‘True news’ only exists in 1984

Facebook got it. In its effort to ban so called fake news, the company says that it does not want to become an arbiter of truth in combating fake news. When evaluating flagged content, Facebook’s ‘fact-checkers’ will only look at method and accuracy, not at ‘true’ or ‘false’. This disclaimer, albeit dubious, is not coincidental. The clever computer scientists at the social media giant know that which news is true and which is false cannot be determined in a free society. ‘True news’ can only be found in dictatorships.

Philosophers have spent millennia trying to figure out the meaning of ‘truth’. At least since Wittgenstein, who did his philosophizing in the first half of last century, philosophers agree — insofar as that is possible — that ‘truth’ is not an unproblematic concept and that a truth claim, especially when it is about something that cannot be empirically tested, is a very suspect and dangerous thing. Journalists who only now after the US presidential elections cry out that the Era of Post-Truth has arrived are, so to speak, late to the party.

Words and concepts on a higher plane of abstraction, like politics and morality, are often connected with a worldview that the writer considers ‘neutral’, but in fact isn’t. The fake news-discussion is not coincidentally concentrated on these topics where fact and opinion seamlessly blend in with each other. The mistake Facebook wants to avoid with her professed fact-checking method, is making an ideological claim about an ideological claim: Facebook does not want to determine what is ‘true’ or ‘false’.

That would defy the entire purpose of finding the factual incorrectness hiding among ideological claims. The only way to combat fake news without making ideological claims of your own, is a rigid focus on the journalistic method.

For example: A journalist researching climate change interviews scientists A and B. He then produces an article, C. C is not itself another theory on the truth of climate change, but a report on sources and facts. A reporter who wishes to check the accuracy of the article on climate change can check whether the sources are reliable. If he finds evidence that scientist A receives large sums of money from an oil company, he can then use that to dispute the journalistic value of the article.

A journalist does not determine which theory is true, because he is not in a position to do so. He is in a position to show that there are no reliable sources for Pizzagate and that, once arrived at the supposed scene of the crime, nobody has ever heard of a pedophile ring run — whether or not by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta — from a pizzeria.

Another excellent example of journalistic precision is the recent article by Glenn Greenwald, in which he exposes Guardian-reporters deliberately spreading falsehoods about Julian Assange’s ideas on press-freedom in Russia and president-elect Donald Trump. All Greenwald had to do was go back to the original source, the interview that got twisted, to show the deception. That is all that journalists need do to exterminate ‘fake news’. Checking and double-checking sources and the way they are referenced. No need for governments to become involved, or to create special fake news agencies. The profession can recover through internal regulation. The question is, does it want to?

After the loss of the progressive media’s favorite candidate in the presidential elections, some say because of fake news circulated by her adversary’s cronies, the fake news discussion has exploded. Pro-Hillary-media are usually in favor of a ban on ‘fake news’, pro-Trump- and nonpartisan media are usually against. What is considered ‘fake’ is so strongly correlated with political views that combating fake news is a hornet’s nest a market party like Facebook, that offers its services to both left-wing and right-wing users, wants to steer well clear of.

Now Facebook has vowed it has no intention to become an arbiter of truth through fact-checking, it narrowly escapes further comparisons to Orwell’s 1984. The dystopian novel’s protagonist works at the Ministry of Truth and has a full-time job rewriting (media)reports to align them with the new absolute truth, imposed by the totalitarian leader of Oceania, Big Brother.

In an unfree society like 1984’s Oceania, 2+2=4 as long as the party desires it. If Big Brother were to decide tomorrow that 2+2=5, then that is the truth. The problem with absolute truths is that, in order to claim being ‘absolute’, they can never have not been true. This is where the Ministry of Truth comes in, to make sure that the facts continue to fit the truth. If Oceania is at war with Eurasia, it was always at war with Eurasia and the news articles that report Oceania’s war with Eastasia must be rewritten to remain ‘true’.

In a free society, truth is not absolute and unchanging, but dynamic. The difference between a free society and a dictatorship is a matter of who controls the means of truth-production. If the answer is ‘nobody’ or ‘everybody’, we are dealing with a free society. If the answer is ‘the government’ or ‘Facebook’, we are confronted with a dictatorship of the mind.

Journalists can ‘lie’ in the way they think, speak and write. For this reason, even the most ‘neutral’ of media outlets are constantly bombarded with criticism from people with different interpretations of ‘neutral’ words. A personal example. Recently, the Guardian US came out with a comparative article between president Obama and president-elect Trump. The subtitle was “Obama’s term passed without a whiff of scandal”. This in contrast to Trump, who will begin his term surrounded by controversy.

What got to me was the use of the word ‘scandal’. The author of the op-ed apparently thinks that a scandal is exclusively limited to the personal sphere, like extramarital affairs or a teen pregnancy in the White House. In that regard it is true that Obama has not caused a single scandal, whereas Trump, with his lewd remarks and multiple divorces, clearly has.

But what I find scandalous, is that the drone-bombing of 7 countries and getting to keep a prematurely awarded Nobel Peace Prize was not considered a scandal by the author. Or jailing whistleblowers for 35 years for leaking war crimes in the general interest. Or secretly tapping and spying on the entire world. With a single word, my reality was called into question, and that is fine. That is where the op-ed pages are for.

Reporters in a free country, on the other hand, go looking for arguments for and against a claim. The adversarial process, somewhat demonized as of late, ensures that a journalist doesn’t himself become an arbiter of truth, but remains a tool for disseminating information. The moment journalists determine what is ‘true’, they are walking a very tight rope. Their truth is not shared by everybody and is moreover not absolute. The universal possibility of posting on the internet prohibits media, even if they would all miraculously agree, from claiming a monopoly on truth.

No journalist is neutral, because he deals in words and words are inseparably connected with world views. Fact-checking should never aspire to doing more than checking the journalistic method. The definition of fake news should therefore not exceed ‘articles whereby the journalistic method was not or not correctly followed.’ The more media get involved in the fight over what is true, the more the distinction between news and fake news will continue to fade.

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