by Teofil Camarasu
We have a fake news problem. Every week sees a new slew of articles on the ongoing epidemic. Some report on its destructive spread as it conquers country after country, swinging elections and referenda on its way, all the while heralding the start of a new Post-Truth era. Others prescribe remedies to halt the contagion – quarantines, self-defense tips, or even elusive psychological cures.
Yet as with any disease, a full understanding of fake news requires knowledge not only of its symptoms and spread, but also of its origin. This is a topic that many have brushed upon, but few have explored with the depth that it deserves. Indeed, the usual narrative goes somewhat as follows:
Millennials – not sated with their destruction of soap, diamonds, romance, holidays, and home ownership – turned their eyes towards another victim: journalism.
It starts with newspapers. Millennials scorn them, preferring to consume news via their smartphones. While a naive argument could be made that this is for environmentalist reasons, those who understand millennial psychology know better. (Millennials only truly care about appearing as if they care about the environment.)
No; millennials have abandoned physical newspapers to avoid the alarming risk of real human interaction, whether it be with the clerk in the newsagent, or a lovely morning chat as both they and their neighbours retrieve their newspapers from the doorstep. And reading the news online is just easier – and as we all know, millennials are lazy.
Yet even the destruction of physical papers is not enough to make millennials content. Their insatiable hunger requires ever-new offerings. Their short attention spans require ever-more appealing titles to catch their eye, giving rise to the new genre of clickbait. Their impatience makes well-researched articles impossible. Their inability to deal with alternate viewpoints or articles that hurt their feelings leads them to mercilessly expunge any dissenting voices and turn their news-feeds into toxic echo chambers. They have little time for Truth, preferring things that appeal to their fragile feelings.
And so fake news is born, and thrives.
While I am forced to concede that millennials are bloodthirsty monsters who will not rest until Western society has been destroyed, this short-term narrative leads to the long history of fake news being obscured. As long as there has been news, there has also been fake news, just as there has been misinformation as long as there has been information. (Sun Tzu famously wrote about how all of warfare was about (mis)information.)
Knowledge is Power. Not only in the obvious sense, but also in the sense that control over the news leads to control over the populace. As Orwell wrote: ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’ Misinformation (either intentional or not) has swayed many of history’s greatest wars and elections. And so there is nothing ‘new’ about fake news. In a similar way, there is nothing new about echo chambers (other than the term itself). While it may be shocking to learn, newspapers tend to have a political bias, either due to the wishes of its proprietor, the editor, or simply because of implicit biases in the journalist themselves. One can always choose to buy only the papers one agrees with, chat only with the coworkers one agrees with, and so on.
So much for fake news’ history – but any discussion of a disease is rendered moot without mention of its host. In the case of fake news, this means social media.
It can be helpful to think of media in terms of streams or feeds of data. For example, newspapers can be thought of as a stream of textual data (aka words), radio of audio, television of video, and social media of all types of data. Social media placed in this context is not some unique thing, with unique problems, that has appeared fully formed out of thin air, but rather another stage in the evolution of how we consume information.
Yet the word ‘stream’ might be misleading. It tends to draw up images of a peaceful meandering brook, but that’s an inaccurate image. Imagine rather a river just after a flood: it carries a mishmash of different things. A photograph of a friend’s holiday floats here; a cute video of a cat drifts there. News about a horrible massacre bobs along beside a reminder of your best friend’s birthday. But this stream flows quickly. If you do not act promptly to save any of this information, it will be lost forever in the perpetual deluge.
It is a confusing, distressing environment. But all too often, our critiques of the environment only aggravate the confusion. For example, we are often told that the rise of fake news can, at least partially, be blamed on the failure of social media to distinguish between news and fake news (forgetting that good old-fashioned newsstands have ever placed newspapers, tabloids, magazines and who-knows-what-else side by side). The failure to deeply examine our overall media poses a clear danger. Too often, ‘solutions’ to the fake news epidemic involve granting Tech Giants the power to decide what is or is not fake news (and hence what should be removed from social media). These are companies that already own most of our data, are rarely held accountable to their users, and already seem to have a sinister level of influence in our lives. (Recall that Google’s motto has been ‘Don’t be evil’ since 2000.)
(Now comes the part of the thinkpiece you have been waiting for, your reward for reading through the dry analysis and compulsory Sun Tzu and Orwell quotes…)
‘Fake news’ is a bad term. The label refers to articles that are intentionally misleading or false. That is a standard definition, but it has problems.
Take the requirement that the story should be misleading or false. This applies, to a certain extent, to every article. (No article is perfect after all.) The extent to which an article is misleading or false is not black and white but extremely grey. Our use of the term ‘fake news’ reduces the issue to a binary categorisation that masks its true complexity. The problem of ascribing intent is thornier yet, as it is often almost impossible to prove anyone’s private intentions. If we combine these two problems it should become clear that it is extremely easy to describe anything one disagrees with as ‘fake news’. Small inaccuracies (whether factual or implied) are almost unavoidable, and it is extremely easy to read malign intent into the actions of people we don’t agree with.
But the problems with the term by no means stop here. Our obsession with ‘fake news’ creation shifts the blame away from the equally important problem of consumption: the people who are actually fooled by fake news. While many fake news articles are highly convincing, most of the time people are fooled by them because they want to be fooled. Fake news only reinforces their beliefs.
It can be comforting to think that people are only fooled by fake news due to a combination of their own stupidity and the sheer persuasive power of fake news, but the fact is that many people have horrible, bigoted views.
There are no easy solutions to our fake news problems. Yet it is key that any approach we take is not only critical of the media, surrounding technologies and the people that consume them, but also of the very terms used in our critiques. To be able to defeat fake news, it is vital that we first clearly understand it.