Fake news, fake information, fake facts are garbage

Although I’m fairly current on many topics, I readily admit I was mystified by the arrival of fake news. What could this be? News that wasn’t true? In the magazine business there is a category of publications dedicated to this concept…the tabloids, those ludicrous weeklies that offer grotesque photo-manipulations to accompany headlines so bizarre they defy common sense. Found in racks at supermarket checkout counters and convenience stores, I always wondered who would actually be drawn to these. They’re like printed versions of absurd comedy routines.

My wife wondered how these publications got away with their content, and I noted they had a staff of lawyers to handle the inevitable lawsuits. Unlike newspaper tabloids, which reek of excess and marginal taste but don’t traffic in making-it-up nonsense, these tabloids consist of content that requires suspension of disbelief. Fake news had to be something different to deserve a new category. I assumed perhaps content that seems unlikely but not completely ridiculous.

I was so wrong. When I became aware of what kinds of stories fake news consisted of, I was astonished anyone with functional intelligence could give any credence to them. But, of course, those who are gullible, low-information individuals are not intelligent. They don’t posses common sense. They are the definition of ignorance. They dismiss experts. Their “truth” is whatever they believe. They don’t make a distinction between what is simply false (untruth) and what is intended to deceive (lying).

But what’s the motivation? Why not want accurate, credible information? After all, people can have the same knowledge yet have different opinions as to what it means, what the issues are and how best to deal with them. Denying accurate facts and data is both intellectually dishonest and changes nothing about them. Personal prejudice, bias and feelings about what is fair and isn’t can still exist, although acknowledging these and questioning their value is always worth the effort…just to make sure one isn’t being unreasonable for questionable reasons.

Pick any topic at random…say fairness, and then apply it to any aspect that comes to mind, or bothers you or creates an emotional response. It could be affordable health care, equal opportunity, the effects of climate change. Whatever they are, if the issues are real to you, be it personally or simply perceptions of right and wrong, then facts, information, data all become important. You’ll want the truth, not fake truth. The essential lesson of life here is that pretending there are other truths only delays the arrival of reality, sooner or later.

We certainly are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. We can differ in our opinions, but not in what is true and what isn’t. Fact-checking, as I noted a few months ago, has become an essential part of our informational experience because too many are too willing to tamper with the truth through misinformation, disinformation and lying. While those who are drawn to populism (right or left versions) believe in their “truths,” they are more often engaged in exaggeration at best and creating an alternative reality at worst. Idealists are invariably misguided, asserting that to fix what is “wrong” requires changing what is actually working…but not for them.

Pragmatists have no illusions about what is real and what is fake. After all, a primary tenet of pragmatism is the search for truth. A less noble analogy takes us back to the earliest days of mainframe computers and punched cards: GIGO…garbage in, garbage out. No, not elegant, but still a fundamental truth. Fake news, fake information, fake facts are garbage.
Unlike politics, religion and ideology — all towers of babel, pragmatism is reliable in its simplicity. As a lifelong pragmatist I was drawn to historiography because it represents the same principles. Acquire all the facts and information you can, discard what is extraneous and synthesize conclusions from what remains. It’s imperfect, yet far superior to whatever is in second place.