On Real News vs. Fake News

Lots of people have been writing about this, but then again, lots of people write about lots of stuff I also write about. I guess I’m not so much trying to make a meaningful contribution to the debate, but rather get my opinion out there and possibly hear some other critical opinions about it and maybe learn something.

As a disclaimer, let me just say I scarcely watch any news, although I occasionally read news, almost exclusively online. News, to me, is the day-to-day reporting of happenings around the world. Stocks go up, down, presidents are elected, the warmest summer of the century has been recorded (for the third year in a row now). Mainly the small blurps of 300 to 1,000 words that basically say: this is happening now in Germany; this is happening now in your town; etc. There’s not much background info, there’s not often any investigation into how or why things happened, there’s not usually any critique. So, when I talk about ‘news’, I don’t really include opinion pieces or even most investigative journalism (as often investigations take time and these articles aren’t published until months after something happened, or started happening).

So, with that rough definition in place, let’s find the distinction between news (or ‘real news’) and ‘fake news’. It seems easy enough: real news is true, whereas fake news is false. The fake news thing started when clickbait websites started disguising their list-style articles as actual news – you’d usually find out you’d been deceived when the second point to “7 Scientific Facts Why Mountain Air Isn’t Actually Good For You” was “High Altitude Chemtrails” or the like. Easy enough.

But fake news started getting more complex over time, and by now a significant number of people are sufficiently angry and/or confused that they reject the ‘mainstream media’ (or the ‘elite media’) and have moved to partisan fringe-websites for their news consumption. Because at least those are honest about their bias and agenda, or something. This exodus from the ‘mainstream’ is weird because left-wing people find the so-called mainstream to be leaning to the right, while those on the political right usually find the mainstream media is run entirely by leftist liberals (and has been for decades). So unless these mainstream media outlets have separate websites and channels and papers for different groups, it seems reasonable that they’re still rather centrist in their reporting. So what going on?

We come back to our easy statement, that the real news is characterized by being true. This leads us straight to a question which has been debated ever since the first philosophers: what is Truth? Bypassing millenia of philosophical argument, most people commenting on the ‘fake news’ issue go for the simple definition. Truth = Facts. And mostly everyone seems to agree on this.

So, if it’s so easy, how is this still a thing? Because, apparently, not all facts are equal. In the end, this issue seems to come down to trust, rather than truth.

Some facts we’re sure of: I’m a dude. My neighbour has blond hair. Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. But other facts are not so certain. People evacuated from Aleppo in Syria? I wouldn’t know, but if that’s what the ICRC says. Global Warming? Well, 98% of scientists say so, but I barely understand climate science. The economy is up? Apparently, but it’s just a bunch of small percentages in a newspaper article, and I didn’t take economics in high school.

So in the end, you’re making a choice. Do I trust the International Red Cross? Do I trust a 98% majority of climate scientists? Do I trust this newspaper?

These are relevant questions. And a lot of the discussion about fake news stems from a lot of people answering ‘no’ to these questions. They no longer trust their own governments, they no longer trust scientists, they no longer trust ‘the mainstream media’. This is usually where the name-calling begins. These sources are ‘biased’, or ‘puppets’, or ‘pushing their own leftist/right-wing/corporate agenda’.

I’m usually all for sceptism and criticism, but I think these are dangerous roads. When you no longer trust any formerly credible sources, you either believe nothing at all and become a cynic nihilist, or you fully embrace your confirmation bias and only believe those stories whose points you already felt were true anyway. Or possibly both. What’s worse, you’ve now opened yourself to manipulation by outside sources, who can use your confirmation bias for their benefit. As a redditor by screen name of Deggit explained it, summarizing the ‘fake news’ bigger picture issue:

The tl;dr […] is that modern propaganda works by getting you to believe nothing. It’s like lowering the defenses of your immune system. If they can get you to believe that all the news is propaganda, then all of a sudden propaganda from foreign-controlled state media or sourceless loony toon rants from domestic kooks, are all on an equal playing field with real investigative journalism. If everything is fake, your news consumption is just a dietary choice. And it’s different messages for different audiences – carefully tailored. To one audience they say all news is fake, to those who are on their way to conversion they say “Trust only these sources.” To those who might be open to skepticism, they just say “Hey isn’t it troubling that the media is a business?”

