“Turtles All the Way Down”: What Ethnography Can Tell Us About Fake News
by Margaret Rowley
As a PhD student in a theoretically-oriented department of ethnomusicology (a real word!), I have been searching within my coursework for a mechanism to explain the current political system. I suspect I’m not the only graduate student doing this. I count myself extremely fortunate to not only be able to devote my time to learning, but also to have access to literature within my own discipline (an ethnographic exploration of music), as well as historical musicology, anthropology, and sociology. Recently, my coursework turned up a classic gem which I would like to attempt to apply to a small facet of this year’s political development: “fake news.”
Clifford Geertz, the late titan of anthropology from Princeton, offers the following anecdote in his chapter in Contemporary Field Research:
There is an Indian story – at least I heard it as an Indian story – about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? “Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.”
The vivid imagery of this snippet (turtle after turtle after turtle in a Dr. Seussian stack, weaving and wobbling but somehow staying upright) has inspired generations of anthropologists to dig deeper, even while understanding that they – we – will never reach the bottom.
In the fall, when the proliferation of so-called fake news began to be publicly recognized, I solicited opinions on this frustrating phenomenon. “We are not surprised by this,” a brilliant colleague told me. “Academia has always known that the truth is malleable.” I had to shrug and concede that he was correct; in ethnography, anyway, much of what we do is try to re-think older scholarship, and this sometimes results in its partial truths being exposed in their (sometimes deeply troubling) incompleteness. Another solicited opinion, from another friend, held that “fake news” is not fake, because it holds a germ of truth.
After chewing on both opinions for a few days, I had to concede that they’re both correct. I’ll use the following example, which was widespread on Facebook in the months before the election:
This image, intended to appeal to an emotional argument for the well-being of children, seeks to portray Clinton as a monster of a lawyer who threw a twelve-year-old rape victim under the bus. It is designed for readers who don’t know much about the legal system and aren’t prepared (through cultural knowledge) to read critically. At least one assertion on the easily-shareable image is actually false: Clinton didn’t volunteer for the case, rather, she was appointed to it by a judge and was unable to refuse. Other aspects are true, but manipulated: she did laugh about the case on a recording made years later, but was arguably laughing sardonically at the ineffectiveness of a lie-detector test, which her client passed. Snopes presents a thorough takedown, which I won’t replicate here.
The reason I gave this image a second look when it popped up on my own social media feed was not because I knew any details of the case. Rather, it was because of the extremely dangerous assumption it makes: that a lawyer can not only find her own client guilty, but has the singular power to “get” someone “freed.” What about the judge? What about a jury of one’s own peers? I have an admitted lack of legal expertise, but even this graduate student in ethnomusicology has watched enough Law and Order to know that a lawyer is bound to represent her client regardless of “known” guilt (which of course, is not “known” unless the lawyer was physically present at the event). It is the job of the attorney to represent their client, not to determine guilt.
Regardless, this image does contain a grain of truth. My point here is, addressed falsehoods notwithstanding, this image represents the “top turtle,” as Geertz would say. This is the obvious information, floating at the top; easy to see, easy to capture. We can pick it up and take it to someone else as proof of a point, we can share it with the click of a button.
What is less obvious is the turtle underneath: knowledge of the American legal system. Under that turtle are other quiet details of the case: the accused rapist apparently pled guilty and received a reduced sentence (allegedly because the mother of the victim didn’t want her child to be put through anything else). Still deeper in the stack of turtles, somewhere, is the truth about what happened the night of the incident itself.
So what is “fake news” if it is not entirely “fake?” It is the top turtle, the turtle in plain sight, simple and effective and requiring no labor. This turtle is dangerous because it seems so obvious, because it is. It’s not necessarily false, it’s just the most visible information with all other information omitted.
The problem with describing the top turtle, though, is that the next supporting turtle will often change the meaning of the top turtle itself. To carry the analogy ridiculously far, the isolated top turtle appears as if she is swimming on the top of a body of water. We can infer her physical fitness, her work ethic, her character, from her swimming habits. She swims day and night, and that isn’t water on her brow but sweat. How else could she be suspended on the top of the water like this, if it isn’t through her own hard work? – But then we find that there is a turtle underneath, supporting this hard-working top turtle, and this changes the meaning. It is actually this lower turtle that is the worker, supporting not just herself, but her colleague. But wait! Here is another, deeper turtle. And another. And another. Turtles all the way down.
