“Fake News” is now the bright, shiny object of the post-2016 election America, referring to everything from Russian propaganda and for-profit, Macedonian bullshit farms to the more familiar “Fox News”, willfully tendentious right-wing propaganda from Fox, Drudge, Limbaugh and more. The topic has ranged out from the world of politics to big think discussions in the worlds of journalism, the technology industry, the advertising industry and more. We know it’s truly arrived as a conceptual artifact because the right is now adopting it as its own cudgel against what it’s long called the “liberal media.” But in the narrow frame of political activism, I think many of us are indulging in our own form of wishful thinking or self-delusion when it comes to “fake news”.
If Democrats (and everyone else on the left side of the spectrum) are upset and wondering what to about “fake news”, the underlying assumption seems to be this: If you could sit people down, have them read real news, real factual information and make them believe it, their political choices would shift to more progressive or reasoned outcomes.
Put so baldly, I think most people would say this isn’t quite the idea, that they don’t really believe it works like this. But I do think it is the fundamental assumption – one that drives to belief in the need to eliminate fake news and thus, in the nature of things, force people to read real, accurate news since in the absence of “fake news” that would be all that’s left. And really, why shouldn’t it be? This is the bedrock assumption behind most of our belief in the importance of education in civic life, journalism and at a more bedrock level the empirical and science-based society we think we live in. We can’t make effective political decisions without real information any more than we can drive down the road safely without being able to see what is in front of us.
But again, I think we realize that this isn’t really how people’s mind’s work. People’s political beliefs don’t stem from the factual information they’ve acquired. Far more the facts people choose to believe are the product of their political beliefs. In fact, I think it even goes beyond this. I think there’s a legitimate question about how much many people actually ‘believe’ what we call ‘fake news’. In many cases, ‘fake news’, the latest manufactured outrage, functions as a kind of ideational pornography, ideas and claims that excite people’s political feelings, desires and fears and create feelings of connection with kindred political spirits.
Now, to be clear, none of this means that propaganda and distorted news isn’t important or shouldn’t be resisted. The existence of a Fox News, to use just the largest example, is a hugely important factor in our political life. It creates a bubble of self-reinforcing ideas and facts which holds people in place ideologically and politically in ways they would not be if such a tendentious and politically motivated news source did not exist. To use a very extreme example, some of you probably read the tour de force article in The Washington Post about the son of Stormfront founder Don Black’s son Derek Black and how he left the world of white supremacist ideologues he’d been groomed to lead. Black’s story is a complex one. But clearly entering a somewhat liberal college environment and leaving the self-reinforcing, echo-chamber of white supremacy he’d been raised in was the predicate for questioning and ultimate leaving that world.
In any case, all of this is to say that political craziness, political decisions we find inane or abhorrent are not mainly being driven by “fake news” – eliminating “fake news” if such a thing were really possible wouldn’t end it. This is largely a demand driven phenomenon. People want ‘fake news’ (news which maximally confirms their beliefs and excites their fears, regardless of its accuracy) and because of that people will pop up to provide it, whether that’s Fox News or Drudge or teenagers laughing their asses off at us in Macedonia. The converse of this is what got so many people so frustrated during the election. There was no end of information, basically undisputed, that Donald Trump was manifestly unfit to be president: too corrupt, too dishonest, too impulsive. And yet it just didn’t matter. The other forces – a mix of intense support and the partisan reinforcement that took effect after he was the nominee – were more powerful.
So what is there to do?
For people whose agenda is journalism I don’t think there’s anything to do but do more and better journalism. I don’t think journalism’s job is to make people believe factual information. It’s to provide it and in a reasoned, empirically demonstrated way. For people whose agenda is politics and political change, it is important not to be fooled by the limited importance of factual detail can have on political beliefs. It’s changing the beliefs themselves. And that comes from persuasion about deeper beliefs about political rights and wrongs, interests, at the end of the day, ideology. The Derek Black story is actually an instructive one. It was a slow product of persuasion, about who people are, about what’s right and wrong that shifted his thinking and led him to question the factual claims embedded in the racist ideology he’d been raised on. It wasn’t exposing him to fact-checks of racist ideology.
What all of this comes down to, I think, is that we shouldn’t be obsessing about “fake news.” The impact of truly “fake news” – completely made up stories – is likely less than we imagine. But the power of tendentious and misleading propaganda is driven by political beliefs that are not so easily changed and only do change by persuasion, activism and organizing.