The full reddit post is here, and it’s worthwhile to read it, and several of the comments. The articles it links too as well, though they make for a much longer read. Here are two interesting excerpts:

There also remains a residual, 20th-century belief that Russian propaganda can be countered by delivering “real information” to audiences. But Russian TV doesn’t try to prove “the truth.” And what good is giving “the truth” to an audience that has been emotionally spun by the Kremlin not to believe it? Inside Russia today, there is plenty of access to alternative information online, and ethnic Russians outside the country have plenty of “reliable” sources, but their emotional allegiance is to Kremlin broadcasters.

[…]

Freedom of information and the First Amendment are sacrosanct in Western culture […] But what if a player uses freedom of information to sow disinformation. Not to inform or persuade—but as a weapon?

The first excerpt connects with Deggit’s comment that “If everything is fake, your news consumption is just a dietary choice.” The second one states there actually is something going on: an information war, and you are a potential target.

Such notions seem scary when Russia is the enemy, but these things happen much closer to home as well. Some politicians have resorted to systematically calling their opponents ‘blind to the truth’ or even outright ‘liars’. They’re actively creating an atmosphere where the electorate no longer knows what is fact and what is not, simultaneously promising that if their voters just stick with them, they will always tell the(ir) truth. Trump is doing this in the U.S., Geert Wilders is doing it in the Netherlands. I’m sure other politicians are doing it around the globe.

I’m not sure if this is new at all. Probably, leaders have been doing this throughout history. But today, with over 3,5 billion internet users, social media networks, and a huge global industry for PR and marketing, the absolute scale of it is unprecedented. Propaganda-gone-viral can potentially reach nearly half of the world’s population within days.

So, what now? To me, it seems obvious that fake news is a problem. I can’t speak for you but I have serious issues with being a target for propaganda machines both domestic and abroad. But I don’t know the answer, if there even is one. Separating the real from the fake is not something you can do from behind your laptop in those 5 minutes you’re taking a coffee break from your work.

What I try to do is: stay sceptical, and stay away from the news, without losing track of it. What I mean by the latter is that I read very little news for a reason. There’s so much happening around the world, and so much of it is barely of any consequence, that following all the news drown you in a great droning cacaphony of noise, which will not improve your life anything whatsoever. However, not following the news is just a way of sticking your head in the sand, and though anyone may have their reasons to do so, I’d remind you of that famed quote by John Stuart Mill: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Now, how can you do anything if you don’t even know what’s going on?

So, the middle road, I think, lies exactly in those things that I don’t really consider to be news: investigative journalism, and sometimes opinion pieces. I read investigative journalism pieces (sometimes referred to as ‘longreads’, as these articles are often 3,000 words or more, but a ‘longread’ is not necessarily a piece of investigative journalism, i.e. they can also be essays) and also a fair amount of opinion pieces. Both are nice because they act as something of a filter from the droning noise of ‘all news’. The opinion pieces can be a bit of a coin toss, because some critics get really worked up over minor issues, especially columnists who’re being paid to write down their opinion every single day of the week, but when a journalist is willing to spend weeks or even months to find out more about an issue, you can be pretty sure it’s worthwhile.

I figure that reading a few well-sourced longreads and opinion pieces per month will tell you more about the world and what’s happening in it than diving into the great stream of news noise every day. And for whatever news is left that you still wish to read, there are fake-news spotting guides online.

