© Josh Sager – January 2016
In recent months, media outlets and politicians have declared “fake news” to be a scourge on the political system and a major threat to democracy. While it is certainly true that false or misleading news stories are a significant impediment to a well-informed population, the current rallying cry against “fake news” actually has the potential to be very dangerous, both because it creates an excuse for the media and political establishments to delegitimize anybody who isn’t one of them, and because it feeds into pervasive biases that prevent us from assessing reality.
Examples of fake news are simply everywhere online and anybody to have any social media presence has likely been linked some crazy story. Some of these stories are obviously insane (e.g. Hillary and Podesta running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop in DC), but others are just credible enough to trick a casual reader who hasn’t studied politics (e.g. Obama spending $200 million a day on a trip to India).
Ensuring that Americans are not drawn into these fake news stories is important, but not the place of legislation or blanket condemnations of alternative media. It is very easy for those in the establishment to simply declare a story to be “fake news” in order to shut down debate, particularly when they can’t argue on the facts. By labeling a story as “fake news” and refusing to engage with the facts, people can nullify ANY argument in their own mind, and make it appear to the casual observer that they have refuted their opponent (while, in reality, they haven’t debunked anything).
- A Trump supporter can simply label any reports of Trump’s sexism or assaultive behavior towards women to be “fake news” that is made up by the anti-Trump media;
- A Hillary supporter can be presented with clear evidence from the Podesta emails that the DNC was biased in the Democratic primary and that the Clintons were taking enormous amounts of money from corporate interests and repressive regimes, then simply label this as “fake news” that is illegitimate to discuss.
- A global warming denier can declare all coverage of climate change as “fake news,” produced by global elites to trick people into a one world government.
Humans are susceptible to numerous types of cognitive bias, which make it harder for us to make rational assessments. One of the most common biases that we face is the confirmation bias, where we tend to believe new facts that agree with our preconceived notions distrust facts that conflict with them. In short, once we set our beliefs, we tend to parse new information based upon how it relates to these beliefs.
On the individual level, the ability to label any news sources that conflict with your existing beliefs as simply “fake news” gives you a powerful tool to simply shut out any inconvenient facts. If you reflexively label the source of the new information as illegitimate, you never have to address the information they provide and can simply live in your own echo-chamber. This is particularly bad when applied to politics, where partisanship is such a powerful identity tool, and where there is so much information (and non-information) flying around at record speed.
The answer to this type of bias in regard to fake news is simple: Be very careful before you label a source “fake news” simply because it disagrees with what you currently believe. Do your research and confirm that a source is lying to you, rather than telling you a truth that you don’t want to believe.
Delegitimizing the Outsider
Traditional media outlets like CNN and MSNBC can declare smaller, non-establishment media outlets (e.g. The Intercept, Wikileaks, etc.) to be “fake” and convince their audiences that the facts being presented by these outlets are false without ever addressing them. This is particularly attractive to establishment media sources because it lets them cast doubt on their smaller competitors without having to substantiate any arguments against them.
The terrible irony of this situation is that the worst examples of harmful “fake news” have actually come from mainstream outlets and not marginal blogs. The ultimate example of this comes from the Iraq War, where “credible sources” in the CIA and many other government agencies knew with high confidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and outlets like the New York Times (Judith Miller in particular) and CNN simply reprinted these claims. Of course, we now know that these reports were falsified in order to justify a war, but that does little to help after the bombs start dropping.
When politicians talk about “fake news,” they aren’t talking about the powerful establishment outlets, even when these outlets report fake stories (e.g. when anonymous sources told The Washington Post that Russia had hacked our electrical grid and they published a headline story about it, only to face an extremely embarrassing retraction when a basic fact-check falsified the story). The size and power of these organizations makes them resistant to the label of “fake news” and creates an imbalanced playing field.
Attacking Free Speech
The worst method of fighting against “fake news” is for the government to get involved, but, unfortunately, this looks to be exactly what is happening.
During the last week of December (buried in the holidays) Obama signed the most recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which has a new provision authorizing a military propaganda outlet designed to counter foreign “fake news” and expose anti-America disinformation. Just to put this story into context, if this provision had been in place in 2002/2003, the funds in question would be directed at countering “foreign propaganda” that pointed out the weaknesses in the case for war with Iraq.
Creating a military entity to feed counter-propaganda (read: US government sponsored propaganda, aimed inward) to US news outlets is the real life equivalent to creating the Ministry of Truth from 1984. It is absolutely not the solution to this problem and creates the danger that pro-establishment “fake news” will be propagated while real reporting will be ignored, particularly on issues like drone strikes, Russian hacking, and the war on terror.