If there was an award for ‘most obnoxious phrase of the year’ then ‘Fake News’ would have won 2017 already. I’m not even one paragraph into this article and I’m already annoyed about the topic, but like it or not, ‘Fake News’ has entered the public’s lexicon and the phrase is being thrown around with glee by pretty much anyone with an agenda.
Putting a starting point on these sorts of things is near impossible, but it appears the term hit critical mass back in January when Mr Meme-machine himself refused to reply to CNN about allegations he had inappropriate contact with Russia during the election campaign.
And a truly magnificent bit of oration it was too.
From there the term was picked up by both sides of politics, who started throwing it thrown around both as a serious tactic to discredit their critics, and increasingly as a satirical dig at Trump for resorting to the rhetorical equivalent of ‘lalala I can’t hear you’.
And to be clear, that’s exactly how valid an argument ‘fake news’ is; a fairly pathetic ad hominem fallacy, attacking your opponent rather than their argument as a way of not having to deal with their point. In terms of legitimacy it’s not far above calling someone a ‘traitor’ for disagreeing with your political opinions – a way of dismissing opposing views without having to respond to them, or even consider them seriously. And since such criticism is the only way our opinions can ever improve over time, it’s not only cowardly, but a pretty damn good strategy to make sure that your opinions end up being factually incorrect as well.
Problem is of course that fake news actually does exist.
Whether we’re talking about your more blatant lies and propaganda, or just the more mundane (but significantly more common) spinning of the facts to suit a certain narrative, news is constantly being altered, positioned and straight-up fabricated every day, and it’s damn hard to know which sources to trust.
‘Fake expert on violent immigrants in Sweden turns out to be a violent Swedish immigrant in the US, Swedish media reports’ – a thing that actually happened.
When crap like the above ‘expert’ is presented as fact, and when sensationalist headlines like this bollocks are not only legal but fairly standard practice, it’s hard to take anything the media says as true. So big surprise then that the catchcry of ‘Fake News’ is so appealing to so many – as far as they’re concerned Trump is just calling it for what it is, and in far too many cases they’re probably correct (if extremely selective in who the apply it to).
Throw around doubt this damn large and suddenly everything is up for grabs – oh that website claims Trump is beholden to Russia? How do we know if that’s true or not? FAKE NEWS! A well-established newspaper reckons Hillary Clinton has rigged the Democrat Primaries? Hardly the first time a newspaper has lied to discredit a candidate, is it? FAKE NEWS! 98% of scientists agree that climate change is real, human caused and a serious danger to humanity? Cigarette companies once paid scientists to say their products were healthy, so why couldn’t that be happening here? FAKE NEWS!
So deep does this rabbit hole of cynicism go that no one can even agree on how serious a problem it is. Here we have a news article claiming that CNN has “tanked” since Trump accused them of fake news, complete with a graph to prove their point. And yet here we have a separate article claiming CNN is “thriving” since the attacks, based on research into viewer confidence. Which do we believe? The one with the research? But they both claim to have research backing them. The one with the best reputation? But reputation is subjective. Or should we take the safe path and just assume both are full of shit?
A point that would hold a lot more weight if the non-mainstream media weren’t significantly worse.
Now of course this argument likely has a few of you eye rolling already; ‘Of course the media can’t be trusted. Big bloody surprise. Anyone with the barest amount of experience already knows that and does their own research just to be sure’.
And that’s all very well and good, but what makes you think that you are any more objective than the media is? Cognitive biases are a favourite topic of mine on this site and demonstrate just how terrible people are at objectivity – so given these extremely common and widespread flaws in human reasoning, what make you think that you are somehow going to wander into the world and somehow find the accurate truth on the matter? Even if you did, that’s the fun thing about cognitive biases; you don’t know that you’re doing them.
There is in fact a cognitive bias specifically based on thinking you’re better at stuff than you are.
Alright so now that I’ve brought your capacity to ever know anything under any circumstances into question, this is the point where I explain how to bypass the problem and make sure all your news is Real News, right? Well keep dreaming buddy because that is an impossible task. As I’ve discussed here before, certainty is impossible in this life, to the point where anyone who ever claims to be 100% certain about anything is guaranteed to be wrong by default. Humans are extremely limited in what information that can gather, and even more limited in their ability to process that information logically – so no matter what the situation is, who reports on it, or how excellent their reputation may be, they are never, EVER going to be perfectly correct. And even if they were, you would never be able to comprehend and interpret that information with total precision and clarity. Our fleshy thinking sacks just ain’t up to the task.
So what am I proposing? Basically, admitting that we’re crap at this and starting to taking that crapness into account. Admit that you have biases, then go figure out what those biases are and start compensating for that. Read opinions that you disagree with and then figure out why you disagree with them and whether you’re correct to. Read up about cognitive biases and see how many you recognise in yourself – and bear in mind that the less you think apply to you, the more they likely do in reality.
And as for the media, the internet and other sources of information we have no choice but to rely on so heavily? There are thee tricks I’d recommend to make sure you’re getting as close to the truth as we are capable of getting:
- Flip the script
So you’ve found a report that fits your beliefs perfectly, confirming what you always believed was true. Now is a perfect time to get sceptical and go see what other takes on this situation are, because you are in prime confirmation bias territory my friend. Put it this way: if this report is true, then any opposition to it is going to be weak at best. If on the other hand the opposition seems to have a few decent points on their side… might be time to do some wider reading. Case in point: I am an environmentalist and love me some renewable energy, including PV cells. So that means now is an excellent time to go research their down-sides, which it turns out there are definitely a few of.
2. Check for unlikely allies
How do you tell if a piece of information is biased or not? Well one pretty reliable indication that it isn’t is when your ideological opposition agrees with some or all of it. Left wingers are into social justice, regulation and environmental sustainability, so if you see a left-wing-leaning site promoting any of these then you’d be right to be sceptical – because of course they’d say those things are important, right? But if you check out a couple of right-wing-leaning papers and find them either reporting the same essential facts, or even better, outright agreeing with the left-wing’s take on the situation, then odds are good you’ve got a quality report on your hands. Case in point: when conservative think tanks agree that Trump’s taxation plan will actually increase taxes for middle-class folk, then you know that plan has problems.
3. Go directly to the source
So you’ve found a news article claiming that research proves/disproves something you care a lot about. Hooray/Boo. But before you go celebrating/protesting right away, it might be worth remembering that the media are a pack of bastards as we’ve already established, and that they’re not necessarily representing that research honestly. So just Ctrl-C the name of the study, google it up, find an abstract of the study in question (usually pretty easy) and find out for yourself what the research says. Of course why do we have any reason to believe that the research itself is any less biased? Well frankly it still will be, but unlike the news media and its wonderfully rational audiences, scientists are held to slightly higher standards – specifically that the scientific method assumes that all findings are wrong until proven otherwise, and that the standard process for credible research is to have your peers try and tear it to pieces before it can be published. It certainly ain’t a perfect system, but it pretty damn solid compared to virtually every other source of info.
In this crazy, wonderful world of ours the simple fact is that certainty about anything is completely impossible (yes, including in this statement, smartarse). Perfect truths may indeed be out there, but so long as we’re wandering around in these flesh tubes and relying on our puny, limited senses and brains that are geared for sex, survival and not much else, we are not going to be able to grasp them. But we still need to function and so we fall back on what might as well be the motto for the human race: do the best you can with what you have. We might not be perfect, but we can at least take that into account when we choose what to believe.