Lastly, I guess we do need to have some amount of trust. Every news outlet is biased, although some are more biased than others. Pick one or two outlets near the center, whose bias you know (and probably agree with), and follow those. Because in the end, the bias is also pleasant, and good. If you care about the environment, you’re better off with a news outlet that also thinks that’s an important issue. If you care about the economy, reading the Financial Times makes more sense than Sports Weekly. Find a good source where you can trust that the bias is not so bad that their journalists will twist or hide facts just to get their own point across.

In the end, objective unbiased news doesn’t exist. But if news outlets are independent and their sourcing is good, then usually their news is independent and good, too. That’s what matters.

Why We Must Not Be Afraid

The murders in France have everybody talking right now. They are all over our mass media.  The outrage is enormous. And rightly so, because these were horrible actions. I’m glad to have already seen beautiful and hopeful pictures of demonstrations, showing support for the individual victims, for the French newspaper CharlieHebdo, and especially, support for our freedom of speech.

There are thousands of policemen looking for the perpetrators right now. I hope they’ll be caught, and that they’ll be judged after a proper trial. Especially that, after a proper trial. To make sure we punish the right people, and not the innocent. Because that is one of the great things in our society – a fair justice system, that offers citizens a chance to defend themselves.

It’s those latter parts I want to write about today. Freedom of speech and fair justice. Or actually I want to talk more broadly, about all the civil and political freedoms and rights we have in our (modern, western) society, such as our right to privacy, our freedom of religion and freedom to assembly. In short, I fear we might lose them.

Politicians are up in arms, sending out tweets and speeches, condemning this cowardly attack. But whilst this is enough for now, people are already asking questions: “How are we going to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” People are afraid. People are angry. People – voters – will want to see politicians taking action.

In a few days, the dust will have settled. With some bad luck, we will see the first proposals. More budget for the secret services. More budget for the police. More camera surveillance. More surveillance of muslims. More pat-downs of colored people. More suspicion of every non-hipster with a beard.

We’ve been seeing this since 9/11. In the name of protecting our free society, we’ve been handing over basic freedoms to our governments, hoping that somehow, this will protect us. It hasn’t, and it has only served to diminish that which we’ve tried and claimed so hard to protect: our freedoms.

I’m going to make a comparison which will sound preposterous, and maybe it’s too soon, but please, bear with me.

The Freedom To Have A Car Accident
Statistically, in western countries, you’re far more likely to ever die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack, or even plain homicide. The number of deaths our societies put up with because of cars is enormous, but yet, nobody is proposing to abolish cars. Why not?

Because cars are super useful. I’d estimate that around 70% of all people transport themselves from their homes to their work by car. Cars – and more specifically, trucks – move huge quantities of people and cargo, especially to places that can’t be reached by boat or plane, or even by train. If we didn’t have cars, our economies would experience a major setback. We could probably manage without them, but it’d be a drag.

In short, we consider car accidents to be an acceptable loss compared to the great advantages that come with being able to have a car.

However harsh it sounds, 11 people murdered doesn’t even approach the number of car deaths we have each year, yet our basic civil rights are more important than any car. It is, so to speak, a loss we have to accept – up to a certain point, of course.

I don’t want to say that we should put up with any murderous fanatic. Just like we work to prevent car accidents, we should work our best to prevent any form of mass murder, whether it is done by religious extremists, violent political activists, or just rampaging psychopaths. But in a society where citizens have the freedom to walk to streets without being frisked by a police officer on every corner, where citizens have the freedom to distribute music, writings, and opinions among their friends and even among strangers, you leave room for error. And we need to accept this.

You Can’t Stop Every Asshole With A Gun
There’s another way, of course. We could continue down the path we’ve set on in 2001, sacrificing freedoms for tiny scraps of security and “the greater good”. In effect, we could choose to become China, where all citizens are heavily monitored, the government knows all or at least attempts to, and dissidents, whether they are (potentially) violent or not, are dealt with swiftly and often silently. This is an option, and it would work fine, seeing as how China is still doing fine.

But I wouldn’t want to live in such a society. I’m far more willing to take the small possibility of three lunatics shooting up my workplace than to have no freedom in said workplace, to not be able to express divergent opinions, or to not have to be frisked every time I walk the streets at the newly instated checkpoint around the corner.