During my master’s research in ethnomusicology, I started fieldwork in Chicago with only my top turtle: the understanding that there seemed to be many fewer female DJs than male DJs working in the Chicago house music scene. I suspected I would find one turtle underneath: maybe a club owner who didn’t like women, or some equipment salesperson who didn’t want to sell turntables to non-male DJs. Maybe women just weren’t interested in being DJs.
As I dutifully began my digging, I found, just underneath the surface, a wide, vertical spread of increasingly disturbing turtles: basic gendered economics meant that most women weren’t able to access their own equipment, and so often relied on male partners to buy turntables. Women DJs were objectified, valued for their appearance more than their music. The perception that women didn’t play as well or as “hard” seemed pervasive. The trope of the DJ as a “god” of the dance floor lent itself to gendered assumptions of what that “god” would look like (read: not like a “goddess”). Book after book used “he” and “him” to describe the DJ. A lyric of a well-known song at the time referenced “Mister DJ.” Women “couldn’t carry” heavy crates of records. Women didn’t want to be commuting home alone at four in the morning. In one horrifying story I was told, a female DJ was raped in the booth by a club employee after the venue had closed for the night.
It should go without saying that I did not find the “bottom” of the stack of turtles. I’m unsatisfied, almost a decade later, with how I dug, and if I could do it again I would dig harder, wider, deeper. I understand, though, that even in my zeal, I would never reach the bottom, and while the lack of a bottom is certainly a frustration, it is also a motivator. Because we can never get there, we must try harder.
Our job, as anthropologists, ethnographers, consumers of news, U.S. citizens, is to search for the deepest turtle we can possibly find. While this certainly means hard work beyond passive consumption, there is also a baseline of knowledge (a permanent deeper turtle) that sets off alarm bells when an analysis doesn’t seem correct. This could be an understanding of the legal system or any other socio-political structure in the U.S. This type of knowledge means that we don’t always have to reinvent the wheel digging for turtles, since we will automatically know that these types of turtles are under the water, propping up the top.
Shortly after the “fake news” terminology hit the mainstream, the President effectively appropriated the term, applying it to any network with a perceived bias. CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post became “fake news” largely because the turtles they dug up were not the turtles that the administration wanted the public to see. This, of course, is a markedly different definition than the original, and raises a great number of troubling questions for citizens on all sides of the aisle who believe in a free press.
In both cases, “fake news” is often a misleading term (although not always!). The first type of media discussed here might be better called “news so shallow as to be misleading,” or “extremely pared-down news with vital details omitted.” This type discredits the reader, giving them inaccurate information under the surface-sheen of truth. The second type might be “news that may have been illegally leaked but is nonetheless solid.” This type discredits the media by labeling something that may just be inconvenient as untrue.
I believe that this whole phenomenon is so uncomfortable because it has exposed to the general public the fact that the “truth,” whatever it is, is extremely difficult to know; the truth weaves and shimmers and changes completely, and there are individuals who are able to take advantage of this malleability. I have been surprised that, in ethnomusicology, ethics are typically addressed from the good-faith perspective that the researcher always wants to do what is right, and this thin protection, the goodness of the ethnographer, is all that stands between anthropology and disastrous appropriation, or worse.
So how can Geertz help us, as citizens? I like to use his turtle anecdote as an inspiration, even if it is arguably simplistic; difficult times sometimes call for simplicity. None of us can be satisfied with the top turtle alone, no matter how much we like the look of it. There are always “turtles all the way down.” We must either find someone we trust to dig for us, or link arms, pick up shovels, and start digging ourselves.
 Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in Contemporary Field Research: Perspectives and Formulations, ed. Robert M Emerson, 2nd ed. (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 2001), 73.
 See Mavis Bayton, Frock Rock: Women Performing Popular Music, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), as well as https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jan/22/gender-based-pink-taxes-women