Most of us believe we’re too savvy to fall for a fake news site, whether a non-existent Denver newspaper created by a Democrat from California, or fake news spread by the Russians and Chinese taking the most trusted source of information, Facebook, by storm. But the point of fake news isn’t that you actually believe the stories, but that they sow a sufficient seed of doubt.
Sure, some percentage of people actually believed the content such sites (for instance, that Hillary Clinton was behind the death of a federal agent). But a far greater number of people came away ever so slightly more doubtful of what is true. They didn’t believe Hillary Clinton ordered a hit, but they didn’t disbelieve it either. It simply became part of the background, one more unsettled question.
Part of the problem is that the internet has allowed us to live in a bubble of confirmation bias, believing what serves our beliefs because we want to believe.
Many of us are ensconced in our own information bubbles. Few people reject crazy claims based on the fact they hadn’t heard about them before now, because chances are they already have heard about them, or something close to them, from the sites that tend to confirm their biases. That makes them more susceptible to taking fake news seriously.
The flip side is that outlets once considered legitimate and reliable are now fairly openly feeding us news through their bias. Hi, New York Times!
The best (only?) argument in favor of fake news is that the mainstream media has chosen to put aside accuracy for a “higher calling”:
Journalists must decide: is our mission to pursue an impossible standard of “balance,” or to speak truth to power and elevate the powerless?
— Emma Roller (@emmaroller) November 10, 2016
So your choice is relegated to fake news that says what you want it to and real news that says what they want it to. Either way, you’re just being fed bullshit.
While the legitimate media may not be inclined to fabricate news from whole cloth, they don’t seem to have much of an issue cherry picking facts and arguments, adding in a heavy dose of spin, to assure that you walk away with the certainty that their agenda is the only true one.
Misinformation has long been a weapon to mislead, or merely confuse, people. The internet is a new medium to spread it, allowing anyone to create the appearance of legitimacy (remember, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog?) and an echo chamber par excellence.
Bear in mind, without the spread made possible by people who want to believe, the mere creation of a website does nothing. You believe because your friends and fellow travelers believe. You may not trust the fake Denver rag, but you trust your Facebook friends. If they say it’s true, and you really want it to be true, who are you to doubt them?
The dilemma of fake news produced a list of untrustworthy websites by communications prof Melissa Zimbars, plus a tutorial on things to look for. She also raised some critical issues with fairly mainstream internet outlets, though they had not yet made her list.
It’s always best to read multiple sources of information to get a variety of viewpoints and media frames. Some sources not yet included in this list (although their practices at times may qualify them for addition), such as The Daily Kos, The Huffington Post, and Fox News, vacillate between providing important, legitimate, problematic, and/or hyperbolic news coverage, requiring readers and viewers to verify and contextualize information with other sources.
What news sources did she assert to be reliable?
Some people are asking which news sources I trust, and all I can say is that I read/watch/listen very widely, from mainstream, corporate owned sources (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes) as well as The Atlantic, National Public Radio, and various local and alternative sources with different political perspectives, some of which are included on this list. The problem: Even typically reliable sources, whether mainstream or alternative, corporate or nonprofit, rely on particular media frames to report stories and select stories based on different notions of newsworthiness.
Whether you agree with her list of better and worse sources, the next shoe is about to fall which takes the dilemma to a far worse place than a mere proliferation of fake or biased “news.”
Silicon Valley is, slowly, coming to terms with the way its products have enabled the revival of illiberal populism around the world. Only a week after the election, Twitter finally introduced some simple anti-harassment tools that its users had been requesting for years. It’s not encouraging, by any means, that we’re reduced to begging powerful CEOs to institute changes to their popular products for the sake of democracy. At Facebook, frustrated employees formed a secret working group aimed at dealing with “fake news”; eventually, Zuckerberg declared that the company would take several concrete steps to address it. A week later, the New York Times reported that the company had been working on a censorship tool in an effort to reenter the Chinese market.
Forget begging internet CEOs, and consider what they’re begging them to do: leave it up to Zuckerberg to decide what news is real enough for Facebook.
But the recent panicked focus on fixing the “fake news” problem itself seems inadequate, reliant on the belief that merely by ensuring that hoaxes and lies are unable to circulate on social networks, we can return to civil public discourse.
Who doesn’t like civil public discourse? That should be the clue as to what the real problem is:
The question we face now is: What happens when the industry destroyed is professional politics, the institutions leveled are the same few that prop up liberal democracy, and the values the internet disseminates are racism, nationalism, and demagoguery?
Free speech, even if it allows for misinformation, isn’t good enough because it still allows for evil “values” to be promulgated, inconsistent with progressive values which are the only values worthy of spreading. The solution to fake news is to wipe the internet clean of all dissenting views that spread “illiberal” values so that only positive values appear. And then you can chat about it with your friends over a nice chardonnay.