Fake news is is an assault on the very principle of truth itself: a way to upend the reference points by which mankind has long operated. You could say, without exaggeration, that fake news is actually an attempt to reverse the Enlightenment. And because a democracy relies on truth – which is why dystopian writers have always described how future oligarchs need to undermine it – fake news is an assault on democracy as well.
What is truly horrifying is that fake news is not the manipulation of an unsuspecting public. Quite the opposite. It is willful belief by the public. In effect, the American people are accessories in their own disinformation campaign.
Investigations of fake news have reported that it is a commodity – primarily a way for its perpetrators, many of whom are young people overseas, to earn money by blasting out ludicrous material for which there is an audience, and in that respect it is no different from many of the so-called “alt-right,” white nationalist sites. Commodity or not, fake news has already played a role, perhaps a substantial one, in Donald Trump’s election, especially since his campaign was aided by Russian hackers and trollsdisseminating falsities – everything from Hillary Clinton using a body double to Pope Francis endorsing Trump to ongoing charges of voting irregularities to Clinton heading a child-trafficking ring out of a pizzeria.
There is now a Gresham’s law in news as in money: Phony news pushes out real news.
We have been heading in this direction for a long time, not because people necessarily love the outlandishly scurrilous or because they are joyfully conspiratorial (though both of those things are probably true), but because it is to the benefit of the right wing, as I have written in earlier posts, to disrupt truth. Conservatives have a near-monopoly on that disruption. A Buzzfeed analysis of fake news found only one viral false election story from a left-wing site.
Still, right-wing fake news could be quarantined. No one beyond Fox News’ aging white male audience took it seriously as a provider of news. What helped break down the thin walls between the right-wing propaganda press and the purportedly real press were social media, which is how Americans – particularly young Americans – increasingly receive their news. I won’t rehash the recent debate over whether Facebook bears some responsibility for disseminating fake news. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s defense is that the social media behemoth is not a media site but a connection site, and it doesn’t monitor the items to which its users connect. This is a frail defense and a conscienceless one, like Craigslist saying that it had no responsibility for ads offering child pornography.
But here is the thing about those Facebook election stories. That Buzzfeed survey I cited found that as the campaign headed toward its climax, fake news on Facebook outperformed real news in terms of engagement. Or put starkly: Facebook was purveying more blatantly false stories to millions of users – stories that Buzzfeed also found were largely targeted at Hillary Clinton – than real news. Readers of those stories clearly wanted to think the worst of Clinton. Facebook gave them more reason to do so. Trump’s election, then, is due partly to Zuckerberg’s dereliction and to social media’s nonchalance when it comes to truth.
At least that is the way it was before this year and this election. Fake news is intended to slash that webbing. It is not intended to pose an alternative truth, as if there could be such a thing, but to destroy truth altogether, to set us adrift in a world of belief without facts, a world in which there is no defense against lies. That, needless to say, is a very dangerous place.
The larger portion of the blame lies with the citizens of the nation that Donald Trump insists only he can make great again. Fake news thrives because there is a lazy, incurious, self-satisfied public that wants it to thrive; because large swaths of that public don’t want news in any traditional sense, so much as they want vindication of their preconceptions and prejudices; because in this post-modernist age, every alleged fact is supposed to be a politico-economic construct, and nothing can possibly be true; and because even rationality now is passé. Above all else, fake news is a lazy person’s news. It provides passive entertainment, demanding nothing of us. And that is a major reason we now have a fake news president.
Democracy can wither under all sorts of forces. But those forces seldom come from without. They almost always come from within. Perhaps the most powerful force is also the most subtle and seemingly innocuous, one that you would think unlikely to take down a great nation: laziness.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Who’s Really to Blame for Fake News? Look in the Mirror, America’.