And even in China, these things happen. In the end, there was no realistic way we could’ve stopped Volkert van der G. shooting politician Pim Fortuyn, or Anders Breivik shooting two hundred children, killing sixty-nine of them. Lone lunatics simply can’t be found in time.

This is harsh, because in the 21st century, a lone lunatic – or a group of three – has access to AK-47s, homebrew bombs, and other weaponry that is highly effective at killing. People with modern weaponry can do a lot of damage, because our species has specialised in killing itself ever since we first picked up sticks and stones.

And not only that. We’d do well to remember that our current mass media is largely commercial. They exist to make a profit, or at least earn enough of an income to keep running, and they do so by having as much viewers as possible. Our news is sensationalistic, and it wants you to keep on watching – in horror, if you must. Whereas nobody is reporting that in fact, society as a whole is still functioning perfectly, despite the deaths of innocents people, however spectacular and scary they might be.

Freedom Isn’t Free
In conclusion, what we need to realise is that no terrorist group, no lone lunatic, no murderer in general, has the means to change our society. But politicians do, and politicians are influenced by us, the voters. If we choose to be afraid, to take action, we will lose. We will lose because we will start endless wars, aptly apparent in the imminent bankruptcy of the U.S. due to the Iraqi war. We will lose because we will start thought policing ourselves, as we’ve seen not only in the extreme case of the PRISM program, but also in common police forces using drones to surveillance urban areas, and an increase in phone taps. We will lose because we’re giving up exactly those basic freedoms a religious fanatic is attacking.

Our freedom does come at a price, but it shouldn’t be thousands of soldiers dying on foreign ground, nor should it be the demolition of our justice system. There is nothing gained by the unlawful expulsion of innocent people who happen to belong to the same religion as the perpetrators – in the case of Islam, that would mean 20% of the world’s population is guilty-by-religion. It means nothing to protect “our values” if by protecting them we lose them.

In short, the price of freedom is an occasional lunatic. But remember, we can take them. We’re surviving cars after all, and they’re far more deadly than any terrorist.

On The Solutions To Black Pete

So we have this tradition in The Netherlands. All Dutch readers know. By now, since it has been in global news, lots of foreign peple know, too. It comes down to Saint Nicolas – “Sinterklaas” in common parlance – visiting The Netherlands, or more specifically, its children, and giving them presents. He comes by boat around the 15th of November, and leaves again on the 6th of December, which is supposedly his birthday. Sinterklaas has a horse, Amerigo, and helpers, the Petes.

The problem boils down to Sinterklaas being an old, rich, white guy, and the Petes being black – hence the name Black Pete. They’re not just black, but they’re stereotypically black. And not modern-American stereotypical, but slavery-style stereotypical. Petes are painted very black, have bright red lips, big gold earrings, and 17th century costumes – not coincedentally the period of the Dutch Golden Age, in which slave trade was a big source of income for the country. Opponents say the Black Petes remind of colonnial white superiority and black inferiority, and as such, it’s racist and should be changed.

I’m not going into the debate whether the festival of Sinterklaas is racist or not. It’s been all over the news, and many a debate was held on Facebook, and many a death threat was posed on Twitter. Suffice to say, I think it’s racist, and I think with all the public hysteria over the subject, it’s impossible that Sinterklaas – or especially, the Black Petes – will remain the way they are now. The media and the corporations are going to look for ways to keep Sinterklaas advertisement a thing without losing customers, and the organizers of Sinterklaas activities will want to find a common solution.

The Solutions
Let me start out by saying that I love Sinterklaas, and think it’s the best time of the year to be a kid. There’s candy, there’s presents, there’s singing and fun activities. There’s anticipation and there’s a feeling of mystery around it all. Whatever the solution is going to be, these things musn’t change. If anything, we must make them better.

