Much is being made about “fake news” in the news lately. This is especially true of the Washington Post, who has been on a steady "fake news"
tirade since the end of the election (I counted 15 different articles on the subject from WaPo before I stopped counting. It seems they are
This has everyone talking. A headline from USA Today reads “Fake news threatens democracy, Obama says”. When the leader of the free world says
something like this, it might do us well to listen.
But reading the article, and reading the transcript of the speech it references, one finds that “fake news threatens democracy” is exactly what
Obama didn’t say. In a fit of contradiction, yet without the necessary irony, the USA today article is exactly the fake news Obama might have been
talking about if he was in fact talking about fake news. And this from one of the highest circulated newspapers in America.
Sure, there is something troubling about the rise in “fake news”; and there is something equally, if not more troubling, about real news agencies
passing themselves off as anything but fake news. But fake news isn't the main problem. It is only a symptom of it.
Wading past the misinformation to the same speech misrepresented by USA Today, Obama pointed to an underlying problem of "fake news":
“If we are not serious about facts and what's true and what's not -- and particularly in an age of social media where so many people are
getting their information in soundbites and snippets off their phones -- if we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we
He is exactly right. Without mentioning or even hinting at fake news as a problem of democracy, he points instead to the readiness to believe the out
of context snippets, the soundbites and the headlines, whether from USA Today or SuperMegaTrueNews.com as the real problem. Though their headlines are
“fake”, or at any rate, untrue, it isn’t the journo's
fault if others believe their assertions without considering the arguments and the
evidence. Believing is a property of the believer and not the cheat, the charlatan or the propagandist. The only fault of garbage journalism is the
publishing of sensationalist rubbish.
Besides, if we don't take responsibility for the dissemination of information, someone else will. Worse than the media's diagnosis of the problem is
their proposed solutions for it—worse than the presence of piffle and nonsense is a war on piffle and nonsense.
There is talk of platforms remedying the problem of fake news. This is a bad idea for two reasons. Not only is corporate curation of information
oppressive, but also fallacious. For one, the merit of an argument and the evidence is found in the argument and the evidence, and not in who or where
they come from. Even the National Enquirer gets things right. Even a pathological liar can tell the truth and it is up to the reader to decide whether
he is or not. Second, the pressure put on Facebook and Google to tackle the problem of “fake news” on their platforms is a slippery slope, and a
dangerous one, for it makes them like a corporate version of the Ministry of Truth, the authority on what is or isn’t true news, leaving them open
to corruption, and from there, censorship and propaganda. Censors with a built in profit motive will never operate according to principle, but to
bottom line. Now that is a threat to democracy.
What’s best for all of us is to follow Obama’s advice: Be serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not. If we take responsibility for
what we should and should not believe, there will be no demand for sensationalist news items, and no bogeyman for the media to blame for their
inconsistency. So much for the fake news.
Thank you for reading,