Drawing on my 25+ year history teaching at colleges, my articles cover a range of topics including education, politics, history, and sports.
Fake Online News
There has been a great deal of talk lately, from people with a variety of political points of view, about the prevalence and dangers of fake online news stories. This issue, however, is nothing new. For as long as there has been an internet, it has been common knowledge that much of what we come across online cannot be trusted.
Can You Trust the Internet?
The great blessing (and curse) of the Information Age is that we are no longer limited only to a small number of points of view from very powerful media outlets. Anyone with a computer, tablet, or phone can potentially reach a global audience. The problem, of course, is that there is no filter, which means that incompetent or blatantly dishonest people sometimes make as much noise as the traditional outlets (those that at least attempt to do some real reporting). Yes, there will always be disagreement regarding the proper interpretation of the facts. But we should at the least get our information from people who make a genuine attempt to get the facts right (before moving on to the interpretation).
Knee Jerking and Confirmation Bias
Fake news becomes a real problem when you have a society as politically divided as ours. People inclined to dislike those "on the other side" will often believe, without question, stories that make those other people look corrupt, incompetent, stupid, or downright evil. Often, people don't even read the article before breaking off into a rant in the comments section and sharing the link with their various social media contacts. All it takes is a catchy title or a provocative photo to give everyone another reason to demonize those with whom they disagree and to share their outrage with the world. Fake news both feeds off of this confirmation bias and serves to intensify it.
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Cults and Conspiracy Theories
Fake news also feeds the desire that some people have to feel special. People who actually believe in conspiracy theories seem to relish the feeling that they are the lucky few who know what is really going on. It's similar to the compulsion to join religious cults. While all of the rest of the world will go up in flames some day, the cult members, unlike all of those other clueless idiots, will be saved. And in a world where evil is so prevalent, there must be evil forces behind the scenes pulling all of the strings. The fact that conspiracy theories occasionally prove to be true encourages an ongoing search for more nefarious plots.
Separating "Fact" From "Fiction"
While it's true that human gullibility makes the spread of fake news possible, naive media consumers are not the biggest bad guys in this story. It can sometimes be very difficult for even the least biased among us to separate fact from fiction.
Why Does "Fake News" Exist?
The big question is why certain people are intentionally creating these fake stories in the first place. Their motives likely vary, with these originators of lies motivated by one or more of the following.
6 Reasons Fake News Is Published
- "The Ends Justify the Means." People strongly committed to a particular political party or ideology may think that the ends justify the means. Because their cause is just, it is okay to make up stuff that increases their side's chances of winning. When it comes to politics, humans tend to be swayed more by emotion than reason, and a compelling fictional story may be needed sometimes to capture the voters' hearts. With the stakes so high, conventional spinning of facts may not be enough. Alternative facts are needed to save the country.
- "I'm Better Than Those Guys." Some people, for whatever reason, take pleasure in making other people look stupid. Maybe they have the need to feel smarter than other people. Maybe they have given up on the human race, and the only pleasure they have left is laughing at the absurdity of it all. You might call it the Andy Kaufman syndrome: taking immense pleasure in an inside joke that only you know about. I was listening to a Planet Money podcast a while back in which a successful spreader of fake news said he was doing it to make people with certain beliefs look foolish. So he was creating anti-liberal conspiracy theories with the ultimate goal of making the conservatives who believed them look bad. He then hoped that some of these conservatives might reform themselves and stop holding such simplistic beliefs. It's hard to know if this guy was telling the truth. He was, after all, making a lot of money from his "business."
- "Money Trumps Everything." The most common business model for people who try to make money on the internet is to attract as many eyeballs as they can. Once they get the readership, they can then sell ads on their sites. Provocative fake stories can be a great strategy for a creative writer seeking to attract those eyes. When people believe something is real, it becomes much more compelling. Also, if a person is savvy enough to realize that a certain easily manipulated audience is out there, then he or she can tell this niche audience what it wants to hear. People with mental health problems, for instance, can be an audience particularly easy to manipulate, and it can be argued that people on the political extremes by definition have a form of mental illness.
- Mental Illness and Other Pathologies. Some originators of fake news may be mentally ill themselves, deluded enough to actually believe the crap that they are writing. Some may even be pathological liars with a strange compulsion to make stuff up and share it with the world.
- Pulling Political Strings. Finally, we have the example of Russia. The general consensus of the American intelligence community is that the Russian government carried out a sophisticated plan of using fake news stories to help Donald Trump win the presidency. The big question became whether or not Trump and/or his people colluded with the Russians in this effort. The focus on possible collusion distracted attention away from several more disturbing and important facts. Russia has not just been trying to influence elections in the United States: It is clear that the Russians are also trying to mess with elections in democracies throughout Europe.
- Confusion and Loss of Faith. The most important fact, however, is that this is not just about helping certain candidates win. The ultimate goal is to cause people throughout the United States and Europe to lose faith in the entire democratic process and in the mainstream media. If you get to a point where people have no idea what information to trust or where they utterly demonize the other side, then democracies can no longer function properly. Can we trust ourselves to base our votes on an accurate conception of reality? Can we trust that elections are fair any more? How can we even consider compromising with people who apparently believe and do such evil things? Do currently democratic nations need strong leaders like Putin to maintain security and defeat those who would like to drag these nations down?
Representative Government: A Political Experiment
This is about more than trying to not look stupid on the internet. This is about more than the meaning of freedom of speech in the internet age. It is definitely about more than Donald Trump and the election of 2016. This is also about the political experiment of representative government. Without an informed and responsible citizenry, this formerly rare system of governance that has become the international standard breaks down, and it is anyone's guess what might come next. Do we drift back toward the various forms of dictatorship that are still common in many parts of the world, or do we move on to something else? The Information Age is at its beginning stages. It is far too early to know what its ultimate political impact may be.