The word ‘bullshit’ doesn’t have many good synonyms. ‘Balderdash’, ‘humbug’ and ‘boloney’ are close, but archaic.
That’s unfortunate. The topic of bullshit is important to discuss. Most of us don’t use profanity in polite conversation, so we don’t talk about bullshit. Telling lies is morally bad, but the word ‘lie’ isn’t profane. ‘Bullshit’ is perhaps the only swear word that doesn’t describe a vulgar concept.
We teach our kids not to lie. Maybe if we didn’t have to swear to do so, we’d teach them not to bullshit too.
What is bullshit?
Harry Frankfurt, a Princeton professor of philosophy emeritus, wrote a fantastic academic paper: On Bullshit. If you’d prefer a 5-minute version, check out this Jon Stewart interview (or this or this).
Frankfurt’s distinction between lying and bullshitting is as such:
A liar is someone who believes they know the truth and deliberately mis-represents the truth.
A bullshitter has little or no concern for the truth either way. The bullshitter aims to tell a narrative, or simply to impress. Facts are useful to the bullshitter if they align with the narrative—otherwise they’ll be ignored, stretched, or improvised.
The liar at least cares enough about the truth to learn it for themselves. Often the bullshitter is not interested in learning the truth whatsoever.
Bullshit is far more prevalent in today’s media environment than lying. Both lies and bullshit are morally troubling, but liars are easier to spot than bullshitters. And while the liar may be scorned for lying, the bullshitter might instead be celebrated for advancing an agenda. Bullshit represents a fundamental disrespect for truth—it is more dangerous to society than lying.
When bullshit enters the news room
The decline of monetization options for journalism has correlated with the rise of bullshit in media. Digging up truth is time-consuming and expensive. Writing bullshit is far easier and more profitable.
There are still noble, hardworking investigative journalists doing important work and breaking stories. But minutes after breaking, the story spreads across other sites. The facts dug up by the original journalist are packaged into narratives and re-sold to eager partisan readers, often on both sides. Readers can pick whichever narrative they like to filter virtually every new political fact.
If the original journalist’s goal was truth-telling, sadly the opposite effect is often had. More readers wind up hearing the story filtered through bullshit narratives of partisan publishers. The story is hijacked, along with the ad revenue, and the decline of journalism marches on.
You can bullshit while telling the truth
Telling some truths while omitting others is still bullshit. Telling a narrative across multiple articles, so a thematic agenda is expressed, is bullshit. If an outlet posts only good news and nothing bad about a political candidate, they are bullshitters. “Explaining the news” as opposed to “reporting the news” is often a sign of bullshit.
It’s everywhere and it blinds us
Breitbart News is easy to identify as being narrative-driven bullshit. Yet high-brow bullshit exists too. Great writing, beautiful design & high production values don’t suddenly turn an agenda into truth.
Bullshit is most difficult to detect when the bullshitter’s political agenda aligns with your own. It’s comforting to have your beliefs reinforced, but also dangerous. Partisan news has been shown to affect how the brain functions. Reading the same narrative again & again reinforces neural pathways in your brain.
We just elected a Bullshitter-in-Chief
Donald Trump spun a political narrative that resonated with 47.2% of Americans. Clearly effective, but was it backed up by facts? Trump likely doesn’t care.
Donald Trump is a master bullshitter. Trump said what he said to advance his agenda with very little regard for the truth. Sometimes facts supported his agenda, but usually not. Trump understood the bullshit-driven media environment so well that he turned his fact-light message into an advantage. Bullshit news media loves a good narrative, true or false.
When PolitiFact declared Trump said 6.5 times more “pants-on-fire” lies than Hillary Clinton, what did Trump do? He simply spun bullshit about the fact checkers. Trump’s narrative that fact checkers were “dishonest scum” out to sink his campaign resonated with his voter base.
Maybe if we judged bullshitters like we do liars, we could have seen Trump’s game from a mile away.
How do we fix this?
Several media outlets recently called for Facebook to start fact-checking news. Such a plan might not solve much. Fact-checking is about calling out lies, not calling out agendas.
We need to judge media on two axes: truth and bullshit, rather than merely whether an outlet lies or not. You can bullshit without lying—in fact, that’s the objective of most partisan news sites: to filter truth through an agenda.
We need to pressure media companies towards the top right of this graph. If Facebook can help with that, great. But this is a hard problem to fix with an algorithm, perhaps impossible. Even reducing fake news is tricky when the truth can be difficult to discern—just look at our court system. Even so, fake news represents a tiny drop of stories versus an ocean of bullshit.
What can I personally do?
Seek out news that doesn’t have an agenda. Buy a subscription to an honest, no-bullshit newspaper if you can afford it. Journalists at such newspapers are on the front lines of the war against bullshit media. Start treating partisan news like dessert, not the main course of your media diet.