So, onwards then. There are basically two commonly named solutions: Rainbow Petes and Ash Petes, with most people seeming to have a preference for the former. There are also people who suppose to just cancel the whole thing, as “all the fun has been sucked out of it”, but I think they’re just weary of the debate. When the dust settles, I think they’d be happy to see Sinterklaas is still very much a hugely enjoyable festivity.

In short, Rainbow Petes are no longer black, but they are all the colors of the rainbow. Blue, green, yellow, orange, red, you name it. Ash Petes are no longer face-painted, but instead have wipes and spots of ash on their face, which they get from “climbing up and down chimneys”, which is how they bring the presents to the little children. As said, most people who want to see change prefer the Rainbow Petes, I suppose because they have pretty colors.

I’m against Rainbow Petes, and pro Ash Petes.

Why?
Rainbow Petes don’t solve the problem of Pete being an image of slavery. Just because they are no longer painted in realistic skin color, changes nothing about the fact that they are no longer representating slaves. It’s just that now no particular minority claims personal hurt.

As a thought experiment: what if there was a tribe of people somewhere who were blue? Or green? The whole debate would suddenly apply again. None of the actual issues with slavery have been resolved, it’s just that it isn’t black slavery anymore.

In fact, some aspects of slavery hit me even harder with the Rainbow Petes. At least with Black Petes, they referred to human beings, namely the black community. With Rainbow Petes, their humanity is stripped from them. No human actually is bright green, or bright yellow. There is actually a blue human, due to his excessive drinking of silver nitrate, but I don’t think that applies here. So the Rainbow Petes look like humans, but they aren’t exactly human.

To be clear: during the time of slavery, we used to think black people looked like humans, but weren’t really humans. Not as human as white folks were, in any case. There’s a reason they were commonly referred to as “apes”.

Combine this with the fact that Petes don’t commonly have a name. They’re just named “Waypointer Pete”, “Presents Pete”, “Candy Pete”, “Assistent Pete” or likewise. The standard form is “[job] Pete”. They being referred to by their function, not their name, like machines.

So we have a not-entirely-human being, being called by his function. That’s a human robot. That’s a slave. He might not be black, but he’s still a slave.

What’s Better About Ash Petes, Then?
Frankly, only the first part of the “human robot” story is solved by the Ash Pete. But I think that’s a huge step, and the most important one, because the second part is taking care of itself, as I’ll argue in the next section of this post.

Foremost, the Ash Pete doesn’t deny skin color. It’s immediatly clear whether a Pete is white, black, asian, middle-eastern, or whatever. Pete remains a human being, like Black Pete, but now without stereotyping a particular ethnic group. Pete may still be a fool, a joker, slightly dumb, but it is clear that it is a white person being a fool, a joker, slightly dumb. Or an asian, or moroccan, or whatever person.

What Ash Pete does, is to no longer place the stereotypical joke that is being Pete on an ethnicity, but rather, on a job. Ash Pete symbolically says: I’m a fool, and a joker, but that’s a part of being Sinterklaas’ helper, rather than a part of being black or in some other (colorful) way, sub-human.

Some people might say that the Petes will become more recognizable without their excessive paint, but I think this is a good thing. If the little children can clearly see that the older children from school are Petes, what will they think? That everything is a farce? Or that they, when they are old enough, will also be able to become Petes and help Sinterklaas? If I remember my reverence for Sinterklaas at that age correctly, I think I would have been thrilled to find out that I, too, could become a Pete and help Sinterklaas. Instead of making Pete an exotic, outlandish and thus inaccessible figure, it’d become a voluntary position, a job of honor, that every kid could have when he or she is old enough.

But Pete Would Still Only Be His Job…
Yes, this is the second part of being a slave. Having no humanity is one, only having your job is two. But as I said, I think this problem is, much more than the first, attending to itself. Over the years, children’s programs and activities in the streets and in the neighbourhoods have shown a Black Pete that is increasingly on equal footing with Sinterklaas. They contradict him, give him advice, occasionally don’t listen to him, and are generally more vocal. Sinterklaas at the same time has become more foolish. He’s nowadays more the stereotypical kind, but forgetful old man. He makes mistakes, and he’s less busy with bossing the Petes around.

