Can we overcome fake news?

Emotions, not facts, dominate our ‘post-truth’ politics

Fake news has been around much longer than U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo illustration based on Bataille d’Iena, 14 octobre 1806 by Horace Vernet (1836)

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We live in a bifurcated time.

Real and pronounced, the divisions in our social debate are entrenched and calcified as many seek out only information that confirms biases and inflates filter bubbles; in essence, we think: “It’s true because I believe it’s true.”

This is our “post-truth”/“post-factual” world.

It is as if “the centre cannot hold,” as essayist Joan Didion astutely observed amidst the counterculture anarchy of 1967’s “Summer of Love.”

No doubt, those who peddle fake news—information that’s intentionally deceptive and fabricated—want to sow chaos and confusion, making it hard for many to sort fact from fiction. Dressed up often as real news on social media, this type of misleading information has duped many.

But why do people believe fake news? And what is fake news? Why should we even care? And, if we do, what can be done about it? Fake news has morphed into a bit of a fuzzy buzzword these days. It’s everything from the Kremlin’s online troll army to an epithet used by U.S. President Donald Trump to discredit the news media. And emotion—not facts and reason—dominate our post-truth politics. Overcoming the problem won’t be easy. Scholars and journalists can help, but we all have work to do.

Same old lies

Fake news is not new.

Octavian spread fake news about Marc Antony during the Roman Republic to gain the upper hand in their leadership struggle.

The “penny press” of the early 1800s frequently made stuff up. Lurid, exaggerated and sensationalistic, “yellow journalism” during the circulation war of the 1890s between William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World definitely didn’t let facts stand in the way of a good story.

As well, many newspapers began as actual party organs. In the early days of the American republic, parties sponsored their own newspapers. In Canada, the current Globe and Mail is the product of merging a liberal paper (The Globe) and a conservative paper founded by John A. Macdonald (The Mail, later The Mail and Empire) in 1936.

These days, partisans and activists still exaggerate and spin. Just search #TransMountain on Twitter or Instagram for a taste of the hyperbolic memes—from both sides—arguing for and against expanding the Trans Mountain Pipeline between Alberta and British Columbia’s coast.

These often-funny pieces of mimicry spread rapidly through our social network. It’s just too easy to post and share with smug satisfaction.

More maliciously, global bad actors—hidden deep in cyberspace—fabricate fake news feverishly, hoping to hijack our democratic debate.

Willful distortion

Russian “troll factories” show no sign of stopping, having recently launched new and more sophisticated attacks. And their narratives have consequences.

Their memes matter.

More and more people seem susceptible to fake news, because of either lazy thinking or reason commandeered by ideology.

Generally, two competing schools of thought explain why people fall for fake news.

On the one side, you have scholars who claim partisan convictions blind people. These people essentially believe what they want to believe because it confirms their worldview. Simply put, they want the fake news to be true, so they believe it.

The other camp argues lazy thinking leads people to believe fake news. We consume social media quickly, skimming, not paying much attention. While on autopilot, we don’t critically engage and therefore get duped by false and misleading information disguised as news.

Perhaps both schools of thought have validity.

Combating fake news

Journalists try to combat these fabrications and call out the lies spun by politicians. Indeed, there’s been a “global boom” in political fact checking in the news industry in recent years. The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale dutifully documents the seemingly endless mendacity of Trump, but it may have little or no effect on news consumers.

The evidence about fact checking’s efficacy remains mixed. Correcting misinformation, especially political rumours, is tough. And fact checking can even backfire, reinforcing ideological beliefs. Some recent intriguing research suggests that many of the people wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and T-shirts take “fact checks literally, but not seriously.”

Essentially, the MAGA crowd knows Trump lies—but they don’t care. He’s their guy! This, of course, complicates attempts to reduce the effectiveness of information distortion.

The moon landing was real; this image is not. Photo illustration based on NASA Apollo 11 EVA photograph

The consequences of fake news

Whether blind partisanship or lazy thinking, it doesn’t really matter in terms of impact. Fake news pollutes the public sphere, making it hard to have constructive democratic debates. Our current “centre” is not holding.

Haunted by William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” written after the end of the First World War, Didion foreshadows her troubling depiction of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District with the poet’s bleak words: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

Fake news fuels chaos.

It increases polarization.

Reasoned democratic debate becomes increasingly difficult if different sides have different facts. Canada’s top bureaucrat, in fact, recently worried publicly about the decline of our public discourse, fearing “somebody is going to be shot” because of partisan mudslinging.

What can be done?

Restraining this chaos requires considerably more critical thinking and diligence from everyone, including scholars, journalists and the public.

Academics, of course, need to be at the forefront of critiquing our post-truth context. Critique—with its aim to evaluate and test ideas—is needed more than ever. And its method also presupposes some reflexivity. In addition to spotting and calling out fake news, scholarship needs to understand why some people believe fake news and what can be done to inoculate people against its harm.

Some of that work is already underway. Promising research, done in part by the University of Regina’s Gordon Pennycook, suggests that reasoning—critically engaging—inoculates people, even partisans, against fake news. Cultivating this reasoning in real life requires informative and accurate information.

The news media, no doubt, can play a vital role in this disciplined analysis. Questioning ideas requires good—and trustworthy—information. Journalism’s job is to question, explain and contextualize. Rigorous reporting can help nourish and sustain a more mindful public.

But then it’s up to individuals. We have agency in this. We can make choices.

Citizenship requires something of all of us. But it’s not enough anymore to just pay your taxes and vote.

We need to turn off the autopilot and engage more critically in our communities and our democracy.

We need to open our minds and listen more intently. We need to stop sharing pithy memes and start engaging in meaningful dialogue—especially with people with whom we vehemently disagree. We must seek not to consume fake news because it aligns with our own sense of morality, nor propagate it because it makes us feel clever or better informed.

Legitimate citizenship demands our dedicated attention and our disciplined thinking. Bridging our bifurcated minds and overcoming the threat of fake news demands as much so that our centre can, indeed, hold.

Dr. Brooks DeCillia spent 20 years reporting and producing news at CBC. His PhD research at the London School of Economics and Political Science investigated the media’s role in shaping public opinion about Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.

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