“Fake news” is all the rage these days. Sky-is-falling news reports and politicians would have us believe it is an urgent problem that demands immediate government inquiries and solutions. Yet fake news itself is just a new spin on an old phenomenon. Its current abundance is the result of a public’s mounting crisis of faith in journalism coming into contact with cultural tribalism as well as a broader democratization of news and information provided by the internet and social media.
Calls for using the government to restrict media and information access under the pretense of protecting us would be extraordinarily harmful to news and truth. People and the culture at large are better equipped to efficiently and honestly handle the challenges of rapid informational progress than government ever has been.
Before this week’s news cycle, I was blissfully unaware that the terms coprophilia and coprophagia existed. Yet we’ve come to the point where the Pope feels the need to wade in on a political and journalistic issue and use scattalogical comparisons. As stories about fake news continue to dominate the news cycle, we would do well to realize that the same impulse driving us “spontaneously” to have a national discussion about fake news is likely one reason we have a “fake news crisis.”
If, in fact, we even have one.
Tempest in a Timeline
Looking at Google trends for web and news searches of the term “fake news,” we realize that about November 8 something happened that made the topic spike. Almost overnight, fake news was the subject of the national conversation. Every social media feed was full of it, there was a lengthy Voxplanation of it, politicians were discussing it, pundits were debating it, and a perfunctory Wikipedia entry was edited at length.
What happened? Well, a torrent of news stories came out on the heels of the election suggesting that social media combined with fake news sites to create the perfect storm that allowed Donald Trump to get elected. In the days that followed, folks on social media took this narrative and conflated it with the discussion of Russian hacking, which had hitherto been the province of the WikiLeaks investigation.
The two issues swirled together to create an even more magnificent conversation storm. Before long, “fake news” became synonymous with Russian hacking and propaganda. Soon, the Washington Post, armed with sources that were equally voluble and anonymous published an article of questionable veracity purporting to be an exposé linking the fake news to Russia itself. Thus, “fake news” as an unassailable, but poorly sourced, cultural touchstone and shorthand meme for the election itself, was conceived, born, nursed and matured into an unquestionably self-evident crisis of foreign interventionism in the span of a few weeks.
It is precisely this manufactured media squall, making cynical use of our desire to trust the written word, and the way the major news organizations, with the help of the populace via social media, drove the topic and vague buzzword “fake news” to the forefront of the national conversation that shows us the reasons for, and the mechanisms by, which fake news, or any gossip really, gains credibility and is disseminated.
A Bull in the Myth Shop
The myth of journalistic objectivity is one of the most powerful in America. We may not trust the institutions of journalism, but we really want to trust journalists. And yet, time and again this myth gets shattered only to be rebuilt. Despite numerous examples that might have been served up as warnings, we imbued (and continue to imbue) journalists with a patina of infallibility. When it became obvious that this was all kinds of wrong, there was a backlash. Irony, satire, and even agit-prop using a newly in-vogue suspicion of media were inevitable.
So we saw the rise in popularity of media such as the Daily Show that straddled the line between satire and news. The popularity of satirical-news websites such as The Onion, The People’s Cube and the Daily Currant grew (The Currant, interestingly enough, was subject to harsh early criticism that its satire was too dry and unfunny and could too easily be mistaken for real stories). Simultaneously, we saw the birth and meteoric growth of serious and well trafficked sources of information such as Daily Kos, Raw Story, Truth Revolt, Breitbart News and the Daily Signal, which, despite their vastly different ideological leanings, shared the same basic operating premise: the idea that the standard gatekeepers of truth were not only biased, but purposely deceptive.
When you combine this loss of faith in journalism with an increasingly politics-based cultural tribalism and then give it voice through a “share-based” medium such as social media, it is only a matter of time before things that don’t hold journalistic water spread like wildfire. They are also then immediately called out as falsehoods by others, creating yet another socially spread wildfire. And here our fake news makes its entrance.
A New Old Problem
As if in direct response to the flaws of the social media milieu and the loss of faith in journalism, so-called fake news came onto the stage. Understanding the nature of social media—that people tend to create echo chambers and rarely step outside of their own cognitive biases—some young entrepreneurs created web sites and reports with absolutely no truth in them.
Content-wise, these sites were just variations on propaganda or political mudslinging. But their underlying purpose was different. This iteration of fake news did not exist to sway elections or change minds; it existed to make a profit. That’s really the only difference between the new fake news and the old fake news. Social media, being what it is, helped the fake news reports spread quickly through echo chambers where they became sources of talking points, conversations, and shares. Although, if we’re being honest, no fake news story was nearly as much of an “international conversation” as the one we’re currently having about the “fake news epidemic” itself.
Who Will Protect Us?
Politicians and pundits, seizing upon this media-driven national conversation, have called for congressional investigations into what they deem an “epidemic” or “psychological warfare.” The implication is that because of the speed and breadth of the internet to disseminate information, the naïve and unsophisticated masses need protection. And yet, the phenomenon of gossip or falsehood spreading—especially during elections—is by no means new. Since the invention of the printing press (or print itself) conspiracy theories, rumors, political pamphlets and the like have spread. With each new advance in technology our ability to communicate good, as well as bad, ideas to larger audiences more quickly has grown logarithmically and with each new technological stride there have been prophets of doom urging the powerful to curtail the new technologies that have gone on to democratize information and create an ever more informed populace.
The Invisible Editor
When we think about confronting “fake news,” we’re really talking about information control, individual autonomy in relation to information consumption, and making sense of an age of information overabundance and lightning-fast distribution. As information technology advances and noise to signal ratios continue their imbalance, people will need to figure out how to distill truth from bias and falsehood. This need has already given rise to new cultural and media institutions.
Over the last few years we have seen the rise of “debunking” and “fact checking” sites. (How many Pinocchios does that Politician whose pants are on fire have?) These, too, have started their own cycle of overtrust, mistrust, overuse, bias and cynicism. We are also seeing articles about confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance and these terms are making their way into the popular lexicon. We have also seen a focused questioning of sources and hermeneutics of suspicion on social media as competing echo chambers work to discredit each others’ talking points and news sources.
This is all wonderful. It shows that people are questioning the root of information. And it points to a vigorous marketplace of ideas that has a foundation of well-warranted skepticism.
While it may be that the pendulum has swung too far into the realm of incredulity and bias archaeology, a healthy distrust of institutionally received information is rarely a bad thing. Already, online manuals that suggest strategies for sifting fake from real news are cropping up everywhere and I have no doubt that even these will be plumbed for bias and dissected.
Of course, my friends who believe in the benevolent efficacy and efficiency of the state might think otherwise and call for a more “top down” approach to sift “truth from fiction.” But history repeatedly has shown that when the government gets involved in controlling the news, the first casualty is truth.
Sure, there will always be people who are credulous of anything that supports their point of view, but the rise of fake news is merely a new skin for an old ceremony, whose only differences are its naked profit motive and dissemination mechanism.
Our ability to both inform ourselves or stay purposely misinformed has grown right along with technological advances. Fake news, gossip, innuendo, whisper campaigns, and the like have existed since time immemorial and the only real difference now is the speed of the mechanism by which they spread.
The real cause of our problems may lie not in the false information itself but rather in the increasingly tribal society in which we live and seem determined to perpetuate. This sectarianism seems to find expression in and is catalyzed by social media where it is all too easy to preach to an encouraging choir. The answer is not to empower government agencies to sift the truth for us, but rather to continue to figure out how to do it for ourselves as we work towards a less insular mode of information consumption.