The tumultuous 2016 U.S. presidential election ushered in a period of societal division that ABC’s chief political analyst compared to that of pre-Civil War America. With a sense of urgency to fix a broken nation and a desire to act, many point the finger at fake news. It seems that these fraudulent articles posing as news are the agents of change that got us to our divided state of the union. Depending where you’re coming from, fake news is also what allowed the other side to get as far ahead as they did.
But it might be the wrong battle.
There’s a Yiddish proverb about an old man searching for missing keys in a pile of dirt under a street lamp. People rushing to his aid ask him where he lost his keys, to which he replies: “In the field next to my house.” When they wonder why he isn’t looking for the keys where he lost them, he replies that “over there, there is no light.”
The mainstream media has turned fake news into public enemy no. 1 because it’s a battle that feels winnable. Facts are binary; they are right or they are wrong. The winning argument is decisive, and truth can be brought to light. But this is not where we lost the keys.
Allow me to stop for a second and make myself clear: Fake news is a deplorable and damaging phenomenon, and it is the noble duty of journalists to expose truth for the sake of society. However, there is a sense of urgency and priority attached to combatting fake news that is misguided. It takes away from other concerns that may have played a larger role in our current divided state – for example: online filter bubbles and virtual echo chambers
The way people consume news has changed in the digital age. We are continuously exposed to our already existing opinions by our like-minded social media friends. With so many publications to choose from, we tend to get our news from outlets that agree with our opinions to begin with. These echo chambers are isolated gardens in which misinformation flourishes. Joseph Goebbels famously said: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” Our virtual filter bubbles bring such repetition to hyper speed.
Today, fake news would do much less damage if there were no filter bubbles allowing it to reverberate and grow. On the other hand, in a world where fake news does not exist, filter bubbles would still exert the same polarizing effects we are currently seeing around us…..
Also, fake news might not really be coercing people into forming real, strong opinions. In a study about fake news conducted by NYU and Stanford economists published after the election, it is claimed that “for fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake article would need to have had the same persuasive effect as 36 television campaign ads.”
So then why did fake news became the root of all evil? Firstly, as previously stated, it is a low-hanging-fruit type of war. There is a clear villain and it can defeated through the clear-cut tactics of fact-checking. Compare that with the challenge of bursting filter bubbles that cater to people’s innate attraction to like-minded company. Filter bubbles are also a side effect of the drive to personalization (not an evil cause in itself) that guides the online economy.
In addition, one must look to the nature of the bodies doing the fighting – established journalism. In the fake news case, the media is not commenting on a phenomenon unrelated to the media industry itself; fake news threatens and devalues the hard work of those who produce actual news. It’s personal.
However, weeding out fake news will not usher in the post “post-truth” era. In the big data world, there are a lot more facts out there that, in many cases, are enough to substantiate more than one claim.
Pushing fact-checking from research to the forefront of stories might turn an important debate into a check-list exercise that would ultimately flatten the discussion. Much like political correctness, it’s a worthy fight that gradually became focused on semantics and leaves the real causes of concern to fester.
Fake news should be fought. It’s a real problem because people form assumptions that are based on falsehoods. But it’s not the whole story. The other big issue that we need to address is WHY it was adopted so widely. Therein lies the underlying causes for our divided state.
Fake news is as old as news itself, and it historically has its best moments when enough people feel secluded and afraid for their future. People need to be mighty frustrated in order to be manipulated so easily.
It is everybody’s job now to stop being right and to start acting smart. Being smart means looking beyond the outcomes and into the reasons people reacted in certain ways to begin with. We need to understand the human conditions that led groups of people to forcefully embrace a side, adopt false claims and actively detach from one another. Without this kind of understanding, it will be much harder for this nation to move forward in a real way.
(This editorial was written by The Perspective’s founder)