Fake news, democracy and the real world

Cartoon of Donald Trump reading

How much fake news is there? And how much does it matter?

In Britain the concerns usually focus on Brexit: which side told how many lies, how many people believed them, whether they are bringing disaster. In the USA everything is on a much bigger scale.

Eli Saslow’s recent article in the Washington Post is well worth reading if, like me, you enjoy being amazed by how ill-informed many people can be. It describes how blogger Christopher Blair’s website regularly announces astonishing ‘news’ that he makes up in his head. He publishes it, along with disclaimers stressing that these stories are not true. Nevertheless the stories get so widely shared that he receives up to $15,000 a month for the advertising. The article goes on to describe the lifestyle of a characteristic woman who believes the invented information, and is emotionally caught up in it despite the many disclaimers.

But here’s the problem. The anti-Trump lobby regularly accuses him of telling one lie after another. I’m inclined to believe that he does. Am I just choosing the information I prefer to believe, just as the woman in the article does? Now that we live in a culture full of conflicting accounts of reality, who has the right information? How can we find out?

The politics

Democracies depend on voters making well-informed decisions. We vote in line with our overall sense of how the world works and the values that help us live together.

Every society, to offer any kind of order and security, needs a shared sense of truth about the things that hold it together. It sets boundaries.

1) It sets boundaries to what facts can be credibly believed. In Britain people who don’t believe in evolution are frowned on; their views really must not be taught in schools. In parts of the USA people who do believe it are just as strongly frowned on. Our information about events in Russia and North Korea has to follow the approved narrative: if a BBC news report approvingly described something North Korea does really well, there would be an immediate outcry. The acceptable ‘facts’ are sometimes true and sometimes false, but stable societies need boundaries.

2) It sets boundaries to values which can be publicly proclaimed as good. Governments legislate against hate crimes and racism. Not so long ago the public consensus condemned same-sex partnerships; now it condemns opposition to them.

We need boundaries, to maintain enough consensus to live together. On the other hand the boundaries do change. Currently our inherited boundaries seem to be collapsing and we don’t know what to replace them with.

As the changes happen we live with conflicting attitudes. One change is in how we judge business leaders whose profiteering involves severe oppression of employees. Some of them – Philip Green, Amazon, Sports Direct – have been subjected to public disapproval. Others are given knighthoods for services to the economy.

Now that we disagree so much about the facts and the values, conflict is bound to increase. We need some way of knowing which sources of information are reliable, and we haven’t got one.

The technology

Once we had heralds standing in the town square shouting the news for all who wanted to hear. Later we had printed newspapers. Now we have the internet, offering so many sources of information that nobody could possibly read them all.

The older means of communication kept us in touch with people who saw things differently. Now, it’s easy to get trapped in a vicious circle. Our minds start moving towards a particular point of view. We welcome information that reinforces it and we choose to ignore information from a different perspective. It has never been so easy to whirl around in a spiral of self-selected beliefs. With so many options on a machine small enough to keep in a pocket, we have to limit our sources somehow. We usually limit them to the ones telling us what we want to hear. Over time we become more and more single-minded about our attitudes.

The motives

To be any use, information providers need a sense of responsibility to provide true and balanced information. Maybe they never did it all that well, but now other priorities have been taking over.

Most governments in the capitalist West have turned economic growth into – in effect – their supreme moral standard. This suits the ultra-rich best of all. To control any part of the mass media, you need to be one of them.

Of course there always were people obsessed with benefiting themselves without caring about other people, but now neo-liberal capitalism tells us this is the way we ought to be.

In many countries, including Britain, it is enshrined in law: corporations, unlike charities, can be prosecuted if they don’t do whatever maximises profits for shareholders. Next time you find yourself owning Facebook, Amazon or Google, this is what you will expected to do.

So three things go wrong.

The billionaire’s agenda

The owners of newspapers, television channels and social media see the world from a rich person’s point of view. Their employees know that he who pays the piper calls the tune, so their opinions dominate public discourse.

The profit motive

When the commitment to profit is stronger than the commitment to truth for its own sake, lies are going to get told.

The economic lens

Many major decision-makers in government and business think of the ‘real world’ as the world of economic statistics, growth rates and interest rates, rather than the physical world of sun and rain, plants and animals. This week’s Davos gathering of world leaders illustrates it only too well: they didn’t warm to David Attenborough’s appeal to them on behalf of the environment.

Real world truth

Of course there is nothing new in bias to the interests of the powerful. The only truly egalitarian news outlet is gossip in small communities where everybody knows everybody. But now the constraints are off.

Too much power is concentrated in a small number of ultra-rich, who dominate the mass media and promote the facts and values that favour their wealth.

There is no reliable source of information where ordinary people can check the information the media gives them.

There is no consensus about the values the nation should live by.

So when readers of news outlets are suspicious of the dominant narratives, they have good reason.

What should we do?

What I would like to see happening – and I don’t know how to go about it – is to re-establish a public discourse in which we once again hear the voices of people very different from us.

We also need to re-establish publicly recognised criteria for distinguishing between expert information and uninformed opinion.

Most of all we need to reaffirm that central insight of the world’s faith communities: that the experiences, anxieties and hopes of every homeless drug addict are, in the grand scheme of things, just as important as those of presidents and billionaires.

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