Fake News is not the Problem

Fake news is the subject of no less than four Washington Post stories and two New York Times stories today. Unfortunately, some of the analysis in the Washington Post is not quite right.

Petula Dvorak of the Post proposes that “Those who run our social media companies and Internet search engines need to find a way to help a gullible country differentiate between fake news and real news.” Sure, steps by social media can help. But the underlying problem is not with social media, the problem is with the people who seek out the fake news and those who have been using fake news as part of a confidence game to get elected.

Con artists take advantage of people who are willing to believe a story that is too good to be true. They typically bilk their victims out of money. If caught, con artists who cheat people out of money can get put in prison (Madoff), or can be sued (as Trump was successfully sued by Trump University students). However, if the con game involves politics, there is no judicial remedy, only an electoral one. Trump has been correctly identified as a con artist (including by many responsible Republicans), but voters went for him nonetheless. Many knew that Trump was playing a con game, and did not really mean many of the things he said. I don’t think that a majority of Trump voters were taken in by his lies and unfulfillable promises, but enough were to secure the presidency. This is the problem, not fake news in isolation, but the fundamental approach of Trump, into which the use of fake news fits seamlessly.

Suggestions that fake news is bipartisan are simply not supportable. Paul Farhi of the Washington Post quotes an academic: “It’s not like one party has a monopoly on viewing the world conspiratorially,” citing the example of 9–11 truthers. Not so: 9–11 truthers are very much a marginal fringe group, and I challenge anyone to find the Clinton campaign or anyone associated with it supporting this kind of conspiracy theory or using fake news in any other way. Creators of fake news stories for profit are reported to have tried fake news stories designed to appeal to Clinton supporters but found few takers — the interest lay almost exclusively on the other side.

The problem is not, as Dvorak suggests, that we have become a “gullible country”. The problem is that a con man just ran for President and got elected. Against all evidence, the working class voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania who voted for Trump seem to have done so on the belief that Trump would listen to them and be on their side. I actually hope that Trump’s tax and other economic policies do support this group, but I’m not holding my breath.

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