the overlapping, between these terms is only the effect of a certain evolution of media. This evolution (of which television has been the protagonist) has first accustomed us to consider that what really happens is real. However, is what happens in a reality show real in the same sense in which what happens in our daily lives is real? Then, it has accustomed us to think that what happens is authentic and therefore reliable, trustworthy. However, is everything that is authentic also reliable on an epistemic level? if I have an adverse reaction to a drug, can my authentic experience be a reliable point of reference for everyone?

In short, many levels have been confused: the ontological level (what is real), the perceptual-experiential level (what can be experienced), the epistemic level (what is true), and the ethical level (what is regulatory).

On the other hand, we have become more and more accustomed to putting different enunciations on the same level (so in a reality show, through a reality show, a public figure can speak – on a different level – to his electorate, or can build his electorate). Think of the extraordinary case of the president elect in Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, protagonist of the fiction Servant of the People: a case where a person with no political experience, but a political identity built at the level of fiction (fiction in which he embodies an ordinary man who becomes President of Ukraine), becomes President of Ukraine in an almost plebiscitary way. The reality that repeats fiction. The reality that is as the fiction, blending with it.

Thus, we have gradually changed the criteria of reality: reality does not have to do with what is given, what happens, the level of events, but it can be prepared, scripted, arranged (like a speech, but remaining reality).

If it is clear that our category of reality has changed, there is one more problem: the one of accessibility. Nowadays, we deal with an apparent widespread accessibility: with a satellite view we can see a road in a country very far from ours, Canada; with a little research, we can access, from our desk, a manuscript which is deposited at the French National Library; we can see (and I’m not using the term “see” by chance) at a great distance what happens inside a body, an organ, and maybe lead a surgery... Everything seems accessible to so many people, but what we actually access is another “mediation” of reality (a visual shot, within a discursive frame, through and thanks to a given mediatic tool). This generalized accessibility makes everything just hyper-mediated.

In spite of the widespread idea of disintermediation of information (justified by the fact that communication is no longer one to many but many to many, with direct access and direct possibility of taking the floor), I believe we should go back to focusing on how many other new mediations have been added to our being in the world. Generalised accessibility is made possible by a multiplication of mediations.

Thus, the most interesting aspect of what happens today, even when faced with a “very simple” descriptive statement (i.e., “there was an accident along my route an hour ago”), is not to verify whether the statement corresponds to an event that actually happened, but to ascertain whether or not to trust it, because the levels of mediation and distancing from reality have multiplied: who made the statement? Which source does this information come from (is it Google Maps providing me with traffic updates or am I hearing it from a friend who lives there)?

Obviously, we could say that all these questions have something to do, in some way, with the correspondence of the statements to facts, but the point refers more to the “nature” of the sentence, its reason, its origin, its truthfulness.

And truthfulness is a weaker notion than truth; it is something that has to do with accuracy, honesty, credibility – subjective components of interpretative accounts.

I believe that this “extreme” accessibility is a noteworthy communicative feature of our time. And judging the truth of these pieces of “reality” using particular correspondence criteria is simply inadequate, empirically impossible and, I would add, rather uninteresting: the interesting part is precisely the stratification (or mediation) that immediately shapes the initial information or data.

Indeed, it is within these layers that the judgment of truth becomes complex, and we shift from truth (a matter of presumptive objectivity) to truthfulness (a matter of negotiable interpretation): the many versions of the facts progressively multiply and all we can do is retrace their paths of formation (as well as the reasons for these paths and the empirical elements they involve), but we cannot verify their “correspondence” to reality. Reality is in and through those interpretative layers.

In light of this acceleration and over-production of “reality mediations”, the idea of verification and proof (which I have mentioned before) also seems to lose its place on any genuine path of discovery.

Verification today seems neither a matter of correspondence (because of the reasons we have just explained) nor one of genuine argumentative assessment, genuine comparison or in-depth procedures. I am not generically stating that people today are superficial. I’m saying that today the informational world works in a way that systematically discourages genuine forms of verification.

