Learn to know when you’re being lied to, people. And do it quick. Critical thinking skills will be of more help to you today than learning Japanese. (Although, it is a beautiful language).
Fake news is not a new concept. But today, thanks to the internet, we are inundated. We’re buried up to our eyes in misinformation; we’re choking on it. And, much like a spluttering cough, fake news spreads easily.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Eloquently paraphrased by Dr Yuval Noah Harari: “A lie told once remains a lie. A lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”
Who wrote this, and why?
Enter: the Big Lie theory.
The man who is often attributed to those words was a Herr Joseph Goebbels. If you don’t know him, allow me to me introduce you. Goebbels held the lofty title of Minister of Propaganda for the Nazi party between 1933 and 1945, and has been named by some as ‘the best PR manager of all time’. He did, after all, manage to convince a huge amount of the German public to support the Third Reich. Go figure.
A fake news meme or article ‘shared’ once remains fake. Share it a thousand times, and it begins to look like truth.
As in Nazi Germany in the 1930s-40s, the Big Lie machine is running riots in 2020. Through the sharing of memes and fake articles, it’s impossible to avoid. Shockingly, social media posts reach more of the public than actual verifiable news sources.
How many of us are guilty of seeing an article title that resonates with us, or a provocative meme and clicking the ‘share’ button without investigating further?
Let it not be forgotten that these ‘verifiable news sources’ undoubtedly let their agendas cloud reporting. However, biased news is very different from fake news. While sensationalist journalism is also rife and often poisonous, it is not ‘fake news’.
So what IS it?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines fake news as such: ‘false stories that appear to be news spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke’.
Fake news spreads like wildfire, leaving confusion, delusion and unrest in its path. That is why it is extremely dangerous. It is our social responsibility to learn to decipher the ‘real’ news, from the fake.
Dandelions and distortion
An excellent analogy is Cory Doctorow’s dandelion. The ‘real’ story or news is represented as the whole dandelion flower. However, when the dandelion is blown by the wind, those little pieces of it disperse and land all over the place. Far-reaching, but no longer bearing any resemblance to the flower at all. All to often, we don’t go looking for the flower.
Thankfully, there is a way to critically think, and it’s well-practised. Historians do it every day.
It is the job of a historian to decide what is reliable, and what is not. If we employ the same methods historians use to gauge the reliability of historical sources and apply them to our news consumption, the task of critiquing seems less daunting.
You could argue (and I implore you to, otherwise you’re kind of missing the point) ‘Well, what are your credentials?’. I study history- an intensely messy subject, distorted by fake news in various forms. Naturally, I began to apply disciplines I’ve learned through studying history to all the news I consume.
Alas, herein lies one fateful irony: these skills are most helpful to those least likely to obtain them. There are none more blind than those who do not wish to see.