One of the best developments I’ve seen is that the Petes now sometimes have names. They’re Spanish names – because Sinterklaas supposedly comes from Spain – but they’re names nonetheless. Sinterklaas’ helpers might be named Pedro, Esmeralda, Alfonso, Juan, etc. Suddenly, their functional name – “Waypointer Pete”, “Candy Pete” –  becomes a real function. “Pete” now becomes a synonym for “Manager”. I really hope this trend becomes more widespread, and that the Petes will become actual persons, with actual names and actual feelings, and more than just their job.

Furthermore
I’m not entirely finished yet. What has largely been absent from the whole national discussion is the role of Sinterklaas himself. Ironically, it’s only the pro-Black Pete camp that sneers: “Oh sure, and then Sinterklaas will become black, right?” Well, actually, that’d be a great idea. I mean, the actual Saint Nicolas was Turkish/Greek, so a slightly more colored guy would even be more historically accurate.

Of course, we’re talking about a children’s festival here. We don’t want historical accuracy. We want fun and joy for everyone. So to be clear: I’m not saying Sinterklaas should now always be black. But I am saying, that if we open up the Petes to every skin color, how great would it be to do the same for Sinterklaas? Then, the festivity would truly be for everyone. Children of all colors could feel joy when Sinterklaas and not-racially profiled Ash Petes come into the country. Slightly older children of all colors could feel the joy of being a Pete and getting to act childishly for a few weeks per year, while making smaller children happy. And adults of all colors could choose to be Sinterklaas, making the children happy with gifts and amusing little talks on whether they were good enough or not.

The solution to this is I think very simple and already in existence. Parents already tell their children that Sinterklaas has assistents, the so called “hulpsinterklazen”, who travel the country because he can’t be everywhere all of the time. Why would’t these assistent Sinterklaases sometimes be of different skin color?

I think that if you’d ask a child to describe Sinterklaas, they’d mention his bright red robe, his long white beard, his big red bishop’s hat and his golden curled staff. They’d say he’s really old, and maybe that he’s bit weird and funny. But I think very few kids would ever mention Sinterklaas is explicitly “white”. As long as all the other symbols are present, I think that children would accept a black or asian Sinterklaas immediatly, probably without even thinking about it, especially if they know he’s an assistent, and not the Sinterklaas they saw on TV.

Hell, to be honest, I think children would event accept female “hulpsinterklazen”, complete with beard and everything. That would be hilarious, both for children and adults. When asked why they have a beard, the “noble old ladies” could always say that it comes with being Sinterklaas’ assistent, just as the ash and the clothing and the silly behaviour comes with being a Pete.

In Conclusion
I fear the upcoming media debate, but I was glad to read that there were Ash Petes during Sinterklaas’ arrival in Amsterdam. I hope that this would become a more commonplace solution. The Rainbow Petes are a step in the right direction, but I feel that, since there’s such great resistance at wanting to change the Sinterklaas festival, maybe we should try to do it right immediatly the first time, instead of having to have this awful discussion again in ten or twenty years. Sinterklaas is an amazing feast, with the potential to be fun for all children and all adults. Let’s try to make it that way.

Restarting StepYourMind

For a long, long, time, this blog was silent. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do with it. I figured I’d stick to traveling stories, but honestly, I don’t travel enough to keep a steady stream of updates going. And if I do travel, it often doesn’t come with very noteworthy events. So I’m going to leave that to those with a true travel lifestyle.

I did, however, still feel the urge to have a place to write essays, or just generally be able to express my thoughts on issues that have been bothering me as of late. As such, I decided I should stick with the “Thoughts” category of StepYourMind.

As for updates, I’m not going to promise anything. I’ll post whenever something comes up that I think is worthwhile to write about.

Hopefully, see you around!