Once, verification was based on the idea that there was an objective state to be reconstructed. Traditionally, verifying meant making sure that things were in a certain way, or bringing certain evidences of a certain statement to the world.

Today we observe completely different dynamics of the elaboration of judgments: we tend to live in information bubbles and to strengthen our beliefs there. It is not a psychological phenomenon, but something set by the algorithms of our way of living online. On the one hand, there are social networks, in which each individual tends to build a network of “friends” or similar contacts. On the other hand, there is the rest of the Internet, with its search algorithms, its distributors (from Amazon to Netflix) where each user is profiled, and thus receives information and stimuli shaped by their preferences. The result is that a kind of familiar micro-world is structured around each one of us, a microworld that filters and leaves out everything that is foreign. We are in contact (without any real face-to-face interaction) with thousands of people who share our same tastes and opinions, and we receive thousands of suggestions and handpicked information selected so perfectly for us that we feel no need to expand the boundaries of our world.

In these bubbles of shared tastes and opinions, it is difficult to build authentic argumentative paths, because confirmation mechanisms are strengthened. All the typical elements of a genuine discovery path, of a verification path, (a surprising fact, a different point of view, a different premise) are minimized, whilst the most recurrent rhetorical pathways seem to be paralogisms, tautologies, generalizations: discursive moves which give only the impression of an argumentative progress.

In these bubbles where confirmation bias dominates, facts are almost always reinforced facts, convincing facts for all, beyond question, according to an absolutizing mechanism that ends up giving weight, giving reality to discursive stratifications that are independent of any real assessment.

In addition, this aspect brings me to the third “classical approach” to truth that today seems, to my mind, to be entirely inadequate: the idea of sincerity. It should be a basic pragmatic and ethical rule of communication, as theorized by Grice (1991) in his conversational maxims: his maxim of Quality recites “be truthful”, do not say what you believe to be false and do not talk about something for which you lack adequate evidence. But this maxim seems to be less and less relevant. Not only it is disregarded in fact, but it is no longer even a criterion, and this is the interesting (and worrying) point about the post-truth regime (and one of the reasons why it is important to speak in terms of the regime: the rules and the criteria relevant for establishing what is true).

The discursive functioning of the contemporary infosphere requires a continuous intervention, we seem to no longer have the right to not react, and any lack of adequate evidence (as mentioned before) cannot be an obstacle to this continual solicitation; we must go further. We feel called to react, for example with a re-tweet, and we do not perceive this “discursive reaction” as the continuation of a speech, we do not feel responsible for this speech. In this way, the kind of sincerity criterion that arises is an emotional and not a cognitive one. “Sincere” today means to be sympathetic to someone, not to be honest about reality. Thus, the very category of communicative “commitment” has changed.

And thus there is generally a great deal of confusion surrounding the concept of sincerity: sometimes, intentionally tendentious information circulates whilst being clearly contrary to the principle of sincerity, other times it is information that is simply unverified. “Fake” does not always mean “not sincere”; it may mean wrong, unverified, misinterpreted. Furthermore, jurists are faced with a complex series of problems in this regard.

3.     Two useful communication models: hermetism and gossip

If the traditional paradigms of truth are in crisis, then we, as language and communication scholars, have to ask ourselves how truth manifests itself today and how it is legitimized in our media.

My opinion is that in the post-truth regime, two communication models seem more recurrent. Until now, these models have always remained at the margins of our information logic:

– the one that Umberto Eco calls the “hermetic model”

– the one at the basis of gossip, as widely studied by sociology.

I will only outline them here.[1]

About the “hermetic model”, I make reference to some pages in Eco’s essay I limiti dell’interpretazione (Eco 1990), in English, The Limits of interpretation.[2]

In the text, Eco outlines two models at the base of the Western culture:

-       a rational model, based on a criterion of linearity, on causal logic and on the principle of non-contradiction, perfectly expressed by the modus ponens:

If P, then Q.


Therefore Q;

-       and a hermetic model (which was mainly developed during the Renaissance) based on a different, non-linear type of logic that is not defined by the principle of non-contradiction and, if anything, is founded on the criterion of similarity.

