What to Do About Fake News

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

During the holidays, I ran across an excellent series of posts titled "The Sniff Test," by philosopher Ben Bayer, regarding the "fake news" controversy that either started or gained prominence during the last election cycle. Bayer offers the following diagnosis of the problem:

Fake news sites exist mainly because they can make a fly-by-night profit by attracting eyeballs to ads. That means that they continue to exist because readers believe fake news and are willing to share it. But these readers should know better. A few moments of reflection is usually all that's needed to check the temptation to believe a fake or misleading story. The fault, dear readers, is not in our social media, but in ourselves. [bold added]
Bayer's words are directed at two kinds of people: (1) Those who could stand to consider stories more critically, and (2) those who know there is a problem and wish to do something about it. These types are not mutually exclusive, as anyone who reads the series will realize. That said, Bayer offers the following advice for those of us in the second category:
... Rather than just telling your friends they've posted fake news [or calling for censorship -- ed], you might give them a tool to help avoid a similar mistake in the future. If you find my advice useful, consider sharing this article or any of its sequels with people who spread misleading information online. Or just share some of the advice.

In my next five posts, I'll describe important critical questions we should ask about the stories we hear online. Eventually I'll include a separate link to an essay about each question here, so you can share just the one you might think an offending poster needs to ask him or herself:

(1) What is the source of this story and what do I know about it?

(2) How likely is the story to be true in the first place?

(3) If this story were true, what else would be true?

(4) Does the story represent its own facts honestly?

(5) Why do I want to believe this story is true? [format edits]
To this, all I can add is that, although I, too, am known "as someone who likes to posts links from Snopes" and already had a decent feel for how to assess the credibility of a story, I learned quite a few things from the series, and I strongly recommend reading and heeding the advice therein.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

This fake news "controversy" has rather terrifying implications. Leave aside, for a moment, propaganda--how do you classify news sources that are simply wrong? Anyone doing investigative journalism is going to make errors; the nature of learning new things is that sometimes you're wrong. At what point does "wrong" become "fake"? The dividing line between the two is not nearly as firm as people want to believe; for example, often two people can look at the same facts and come to different, even opposite, conclusions. To give another example, tabloids often include real facts along with made-up nonsense. This gives any governing body (government or industry watchdog group) almost unlimited leeway to declare news fake. There is no way to draft an objective criteria for differentiating between fake and real news, and attempting to do so via legislative fiat or the equivalent is something akin to attempting to shave your beard with a claymore landmine--it'll make a bloody mess, and won't actually do the job!

I do get grim amusement out of one aspect of this, though. When Trump declared that he wouldn't accept the election as valid if he lost, the Democrats lost their minds. Now Trump has won, and the Democrats are throwing every Leftist attack they can at him to avoid accepting the results as legitimate--they were hacked, the public was fooled by a false consciousness, what have you. When Republicans point out that news is biased, they're paranoid conspiracy-theorist Doomsday cultists. When the Left doesn't get their way, suddenly the news system in the USA is broken and we must abandon the First Amendment to fix it! This election has demonstrated, in the type of clarity one expects in a novel but rarely sees in real life, that the two sides of our political spectrum really are two sides of the same coin.

Gus Van Horn said...


There is an important difference between the government declaring news to be fake or genuine and a watchdog group doing so: No one is being forced to fund or in any way abide by the judgements of the latter.


Dinwar said...

I quite strongly disagree, but I think a big reason is that I used the wrong term. Having a site like Snopes (or Consumer Reports) that's dedicated to sifting fact from fiction is one thing--that's a normal part of capitalism and perfectly moral, and probably what you thought I meant by "watchdog group". A conglomerate of media sources agreeing to "unite against fake news" runs the very real risk of ending up being like the union of railroads in Atlas Shrugged: an organization fundamentally opposed to capitalism and independence. When I said "watchdog group" I meant the type of group being discussed in the current story arc in the webcomic "Least I Could Do".

I also think that there's real danger in the way we're discussing fake news. Something like Snopes represents a division of intellectual labor, but in a way that seems fundamentally different from what Google, Facebook, et al. are proposing. Snopes says "Here's a story, here's what we can find out about it." Google and Facebook are proposing restricting access to news stories. I agree that they are private enterprises, so can operate as they wish--but at the same time, the union of railroads in Atlas Shrugged was a private group, and the elimination of the Pheonix-Durango was still a vile act. (Not that I'm saying Atlas Shrugged should be considered an infallible holy book, but it gives a great example.) I think there are real issues with someone else deciding what people will have access to--even if it starts well, there are too many opportunities for abuse.

The other problem is that Snopes operates from the perspective that people are fundamentally intelligent. It gives the data and says "Here's our conclusion", but lets you draw your own. In contrast, what Google, Facebook, et al. are proposing fundamentally treats people as too stupid to make their own choices. They are proposing to tailor the news they provide because--and they've been pretty open about it--they don't think people are smart enough to figure it out for themselves. Combined with my point above, this becomes really problematic.

I acknowledge that I'm running very close to several moral lines (again, Facebook and Google are private companies), but I think these are major issues that we need to consider on this topic. This is particularly true since the only reason we're discussing it is because one side of the political spectrum is throwing a temper tantrum and flailing about trying to figure out how to make sure they get their way in the future.

Gus Van Horn said...


Ah. I see your point, which is similar to one I recall Robert Tracinski make. That could potentially make it quite hard to hear underreported news or alternative takes on propaganda (or outright phoniness) pushed by major outlets, but it would not be impossible.