Can We Please Stop Using the Phrase “Fake News”?

How to channel your bullshit filter, more colloquially known as your brain.

Photo Credit Christopher Pluta

When Everything Became Fake News, and Fake News Became Everything

I enjoy my mornings before work. I take my time getting into the office. I brew coffee, cook breakfast, and hop in the shower, all while being serenaded in a rich blend of mixed political opinions and daily global news pouring from my iPhone speakers. Podcasts have become a daily ritual for me and, while I can’t recall the exact moment I began listening to them, I can recall the moment I first heard about fake news. Was it NPR? Or perhaps BBC? Whatever the source, the content I am sure of: Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President. The podcast was describing the emergence of fake news perniciously permeating people’s Facebook feeds with alarming traction, a virus of misinformation.

I initially didn’t think much of the story. One attribute I have always possessed — and valued in others — is the ability to detect and deter bullshit. In an era of fake news, bullshit detecting has a high market value, probably higher than that management degree you paid $50k a year for (if your degree was management just insert a different major and laugh along). However, as many have discovered, lots of Americans do not possess this valuable tool. More dangerously still has been the resulting reciprocation of unwarranted fake news accusations paraded nonchalantly by the public, the media, and The President himself. Let’s talk about what fake news is and what fake news isn’t because agreeing on a common definition is perhaps our last chance at saving civilized conversation.

What Fake News Is

Fake News — as it was originally defined and should be commonly accepted — is news that presents facts that are demonstrably false. The above story suggesting that The Pope endorsed Donald Trump presents a fine example. That event simply did not happen, period. The difference between [actually] fake news and [true] biased news really boils down to the difference between facts and opinions. I remember teaching students in Thailand about this difference. If they could get this, then you should be able to as well.

Facts are the same for everyone. Apples are a fruit. That’s a fact. Apples are a fruit for Billy. Apples are a fruit for Beth. In fact, apples are a fruit for every imaginary B-named bozo I can think of. Manzanas are even a fruta for Benicio.

Opinions are not the same for everyone, and that’s okay. Opinions can be different for different people. Billy thinks bananas orgasmically explode with flavor in his mouth (errrr, or another example). Beth thinks bananas taste like dirt. These crazy kids have different opinions, but, luckily they can both agree that bananas are in fact a fruit.

My students would always get tripped up, however, with how to categorize falsehoods (props to Chuck Todd). Falsehoods, or — as the New York Times has finally come out of the closet with — LIES, do not fit neatly into either of the aforementioned buckets. They’re kind of like opinions, in that they can be different for different people. One person may be mistaken. Humanity may simply not yet have the knowledge available to know the truth. The essential constant, though, is that there is one, actual truth, regardless of individuals being mistaken or unaware of what that truth is. Even before mankind knew what a fruit was or what an apple was, an apple was still a fruit. The apple has always been made up of the biological characteristics that we classify as “fruit” regardless of our knowing it.

Unfortunately, the assault on truth erodes at the very established system of communication that makes civilization possible. Imagine if we did not have to agree on commonly accepted words and phrases. Imagine I take a shit in your lawn and you watch me do it. You approach me blustering “hey asshole, you just shat in my lawn” holding a videotape with the proof, and I reply smugly, “Well, that’s one way to look at it”. We need a commonly agreed upon set of facts to function as a society. For this reason, I cannot understand people that say they distrust the media in general. What?!? How will they know anything? Local hearsay? Yeah, I’m sure ol’ Joe down the street spends time in between wearing a wife beater and scratching his ass crack to track the latest advances the Iraqi army is making in Mosul. We need the news. Is it biased? Yes. Could journalism improve? Sure. But to simply denounce everything you disagree with as “fake” is the equivalent of putting your head in the sand, hiding under the covers, or lathering up for the biggest domestic dutch rudder circlejerk the nation has ever seen.

Realizing demonstrably fake news is the lowest tier of the bullshit filter. If you’re struggling with this one, seek assistance.

What Fake News Isn’t

Now, I’m going to piss a lot of people off here, both the communists (liberals) and the racists (Trump supporters). Note, I’m just using the names the two of you call each other during “civil discourse”. Anyways, let’s get started.

All the fake news that isn’t actually fake news falls somewhere on a spectrum. Let’s call it the bullshit spectrum. What is the unit of measure on the bullshit spectrum? Opinions. Our simple, ultra-polarized partisan spectrum is only two-dimensional because people can apparently only think two different ways in this country. The spectrum largely moves along political bias. Imagine a straight line. On one end — let’s say the left end — you have the super liberal media: MSNBC, Huffington Post, The Atlantic. On the other end you’ve got the more conservative stuff: WSJ [Opinion], The Hill, Fox News, Breitbart. Depending on where these publications are on the spectrum determines which kind of bullshit that they spew onto your Facebook feed. Breitbart excretes ultra conservative, Trumpian bullshit. Huffington Post tends to regurgitate the ultra-liberal variety. However, one thing that that these publications do not do, is use falsehoods on which to base their bullshit.

Now this concept it key, and it is also where the bullshit filter is integral. All these publications [generally] agree on a set of facts. Each publication, depending on where they sit on the spectrum, serves those facts up to you with a thick gravy of opinions that reinforces your world view and makes the news a bit easier to swallow. Let’s take something simple in the news we can all hopefully agree on and imagine it as presented by a neutral source, “Trump Holds a Press Conference”. That’s a fact, right? (I don’t even know anymore). The New York Times sees this press conference, and, being fully aware of its liberal viewership, publishes something like “Donald Trump has Meltdown at Press Conference”. The article goes through the conference and highlights all the sporadic things the president said. Breitbart watches the same conference, and, alternatively to MSNBC writes, “Media Obsessively Pesters Donald Trump during his Latest Showing”. The Breitbart article highlights all the excessively onerous questions posed by the media. Now, the thick gravy of opinions may be wrong in your opinion, but disagreeing with the opinion of the publication does not make that publication fake news.

Fake news is also not a lie that a civilian has told. Kellyanne Conway’s Bowling Green Massacre story comes to mind. Guess what. Kellyanne Conway is not a newswoman! If I tell my mom that I didn’t eat the cookies out of the cookie jar (and we all know that I did), that doesn’t make what I said was fake news; it makes me a liar! Continuing to expand the circumference of the “fake news” black hole only grants it more power, as it swallows up every dissenting opinion made by an elected official, pundit, etc.

What Fake News Does

The irony of the fake news problem is that the fake news itself does not seem to be nearly as damaging as the externality its usage has produced. On Twitter feeds everywhere, one can see both conservatives and liberals seeing a headline they don’t like and simply responding “Fake News!!!!”. No. Stop that. Calling biased news fake news is literally unraveling the only common ground opposing sides of an argument have left, the truth. Watch the President speak about criticisms directed toward him: “Fake news! Failing media!” If we allow this tendency to be normalized, the “snowflake syndrome” I outlined in a previous article is going to get worse, as everyone will constantly be denouncing anything that challenges their worldview as simply “fake news”.

So please. Please. I am begging you. Stop calling things fake news (unless they fit the definition outlined in this article). The very fabric of merit based arguments depends on it.

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