For me, what is most interesting about Eco’s reflection is precisely the accentuation, in the hermetic model, on the paradigm of similarity and the logic of the secret.

Similarity becomes a criterion of interpretation and knowledge because, when causal consequentiality is no longer valid, the most legitimate path is the associative one.

When the principle of non-contradiction fails, and an associative modality is authorized, the drift becomes inevitable: statements and discursive positions slip between various argumentative domains and this is allowed because the world is associative by nature. A speaker may find himself saying incompatible things, such as “I’m not a racist” and “foreigners steal our jobs” (slipping from the theoretical level to the level of generic political-economic evaluations); or “I believe in science” and “Covid vaccines are not safe” (moving from statements of principle to pseudo-objective observational assessments).

On the other hand, this hermetic modality (which excludes the principle of non-contradiction as a criterion) means that anything can be said (on the basis of a vague principle of association), and if anything and everything can be said, it is because everything can be true, even if everything can also be misleading: the valid, solid, epistemic criterion of inclusion and exclusion has disappeared.

We can think about some cases of associative paths typical of the current infodemic:

the covid vaccine is not recommended in certain age groups;
therefore covid vaccines can hurt everyone;
if they can hurt, maybe all vaccines can hurt too;
I won't give my baby any kind of vaccine;

However, this hermetic model, based on secrets and plots, intersects with another communicative model, which is absolutely typical of orality (which, in spite of the large amount of writing on social networks, is in my opinion the returning form of our current communication): the “gossip model”.

What I mean with “gossip” is a kind of exchange of personal information, positive or negative, in an evaluative way, positive or negative, about absent third parties. It is, in terms of anthropology and psychology, a sort of inevitable tendency seen in small social communities. It consolidates community ties, and helps highlighting who is inside and who is outside the social group of reference. As a scholar like Foster (2004) underlines, gossip has four major social functions: it facilitates the flow of information, it provides a form of recreation (gossip has to be “juicy”, I would add), it strengthens influence, and it creates group solidarity.

The fundamental social function of gossip has no declarative claims. Instead, it is clearly performative: in discrediting someone, it marginalizes them, while at the same time strengthening the shared bonds and pleasure among those who partake.

This is, for me, a fundamental point in understanding the fake news phenomenon as gossip: most of the time gossip contains no special declarative assumption, no particular commitment to states of affairs or fact. Instead, there is an interpretative gamble or vagueness that operates on the level of the social functioning of the group, introducing a subject/object of controversy and thus reorganizing the patterns of social relations and trust. In this dynamic, one can easily pass from the logic of gossip to that of rumor, i.e. from a dynamic that is focused on a specific subject and that addresses a defined community of “neighbors” to a dynamic that by definition is more open and aimed at a more general audience. Anyway, even if we are dealing with a more general, softer form (that of rumor), its social impact is intense and immediate.

As both semiotics (see Fabbri-Pezzini, eds, Versus n. 79, 1998, which includes the aforementioned Pozzato) and epistemology emphasize (see Gelfert 2013), gossip is relevant for its systemic effects, not atomistically in relation to single statements. And this aspect is fundamental to understanding fake news: a lot of fake news should not be measured in terms of the distance between the reality of its single statements, but in terms of the mobilization of the certainty system it produces.

This systemic quality also emerges from another aspect of gossip, one shared by fake news: a reconstructive and revealing character. Gossip has a tendency to reconstruct facts that have already happened and about which, in some way, we already know something, providing a new key to understanding those facts. In other words, gossip rarely presents something completely new. Parasitically, it relies on already-consolidated knowledge (already-consolidated narratives) to reconstruct parts of it in its own way, according to a previously undisclosed detail (to the point that a story of economic competition can be explained by gossip in function of a clandestine romantic relationship between some members of the two parties, just as a political ascent can be explained in its entirety by revealing a photograph that captures the politician in question at dinner with a questionable person of finance).

Partly for this reason, gossip (like rumors) is characterized by a weak cognitive component and a strong perlocutionary component.

