There’s been a lot of talk recently about so-called fake news. In this post, I want to explore what fake news is, what it isn’t, and what this phenomenon reveals about our psychology in relation to how we take in information from the media.
The way I see it, fake news can be classified in a number of ways. I think about these ways almost like concentric circles. In the centre, and by far-and-away the smallest group, we have actual fake news. These are the stories that you see shared on sites like NewsThump and The Onion. They’re purposefully fake news stories, made up for comedic and satirical reasons. Everybody knows they aren’t real, and they’re there for a laugh, rather than to inform.
Next you have propaganda pieces. These are typically hit-pieces that, if we use a sporting analogy, play the man and not the ball. Outlets that have been known to publish stories like this include Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post. Some examples are HuffPost’s following of every political story in the run-up to the US Election last year with a disclaimer stating that Donald Trump was a compulsive liar.
The final circle of so-called fake news is made up of those stories where news stories are technically true, but that take a clear (or sometimes unclear) political position. We see this in the mainstream press, where we see selective storytelling, politically-affiliated show hosts, and news networks being effectively branded as media wings of major political parties.
In my eyes, only one of these – the first and smallest circle – is fake news. The outer two rings, while frustrating, are not necessarily ‘fake’. They are clearly politically-driven, and may or may not actually be news, but this isn’t the argument here. If Buzzfeed or The Huffington Post want to take a position on Donald Trump’s immigration policy, or the Church’s position on equal marriage, they are free to do so. The existence of these publications isn’t the problem – but what we do with them absolutely is.
It is too easy with social media and internet-driven communication to simply ‘block’ anything you don’t like. It takes just two or three clicks on Twitter to mute somebody, and Facebook will show you targeted stories based on your previous liking history. The trend of ‘unfriending’ and ‘unfollowing’ former friends because of who they vote for, or the political positions that they hold, feeds into the phenomenon of forming echo chambers. These are ideologically pure environments where we’re never confronted by news items that challenge our views, we never interact with those who hold different opinions to ours, and we never have to think about our own worldviews. This is a dangerous trend. If everything that you see online, and if everyone you speak to, all says and thinks the same as you, then of course the natural response to something challenging these views will be treated as fake. After all – you can’t all be wrong, can you?!
This kind of trend also feeds into how we gather information. We have our favoured news sources – typically those who report things that we agree with – and we also have those news sources where we wouldn’t dream of looking for information – typically because they don’t tell us what we want to hear. If we want information, we can go to our favourite sites or online pages, easily find a link, and share that until our heart’s content, and bring up this link whenever our motivations or evidence base is questioned.
Psychologists call this the confirmation bias. We have a natural belief of things that report in a way that supports our pre-held views, and we dismiss and find fault with things that don’t. With the invention of the ‘fake news’ title, we have a new way of criticising things that don’t support our view of the world. Not only do we now not agree – but their view is ‘fake news’. It’s made up, not real, and is driven by malevolent motivations.
This trend has to stop. We need to come out of our ideological silos, have a bit of intellectual humility, and acknowledge that we might not always be right about things. Just because you disagree with a news story, that doesn’t mean that it’s made up, fake, or put together with malice. What we need is an outbreak of critical thinking. We can’t rid media outlets of ideological positions. In fact – we probably need these companies to hold such positions so that we can have some degree of balance. However, we can’t allow ourselves to fall into the trap of a perpetual confirmation bias. We need to consider views carefully, look at how and why others come to different opinions, and examine how we might all work together to bridge political divides – rather than silo ourselves into our respective political ‘camps’ and hurl insults at the other side. This is why online media – particularly political talk channels like The Rubin Report and Secular Talk on YouTube – are so important. Yes, they hold specific views about important topics, but they don’t dismiss contrary opinions out-of-hand. This is something we all need to do, now more than ever, before it’s too late to revive the political centre-ground.