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.

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