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.
“There’s none so blind as they that won’t see.”
— Jonathan Swift’s Polite Conversation (c. 1738).
- Making ourselves dumber.
- Causes of fake news?
- Reforming America.
- Distinguishing good from bad sources.
- 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.
(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.
(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.
(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…
- We cannot agree on simple facts and so cannot reform America.
- Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda.
- American politics is a fun parade of lies, for which we pay dearly.
- Explaining things you need to know: Politics in modern America: A users’ guide for journalists and reformers.
- The Big List of Lies by our Leaders. Post it everywhere to change America.