Fake News

All the handwringing over fake news on the Internet prompts within me two negative, dismissive reactions:

The first is that this is just a convenient scapegoat to avoid examining the failures of the Democratic Party in this election cycle. They can’t have screwed up. Must have been FAKE NEWS which misled voters into erroneously not voting for them. Fix that and fix the problem.

Fine, whatever. Pin the blame there if you like (I generously allow this myopia for the time being, only because my point at the moment lies elsewhere). But…

My second reaction is that I think among what we are inclined to think of as “fake news”, very little is actually outright brute falsehoods.

Such things as are actually libelous or fraudulent, perhaps they should be blocked, or dealt with in some manner. But most of what is shared is, I imagine, rather “fake news” in the sense of being ideologically shaded in a manner we find ridiculous. “Immigrants are going to murder your children”, that sort of thing. And this stuff IS ridiculous, and false, and terrible… But not in a clear, mechanical, bright-line distinguishable way.

It’s wrong because it’s wrong, not because there’s something for a fact-checker to point at.

And if we do put moderators in charge of deciding that such news is still clearly false and therefore not shareable, I get uncomfortable. Because the merit determination will just become “Whatever matches status quo consensus”, which is just “Whatever pleases the status quo powers”.

It was fake news when the New York Times beat the drums for war, Judith Miller speaking of WMDs in Iraq. But that would never be classified as such. The source was prestigious, and the claims buttressed the politics of the right people.

“fake” determination at any level where there is controversy would amount to simply enshrining consensus of that class of often wrong people. Indeed, I say to those liberals itching for something to be done, the same board that today puts the kibosh on articles full of conservative idiocy about global warming evidence being overblown could just as well tomorrow decide “Econ professor consensus says minimum wage hikes destroy jobs; articles arguing otherwise oughtn’t be shared”, or some such thing.

On the other hand, if “fake news” suppression only targets articles where there is no controversy as to their falsehood, then it is a solution in search of a significant problem. Such things exist, but did not play that major a role in the election. At least, as far as I’ve yet seen any evidence to prove. The story that fake news swung the election itself has all the characteristics of “fake news”.

Anyway, that’s my skittishness over cries that communication networks don’t do enough to crack down on voluntary sharing of “fake news”.

(P.S.: Also, I’m surprised to hear fake news is a newly pervasive problem. I remember the mid-90s emails claiming Bill Gates would give me a thousand dollars if I forwarded them. I remember entering the Spanish-American war on the urging of yellow journalism. Well, no, I don’t remember that second one. But people told me.)

(P.P.S.: Building a strong “fake news” suppression system, confident in its merit because we’ll put people we like in charge of crafting it, is like that building a giant surveillance program in the NSA, first targeting “clear bad guys”, then whoever but, hey, Obama’s in charge… Then fretting when the keys get handed to Trump! If we’d just accustom ourselves to thinking a few moves ahead, we could avoid these rollercoasters of emotion…)