Let’s analyze the concept of fake news a little bit. Rather, let’s start with some examples that give you a feel for how many things might be described that way:
- Reichstag fire
- Mukden incident
- Building 7 collapses while still standing
- Benjamin Franklin’s report on massacres perpetrated by Native Americans in the colonies
- Jack Ruby executes justice on Lee Oswald
- Jon Stewart describes his satire on the Daily Show
- Donald Trump describes anything he doesn’t like
- Japanese Americans rounded up because they threaten everyone
- Protocols of the elders of Zion
- Wrongful convictions based on faulty evidence
- Wrongful acquittals based on faulty evidence
- Gulf of Tonkin incident
- CIA’s Operation Mockingbird
These examples suggest a few questions worth thinking about:
- How much is propaganda like advertising?
- How much is propaganda like news?
- Why do governments, office holders, and citizens take an interest in news at all?
- How does someone acquire authority to say, “This is true” or “That is not true”?
The phenomenon of untrue statements in the public sphere is not new at all. Neither is antagonism between purveyors of news and various public officials, including the president. The only thing new here is the term, which dates back to Jon Stewart’s description of the news segment on the long-running Daily Show. People would comment on his latest reports as if they were real, and he would exclaim, “It’s fake news!” Yet Jon Stewart had far more credibility than the subjects of his reports. Stewart may have retired because the idea of reporting on someone like Donald Trump just blew his brains.
Facebook went along with the fake news fad. Trending news went into the can because you could game it with fake news. Readers became worried that stuff they encountered on Facebook was not true! How did Facebook, one wants to know, become our source for authoritative reports? How did Twitter? Would you check your neighbor’s garbage to learn what she had for breakfast? Do you match your research methods to what you want to know? Or do you let your curiosity run rampant, then believe whatever you see?
Mark Zuckerberg goes before Congress to defend his company’s practices. He ought to say, with Jon Stewart, “Come on.” Who made Facebook an authoritative source for anything? The whole platform was created for gossip from the beginning! If you want to turn the Daily Show’s satire into real news, go ahead. If you want to turn Facebook’s gossip into real news, you can do that, too. But why would you demand an explanation from the people who create these forums? We’ve made Mark Zuckerberg responsible for truth because he runs a popular online network?
His proper response would be, “You must be nuts.” The presumption behind congressional hearings seems to be that if Facebook regulated its ads and other content better, Russian hamsters would not be able to spin our news treadmills, and our heads, to such terrible effect. Mark Zuckerberg is responsible for Donald Trump! Answer for that! Zuckerberg, news outlets, news consumers, news gatekeepers, news creators, and news dependents all pretend we can regulate news so as to make truth rise to the top. The 2016 election was a disaster, and we have to find someone to blame. Our whole country can’t find its footing. Blame fake news!
I’ll tell you something: fake news is not the problem. No one thing is ‘the problem’. We will always have news that some people regard as true, others not. We will always have public officials interested in the news for their own purposes. Thomas Jefferson, advocate of education for its own sake – and for democracy’s sake – commented that “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” News outlets now are no more reliable than in Jefferson’s time. He knew what he was talking about. The amount of scurrilous news washing around American politics during the election campaign of 1800 made 2016 look, if not anodyne, at least rather tame.
The story that made me want to put some of these thoughts down, naturally, concerns Arkady Babchenko. See Fake news and the ‘murder’ of Arkady Babchenko. You have to wonder how long Babchenko has to live. He may be too small to bother with, but for several days a lot of people in Eastern Europe, and around the world, did not think so. If someone actually does assassinate Babchenko down the line, who will believe it a second time? I think Babchenko must have known, you can fake your own death only once. If someone comes after him again, he will have to look at other options.
Every person has to make independent judgments about truth. Lily Tomlin famously said, “We’re all in this alone.” Our judgments do not depend on what our neighbors think. They do not depend on what our friends think. They depend only on what we think, individually. We may wish to make truth a social concept, socially defined and regulated, but it is not. No serious thinker – including philosophers like Hegel and Marx, or social psychologists like Freud and Jung – has ever claimed truth depends on a collectivity.
A lot of things, including perceptions of truth, may depend on collective judgments, but perceptions cannot substitute for individual discernment. A person who turns judgments about truth over to social authority – or to social phenomena of any kind – has relinquished a basic faculty of reason. We are all Cartesians in that respect. God created us to follow his light, which is to say, our own inner voice. Nothing in the world, outside of our minds, contradicts that creative principle.