Uprooting the weed of Fake News

Submitted to the 2017 New Philosopher Awards

If there was an award for ‘most obnoxious phrase of the year’ then ‘Fake News’ would have won 2017 in the first month. But obnoxious or not, the term has entered the public’s lexicon and the phrase is being thrown around with glee by pretty much anyone with an agenda. Putting a starting point on these sorts of things is near impossible, but it appears the term hit critical mass back in January when President Trump refused to reply to CNN about allegations he had inappropriate contact with Russia during the election campaign, as a way of pretending the question didn’t exist.

From there the term was picked up by both sides of politics, who started throwing it around both as a serious tactic to discredit their critics, and increasingly as a satirical dig at Trump for resorting to the intellectual equivalent of ‘lalala I can’t hear you’. In terms of legitimacy it’s not far above resorting to calling someone Hitler merely for disagreeing with your political opinions – a way of dismissing opposing views without having to respond to them, or even consider them seriously. And since such criticism is the only way our opinions can ever improve over time, it’s not only cowardly, but a pretty solid strategy to make sure that your opinions end up being factually incorrect as well.

The problem is of course that fake news actually does exist.

Whether we’re talking about your more blatant lies and propaganda, or just the more mundane (but significantly more common) spinning of the facts to suit a certain narrative, news is constantly being altered, positioned and blatantly fabricated every day, and it’s increasingly hard to know which sources to trust.

With the media increasingly polarising towards their target demographics, social media creating echo champers via ‘tailored content’, and the anonymity of the internet making dialogue increasingly shrill, it’s hard to trust any information to be reliable. Little surprise then that the catchcry of ‘Fake News’ is so appealing to so many – as far as they’re concerned Trump is just calling it for what it is, and in far too many cases they’re probably correct (if extremely selective in who the apply it to).

Throw around doubt on such a scale and suddenly everything is up for grabs;

CNN claims Trump is beholden to Russia? How do we know if that’s true or not? Fake News!

BBC News reports that the Democrat Primaries were rigged in favour of Hillary Clinton? That would hardly be the first time a newspaper has lied to discredit a candidate. Fake News!

98% of scientists agree that climate change is real, human caused and a serious danger to humanity? Well cigarette companies once paid scientists to say their products were healthy, so why couldn’t the same thing be happening here? Fake News!

Of course, the world-weary reader might find such claims rather hysteric – media groups are generally private businesses and as such, of course they have their own biases and interests to pursue. Any sensible person should treat any media as suspect and hold them to high standards of evidence and logic, right? And this would indeed be a sensible approach, except for the small problem that even the most world-wearied of philosophers is still human, and as such is about as reliably objective in their assessment of the facts as my left foot.

This is not to disparage any individual or group, but rather a reflection on the fact that the human animal evolved to survive rather than to be objectively correct. As a result, our interaction with modern civilisation brings with it a host of cognitive biases that served very well to keep us alive in the wilderness, but tend to throw a spanner into the works when it comes to dispassionate reasoning. Confirmation bias may have helped us avoid dangerous innovative experiments in the wild, but now tends to drive us away from criticism of our ideas, massively magnifying the chances for us to be incorrect. And while you might expect philosophers of all people to avoid such common flaws in rationality, we are often among the worst afflicted, with different schools promoting wildly different and contradictory theories, often with little or no effort to resolve these conflicts despite at least one of these groups being inevitably incorrect.

This fundamental unreliability of human reasoning goes a long way to explaining why the catch-cry of ‘Fake News’ has gained such power in our cultural landscape, as it appears to undermine the possibility of any sort of proof being possible and reduces all debate down to a contest of opinions. What does it matter if your opponents can bring academic peer-reviewed evidence to support their position? Who is to say that the scientists involved were not corrupted by their biases? Or the institutions hosting them did not apply pressure? Or the groups funding the research? Or the journals publishing it? How do we know that the research does in fact support their position – perhaps they are wilfully or accidentally misinterpreting it to suit their narrative.

Such run-away scepticism is powerful as it provides a license to deny even the strongest evidence against our dearly held beliefs. And if we lose confidence in evidence, then what do we have to fall back on to support our positions? Belief. And the beauty of belief is that it needs only itself to be true. And so we scream ‘Fake News!’ at anything we disagree with, and accept only that information which we already agree with.

While these flaws in human reasoning cannot truly be solved, they can however be managed, both in ourselves and in others.

Flip the script

I posit that it is the duty of any person, and philosophers in particular, to maintain suspicion of anything that supports positions which you agree with. That warm, comfortable feeling you experience when you come across a report which perfectly fits your existing stance on a subject, should serve as a warning to you that confirmation bias is coming into play and objectivity is now crucial. What is the quality of the source? Does the report you’re reading accurately reflect the research it is based on? Are there credible alternate takes on the same subject?

Counter-intuitive as it may feel, asking such questions will only strengthen your stance by helping you better understand the research if it is high quality and anticipate any opposition to it, or else help you avoid promoting evidence which subsequently turns out to be flawed, which can only weaken both your stance and the reputation of your cause in the process.

Check for unlikely allies

How can you tell if a piece of information is objective? Well one pretty reliable indication is that your ideological opposition agrees with some or all of it. Progressive lobbyists are generally in support of social justice, regulation and environmental sustainability, so if you see a left wing-leaning site promoting any of these then you’d be right to be sceptical, because such stances confirm their existing narratives. But if you check out a couple of right wing-leaning sources and find them either reporting the same essential facts, or even better, outright agreeing with the left wing’s take on the situation, then odds are good you’ve got a quality report on your hands.

Dig below the specific issue at hand

Too often discussion over media or politics operates at the level of behaviour or specific opinions, with all parties well prepared with rhetoric and evidence to support their stances, making a genuine dialogue virtually impossible. Contrary evidence is simply rationalised away using existing narratives, regardless of their validity – ‘Fake News’ being just one example of this.

Such specific stances are founded on more deeply rooter beliefs and ideas which are very rarely discussed, much less critically examined, as a person’s beliefs are by and large considered off-limits in a polite society. However, this presents philosophers in particular with a grand opportunity to affect change to specific opinions, by addressing the largely unexamined foundational beliefs they are based upon. Concepts like ‘freedom’, ‘duty’ and ‘rights’ get thrown around a lot, but few of their proponents can describe precisely what they mean by these concepts, despite them underwriting their most deeply held convictions. Honest and respectful investigation of these ideas with both opponents, allies and ourselves can effect significant change where debate about specific opinions simply cannot.

The emergence of ‘Fake News’ as a political catchcry is beyond obnoxious but it illustrates a phenomenon in human society that has existed long before the rise of Trump, and significantly undermines our ability to hold constructive debate. Ignorance and fear cannot be overcome by shouting facts at them, but rather by carefully investigating their source, and cutting those sources off at the root.