4.     From truth to legitimacy

In this context, in which the traditional paradigms of truth are in crisis and in which associative models such as the hermetic or performative models such as that of gossip are increasingly widespread, I believe – to conclude – that a criterion still valid, in terms of information ethics, could be the one of legitimacy, in order to rethink those of correctness, objectivity, adequacy.

We know that the distinction between legality and legitimacy has already been drawn (here I refer to Schmitt (1932) defining the whole distance between a formal criterion and void of content), and a criterion that instead finds its foundation not in form but in an “appropriateness” that has a historical-cultural foundation.

The advantage potentially offered by the concept of legitimacy, with regards to that of truth, has to do with the reference to a given context (wherein truth tends to be a universal ideal), with an element of social recognition (wherein truth does not depend on recognition; it is valid per se) and a processual dimension (wherein truth does not become truthful), which makes the management of discourses more flexible, without abdicating to their deregulation (see, on this subject, Lorusso 2020 as well).

Legitimacy depends on there being conformity with the law, the rules of the current legislation, but even before this, it depends on a preliminary form of appropriateness that makes the exercise of power adequate. In order to say and fix what is legitimate, you must have the right to do so; your exercise of power has to be recognized. Administratively, for example, a defect of legitimacy can be ascribed to incompetence, to a violation of law or an excess of power.

In short, legitimacy involves:

– Norms (cultural norms)
– Rules (legal laws)
– Adequacy and correspondence to the role of exercising power

In a media landscape in which discursive positions have become generalized (and everyone can be a diffuser), in which reality is always intermediated and in which logical consequentiality is no longer a criterion, I believe that thinking of an alternative criterion of “containment” is necessary – a containment that is cognitive and ethical.

Perhaps by thinking of the criterion of “legitimacy” we can recover a way to re-establish hierarchies of knowledge and information.


De Kerckhove, Derrick
1995 The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality, Toronto, Somerville House Press.

Eco, Umberto
1990 I limiti dell’interpretazione, Milano: Bompiani (engl. ed.: The limits of interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana U.P.).

Fabbri, Paolo – Pezzini, Isabella (eds)
1998 VS-Versus. Quaderni di studi semiotici. “Voci e rumori: La propagazione della parola”, n. 79, Milano: Bompiani.

Foster Eric K.
2004 “Research on Gossip: Taxonomy, Methods, and Future Directions”, in Review of General Psychology 2004, Vol. 8, No. 2, 78-99.

Foucault, Michel
1975 Surveiller et punir. Paris, PUF (Engl. trans. Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977).
1976 “La fonction politique de l’intellectuel”. In Dits et écrits, vol. II: 1976-1988, Paris: Gallimard, 2001: 109-114 (Engl trans. “The political function of the intellectual”, in Radical Philosophy, 17 (Summer 1977): 12-14).

Gelfert, Alex
2013 “Rumor, gossip, and conspiracy theories: pathologies of testimony and the principle of publicity” in Greg Dalziel (ed.), Rumor and Communication in Asia in the Internet Age Edited, London: Routledge, 2013.

Grice, Paul
1991 Logic and Conversation, 20-40. Cambridge (Mass): Harvard University Press.

Lorusso, Anna Maria
2018 Postverità. Fra reality tv, social media e storytelling. Roma-Bari: Laterza.
2020 “Between Truth, Legitimacy, and Legality in the Post‑truth Era”, in International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, 2020, 33, pp. 1005-1017.
2021 “Fake News as Discursive Genre: Between Hermetic Semiosis and Gossip”, in Social Epistemology, to be published by the end of the year.

Schmitt, Carl
1932 Legality and Legitimacy. Translated and edited by Jeffrey Seitzer with an introduction by John P. McCormick. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

[1] For a more detailed discussion, see Lorusso 2021.
[2] The English edition of the book actually presents many differences from the Italian one, including the reflections about the hermetic paradigm, of which something remains in §1.2 and §1.6. on Neoplatonic thought and in §2.3 on hermetic drift. This is why I prefer to make reference to the original Italian edition.