Ways to deal with those guilty of causing the fake news epidemic

Summary: The surge of talk about fake news highlights this important problem. We have an increasingly tribal view of the world, each tribe with its own lies — and contempt for those who disagree (especially experts). Our gullibility makes us easy to rule. But censorship will not fix the problem because it addresses the effects, not the causes. This post points to the guilty parties.

Unless we see & remember, news is the 21st C's opiate of the masses.

“There’s none so blind as they that won’t see.”
— Jonathan Swift’s Polite Conversation (c. 1738).


  1. Making ourselves dumber.
  2. Causes of fake news?
  3. Reforming America.
  4. Distinguishing good from bad sources.
  5. For More Information.


(1) Making ourselves dumber

For ten years the FM website has reported the rise of “fake news” (I wish I had thought of that name). Now journalists have discovered this social disease, from a Buzzfeed study showing that “Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook“. Both Left and Right see it only in their foes, insisting that their tribal truths are factual.

Comments on the FM website show this dynamic in action. Its diverse readership is ideologically diverse. Readers squeal with rage when their biases are peeled off like scabs and exposed to daylight. It is equally clear on Twitter, as unfollows surge following tweets of facts that disturb the sleep of ideologues on the Left or Right.

Propaganda magnifies the power of our elites. It recruits people to useful causes, prevents people from finding common ground against the 1%, and mints money (fake news sites are baskets of linkbait for advertisers). Zero Hedge is a classic example. Fox News is the ur-example (the Right is more successfully commercial at this game).

Fake news websites institutionalize this process, and profit from it. These engines of disinformation produce slanted streams of over-simplified information and exaggerated conclusions, mockery of those (especially experts) with different viewpoints, and outright lies. These induce and boost tribalism, closing their audience off from other viewpoints, other knowledge, awareness of uncertainties, and the ability to form balanced viewpoints. These websites are, I fear, increasingly becoming one of the major sources of news to Americans. No matter how intelligent and well-educated the readers, relying on these websites makes them dumber.

No wonder we have become polarized as a nation, when we cannot agree on simple facts. How can we find a common future, when we cannot begin discussions about values and trade-offs because each side considers the other — correctly — deluded about simple things.

Tribal Truth

(2) Causes of fake news

Divide et impera.
– Divide and rule. It worked for Rome, as it does for our 1%.

What caused this increase in propaganda? Journalists flatter their audience, as always, blaming bad guys. But consumers create demand in a free market society like America. Vendors just give people what they want. So the better question is why have we become so susceptible to propaganda? It is a bitter question, and so we will refuse to hear it.

My wild guess: we suffer from a lack of seriousness, so that our opinions on important issues become matters of tribal identity and entertainment. These tribal beliefs, including the exaggerations and lies, function as group markers. Much as did the codes of the ancient Israelites (dietary rules and circumcision).

In our nation of increasingly atomized individuals — without the clan, community, and corporate loyalties that for so long defined Americans (for examples see Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community) — these tribes provide allegiances for the people of New America. People can have strongly held beliefs, be dedicated to saving the nation or even the world, with no obligations for personal action and no reason to mark one’s beliefs to the real world.

These are different from the allegiances that built America. Abolitionists, suffragettes, unionists, civil rights activists — these were serious mass movements, which limited their members’ fantasy football-like disregard for reality.

The Truth key

(3) Reforming America

The problem and solution are both the man in the mirror. If we wish to save America, we should dedicate ourselves to seeing clearly, forsaking ideological blinders, being skeptical to information from both friends and foes, and evaluating experts by their record (not how pleasing their stories).

America is awash in foodies, and people obsessed with glutton, carbs, and things I prefer not to think about. If only we gave such attention to our sources of news and guidance. We must pay as much attention to how we feed our minds as to what we put in our stomachs.

One easy first step: read sources that you disagree with. If you think the New York Times is hopelessly liberal, or the IPCC’s forecasts too conservative, try reading them. Dedicate yourself to finding the truth.

It’s not an easy path. Life is more difficult outside the cocoons of Left and Right. Perhaps eventually enough Americans will emerge to form the basis for a movement to save the Second Republic, or begin to build a Third Republic. The long follies of Campaign 2016 show that day has not yet come. I cannot even see it in our future.

Clear vision

(4) Distinguishing good from bad sources

See “Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook” at Buzzfeed.

For advice how to more easily distinguish good from fake sources see “The Fact Checker’s guide for detecting fake news” by Glenn Kessler at the WaPo. Melissa Zimdars (Assoc Prof of Communications at Merrimack College) wrote “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources“.

When you see a great story from an unfamiliar website (even if, like all good urban legends, it’s given you by a familiar source), you can check it on Fake News Watch. You should bookmark Snopes – busting fake news before people spoke of fake news. It’s an essential tool in the fake news era, revealing sources of info that you can’t trust. See their “Snopes’ Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors“.

New research says this problem is getting worse. NPR: “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real.” The Stanford study: “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning.”

See the follow-up post Understanding the causes and making of fake news.  Also see this important advice: Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America. About “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”.

(5) For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See the links at the pages about tribalism, about information and disinformation, about the quiet coup in America and about reforming America: steps to new politics. Especially see these…

16 thoughts on “Ways to deal with those guilty of causing the fake news epidemic”

  1. Very nicely put. The increasing tribalism of our society has certainly led to divides which are now almost unable to be bridged. Those on both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of simply trying to shout their opponent down, rather than understanding their point of view. As such, debate descends into name-calling, violence and focus on trivialities rather than the important issues at hand.

