Post-truth is pre-fascism.
► Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny, Tim Duggan Books (2017)
The English Telegraph newspaper noted in April 2019 that “As well as being a favourite term of Donald Trump, [fake news] was also named 2017 word of the year, raising tensions between nations, and may lead to regulation of social media. So great is the danger, the ‘Doomsday Clock,’ which symbolises the threat of global annihilation, remains at two minutes to midnight thanks to the rise of fake news and information warfare, its keepers have said.”
And that much is not fakery. But a lot else is.
As this was written, here are a few samples from the site FactCheck.org, which reviews questionable information and debunks a lot of what’s out there:
“Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has not proposed giving Social Security benefits to ‘illegal aliens,’ as a popular meme claims. ... An image of elected officials playing a computer card game has gone viral on social media. But the photo is from 2009, and it shows state lawmakers in Connecticut, not members of Congress. ... Former President Barack Obama, like many major party presidential nominees before him, released his tax returns – despite a popular social media post that implies otherwise. ... President Donald Trump didn’t call for the ‘death penalty’ for ‘suicide bombers,’ as social media posts say. That’s a made-up quote from a satirical story published in 2017. ... A doctored photo circulating on Facebook falsely claims that a California middle school congratulated President Donald Trump ‘on reaching his 10,000th lie.’ The image came from an online generator that lets users enter their own text.”
That’s just from one part of the front page.
What is “fake news”? Many things. It may include satire and humor pieces, and writings that specifically were intended as fiction – but might not have been taken that way. There’s also poorly researched or otherwise sloppy news articles that weren’t intended to be misleading, but through poor standards (and we should remember how small and short-handed many newsrooms are becoming) wind up contributing to misinformation. And outright propaganda.
The FactCheck.org staff said that much of what it reviews include popular memes and viral emails and social media reports, and sometimes the exact category – other than that the contention in the piece was false – can be unclear: “Our first story was about a made-up email that claimed then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted to put a ‘windfall’ tax on all stock profits of 100% and give the money to, the email claimed, ‘the 12 Million Illegal Immigrants and other unemployed minorities.’ We called it ‘a malicious fabrication’ – that’s ‘fake news’ in today’s parlance.”
Incorrect or even made-up information about the world around us has grown to be a real problem. In our household we routinely sift through what’s real and what’s either satire or otherwise not reality-based.
But that’s a matter of fact versus fiction. In a sense, that’s not too hard to deal with; most of the time you can (if you’re willing to keep your mind open to do the work of sorting) work through to what’s real and what’s not. Inevitably, if you do, sometimes you’ll find data that supports your world view, and sometimes you’ll find something that undermines it. The latter is useful, if you’re into thinking: It means you may get to add another level of sophistication to the way you interpret things.
Then on the other hand, there’s this from the just-released survey American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy, from Gallup and the Knight Foundation:
“Seventy-three percent of Americans say the spread of inaccurate information on the internet is a major problem with news coverage today; this percentage is higher than for any other potential type of news bias. A majority of U.S. adults consider ‘fake news’ a very serious threat to our democracy. Americans are most likely to believe that people knowingly portraying false information as if it were true always constitutes ‘fake news.’ Four in 10 Republicans consider accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light to always be ‘fake news.’”
The study noted that “The research community often defines ‘fake news’ as misinformation with the appearance of legitimately produced news but without the underlying organizational journalistic processes or mission. However, some political and opinion leaders, including Trump, commonly label news stories they disagree with or that portray them in a negative light as ‘fake news.’”
Reading critically, however, is not a skill that comes equally to everyone. Consider the story of UndergroundNewsReport.com.
That site (no longer live) was launched in February 2017 by James McDaniel, an American ex-pat living in Costa Rica. Observing the unreliability of so many web sites, he decided to launch one consisting of made-up articles, including such headlines as “Obama tweet: Trump must be removed, by any means necessary.” “Whoopi Goldberg: Navy SEAL Widow was ‘Looking for Attention’.” “Man pardoned by Obama 3 months ago arrested for murder.” None were true; all were fantasy, as McDaniel readily acknowledged.
The site picked up enormous viewership; within 10 days it collected more than a million views. McDaniel remarked, “I think that almost every story I did, or at least the successful ones, relayed off of things that Trump supporters already believed. Obama is a Muslim terrorist. Hillary (Clinton) is a demonic child trafficker,” McDaniel said. “These are things much more widely believed among Trump supporters than I had previously thought. ... I saw how many fake ridiculous stories were making rounds in these groups and just wanted to see how ridiculous they could get.” He even included disclaimers that the stories were fiction, but traffic barely slowed.
Paul Simon has turned out to be right about people who hear what they want to hear, and disregard the rest.