Facebook, Twitter and Google testified before Congress on Tuesday about the thousands of fake accounts on their platforms that spewed misinformation throughout the 2016 election. The issue of Russian information warfare and political propaganda has been closely tied, in the public imagination, with the issue of “fake news” — fake stories distributed to unwitting American citizens with the intent of shifting their voting decisions. It seems to me that important distinctions must be made. The Russian misinformation campaigns of 2016 and the purported proliferation of fake stories are different phenomena, and the first is much more serious and much more legitimate of a concern than the second. Let’s focus on the second.
What exactly is “fake news?” Is it fake stories distributed by untrustworthy and unprofessional alternative media sources, like the infamous Pizzagate reports, which alleged Democratic Party leadership ran a human trafficking ring? If it is, then yes, it’s certainly a problem, but why all the fuss about it now? This same phenomenon — better termed “conspiracy theories” than “fake news” — has been influencing our politics throughout the 21st century.
The 9/11 truthers, conspiracy theories that Halliburton started the Iraq War, questions about the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, the long specter of climate science denial — all these have proliferated on alternative media sites, left and right. More importantly, they have been strongest among the opponents of whichever president was in power at the time. They’re particularly strong around presidential campaigns.
And the people who consume them — always heavily partisan minorities of the population —don’t seem to be people who, when exposed to “real news,” would change up their narratives and let the scales fall from their eyes. It’s not like these people are being manipulated — they’re manipulating themselves by feeding themselves ridiculous narratives.
That brings up another potential definition. Is “fake news” more a question of pernicious, slanderous and factually questionable (but not necessarily falsifiable) narratives informed by very specific worldviews, especially ones peddled by radical publications with an axe to grind? Breitbart News, The Blaze and the Drudge Report come to mind on the right; Truthout, CounterPunch, and Alternet come to mind on the left.
But if you want to use the literal definition of “fake,” these websites aren’t “fake news.” They might not have the same sense of journalistic propriety as CNN or Fox News or MSNBC, but they’re not made-up events and yellow journalism. They’re more describable as entertainment sites that cater to particular ideological audiences by picking up unimportant tidbits of information, including unverified rumors, and spinning them into stories bigger than they really are. These stories happen to align with particular world views and get repeated until they’re generally accepted as true. The Benghazi hysteria, for example, or the notion that Russian interference actually tipped the 2016 election and defeated Hillary Clinton. But that’s not “fake news” — that’s just mass media opinion journalism.
Sure, maybe it’d be better if we all had rational Socratic discussions based on Associated Press reports. But let’s not kid ourselves — a lot of our own news-reading is a reading of opinion and analysis that suits our preferences and is designed to shape or justify or develop or inform our basic world views, not challenge or change them. When we see facts and stories that go against them, we often find ways to explain them away with our narratives. You can be more factually informed than others, but in opinion journalism, no one, except maybe dedicated fact-checkers and reporters, is “unbiased.” It’s a thing of naturally flawed human epistemology, and it is the epitome of hubris to suggest that one’s own epistemology is pure, unvarnished, objective truth, especially when it’s tied up with social values, political realities and other mental maps and reference points specific to our temporal experiences.
It’s widely understood that Facebook and other sites curate stories based on search histories and similar data. The narrative about “fake news” seems to suggest that if tech companies curated more effectively, if people were reeducated and exposed to “real news” more regularly, if we all could be “objective” about “the facts,” we’d all come to right and proper conclusions and be united toward the right goals.
This view avoids problems the decline of public trust in big institutions like media and the social polarization and radicalization that increasingly characterize contemporary American politics. It also avoids the basic problems of politics and realities of the American experience. Regulation of tech companies and better curation algorithms for news sites are probably good things in themselves, but we’d be kidding ourselves to believe that’ll change hearts and minds.
Luke Phillips is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.