  2. Well, I admit I’m a Brit so I was thinking of this in terms of Brexit more than the unfortunate events of your election, though both are linked. Over here, as I’m sure you know, the divide over our recent exit has got really poisonous, with right-wing Brexiteer papers calling judges ‘enemies of the people’ for upholding English (I repeat, English, not EU) law, and similarly many Left-leaning papers deriding Brexit as an inherently racist decision to take.

    I agree entirely that you should read the opposing views as much as you can and maintain a healthy scepticism. I try to do it myself as much as possible, though I admit I find some more extreme stuff hard to stomach.

    I recently wrote a similar post myself touching on this issue, though not to the depth of yours. The idea of Fake News Watch is very interesting – I admit that I had not heard of it before reading this, so I thank you for highlighting it’s existence.

    1. I’ve been writing about “fake news” for a decade (now kicking myself for not using this snazzy label); the For More Info section has links. It’s an affliction of both Left and Right in America. Lots of people who fail the 5 minute rule: they sound sensible for 5 minutes, then start talking about the Fed crushing freedom, ObamaCare being slavery, tens of thousands of species going extinct every year, and climate change exterminating the human race in 50-70 years or so.

      Is this a large problem in the UK?

  3. I think it is less prevalent but growing, especially in the last year and – worryingly – more in the mainstream political discourse. For instance, the Leave Campaign kept banging on about a supposed “£350 million” that we send to the EU every day and which they would spend on the NHS. Turns out it was a complete lie, but people wholeheartedly believed it and it probably helped swing the vote.

    On the other hand, you had the pro-Remain Prime Minister ludicrously warning of nuclear war if the UK left the EU.

    The whole Referendum event was a shambles of lies, misinformation and negativity from both sides, not helped by the newspapers screaming about either armies of nazi racists or hordes of job-stealing immigrants, depending on their political stance. Certainly it can be hard to argue with people who only read one newspaper, their views are often so skewed they fundamentally cannot understand different viewpoints and treat their own with healthy skepticism.

  4. “My wild guess: we suffer from a lack of seriousness, so that our opinions on important issues become matters of tribal identity and entertainment. […] In our nation of increasingly atomized individuals […]”

    These are connected by the overwhelming powerlessness that individuals recognize in the face of politics.

    Unless one has a significant public platform and/or plans to run for public office, at the individual level politics is a complete waste of time. Acting by and for himself or herself, an individual can accomplish nothing. Of course that’s true: imagine the insanity that would result if every person with his or her own peculiar pet cause were actually able to “make a difference.”

    Even if they don’t say it, or even think it, in so many words, people realize this. The reward from, say, studying the pros and cons of water heaters is making a decision that gets you a good product, suitable for your needs, at a good price. Reality matters. The rewards from studying politics are being able to look good to your friends. The only reality that matters is how your social circle responds.

    Things would be very different if voting for Trump meant you live in a world where Trump is president, while voting for Clinton meant you live in a world where Clinton is president. Since it doesn’t work that way, there is no motivation to learn the truth; only to learn the “truth” so you can banter to whatever standards your in-group expects.

    We can’t rebuild seriousness in politics without rebuilding the sense of working together in units large enough to matter but small enough to engender a sense of power, rather than just of belonging to something too big to influence. I suspect it might be that trying to revitalize the old unifying institutions, such as churches and unions, won’t work. I don’t have a good guess as to what could work.

    1. Randy,

      ‘These are connected by the overwhelming powerlessness that individuals recognize in the face of politics.”

      I agree that is how people explain it. It is, of course, bizarrely false. Individuals have never exercised decisive political power except in groups, from peons to Kings. Kings who forget this are often executed or deposed.

      American’s have banded together to change the State many times — the Founding generation, abolitionists, suffragettes, unions, the civil rights movement, gay rights – and countless smaller examples. What’s changed is that we no longer are willing to do so, considering the burden of responsibility and effort too great to bear. So we devise myths to justify our apathy and passivity to ourselves.

      1. We are powerless.
      2. At some future day we will rise up and smite our oppressors!
      3. Things will all tumble down and amidst the wreckage the true believers will build a better State.

      These are stories peons tell themselves. So news becomes infotainment, and fake news displaces the disturbing real news. The 1% smile at this evidence of peons’ unfitness to rule.

      The Founders worried about our ability to run the Republic. The Americans of this time prove their fears were well-founded.

      “Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Dr. Franklin ‘What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?’ ‘A republic, if you can keep it’ replied the Doctor.”

      — Entry of 18 September 1887 in the Papers of Dr. James McHenry on the Federal Convention of 1887 (McHenry, 1753-1816, signer of the Constitution, third Secretary of War, namesake of Fort McHenry).

  5. “What’s changed is that we no longer are willing to do so, considering the burden of responsibility and effort too great to bear. So we devise myths to justify our apathy and passivity to ourselves.”

    That will eventually change too. Hope I do live a very long time. In essence the dominant meme of this culture is centered around the false idea that we are lone entities and that is the way it is. Concern for the Other has been drummed out of most of us and a sense of powerlessness is its adjunct.
    These are old and reoccurring dilemmas. Aristotle addressed it. Adam Smith wrote extensively on such. The “Powell Doctrine” began the current version, perhaps. And before that in 1899 Thorstein Veblen wrote extensively of various parts of the attempts to disempower the citizenry.

    It seems as Mr. Trump will not so sneakily abandon his Campaign rhetoricals. That will not be well received by more than his Dem Oponnents.
    Hang tight, these Spells can seemingly suddenly disappear and the sun may shine, yet!


  6. Pingback: As for the Black Arts & As for Propaganda & As for Psychopaths & As for Sociopaths – At the Buzzard's Blog … There's Justice 4 All

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