We don’t have a “fake news” problem

People believe what they WANT to believe

fake by 8 Kome CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sitting in a coffee shop recently, I overheard a group of earnest people who are completely opposed to the agenda of our little authoritarian and his lawless regime. They did not seem to have any problem identifying the illegality and raw viciousness of actions like the Muslim ban.

At the same time, one of them said this, “Well, the problem is, anyone can tweet something and you have no idea if it’s true.”

No, that is not, absolutely not, the problem.

If I had turned to them and said, “On my walk to the coffee shop, I chatted with a small group of little green three-legged Martians having a BBQ next to their spacecraft,” I have zero doubt they would have rightly called that fake. If that had been in a tweet instead, I’m sure it would not have enjoyed any greater credibility.

There are two terrifying aspects of what I overheard: 1. these are people sympathetic to the truth and motivated to resist the little fascist boy’s assault on it; and 2. they were earnestly repeating utter nonsense.

Sifting truth from falsehoods or outright lies is not a mysterious process. It’s simple to describe the process and simple to apply it. I’ll get to that in a minute. We must start with an unequivocal rejection of the idea that “fake news” is misleading people. People are believing what they want to believe.

There is nothing fake about “fake news.” They are specially crafted narratives that are believed precisely because they are consistent with the presumptions, biases, and prejudices of the people to whom they are fed.

Why does “fake news” seem like a plausible explanation for people accepting things that support or reinforce their own, often unexamined, beliefs?

Seriously, stop and ask yourself that question. Think about it for a while.

Here’s your belief: “People who are different than I am, or have different beliefs that I know little about, are dangerous and suspicious.”

Here are the facts: You’re far likely to die from a distracted driver using their phone or some white, racist terrorist who is a U.S. citizen, than from a refugee or immigrant from a predominately Muslim country, even one with a poorly functioning government that may be supportive of terrorism.

Here is science: You are more fearful of people who are different than you are because this had survival value. And, you exaggerate things that reinforce your own beliefs because these quick judgments had survival value. This is bias. This is human. Welcome to humanity.

  1. Recognize what bias is. Don’t try to teach people not to be biased. You cannot do this. People will never not be biased. Focus instead of counteracting bias systematically and through interactions between people.
  2. Stop talking about “fake news.” There is no point even using this word. Describe narratives that reinforce the prejudices that certain groups of people have. Talk about these prejudices. There’s a real word and a real phenomenon: prejudice.
  3. Change interactions, don’t try to change people or their beliefs. For example, when someone says “fake news”, you can ask, “What biases are reinforced by this narrative.” Talk about what bias is. Talk about what science is.
  4. Recognize that we will never “solve” this. It is the human condition. There will always be some people trying to take advantage of others. We create systems that are equitable, we’ll never make people, generally, equitable. We create systems of checks and balances. We create boundaries where certain patterns can form and we reinforce the ones we desire, the ones that respect universal human rights. We recognize that information is a fundamental aspect of this dynamic.

Notice that these progress from the very specific (what is bias), to the more general (the idea of “fake news”), to the more general (systems of interactions) to the more general (what is the human condition). Everything important has this multi-layered structure and the connection and relationship between the specific and general must be noted and understood.

A tremendous amount is already understood about why people are influenced by “fake news.” Educate yourself:

We don’t have a “fake news” problem. We have a problem talking about bias. Now you have a place to start.