Well, it appears that at least some people have now found a new pet peeve, so-called “fake news,” to be useful in attacking news stories they don’t like. The term of course is new, but the fact is not new at all. Various media throughout the centuries have engaged in propagandistic writing in various forms, from pamphlets and broadsides to today’s social media. And to be completely fair, a lot of what we might call news is factually unverified and even deliberately misleading or false. However, problems arise as we consider this issue.
First, some or even many (It would take much time and effort to sort this out) are actually true or are at the least plausible. They are attacked as false mainly by the Right or the Left if they disagree with their respective narratives.
Second, those who attack alleged fake news stories often base their claims of falsehood on the particular source and not the substance of the article or claim. If it comes from Buzzfeed it is labeled false by the Right as false. If it came from Breitbart it is labeled by the Left as false. There are also more subtle variations on this trend. The New York Times or Washington Post are often not trusted by conservatives, while the National Review or Washington Examiner are not trusted by liberals. Neither reaction in those latter examples is necessarily valid.
Third, I don’t see much or anything in the way of factual falsification from the media who attack the alleged fake news. This is a major fault I believe. Now it is true that the die-hard conspiracy theorists won’t be convinced—they might just respond that whomever debunked their conspiracy is also part of the conspiracy. However that possibility does not negate the responsibility of those who oppose a story to tell us why they oppose it and to support their view with something resembling good, solid empirical journalistic work. Most readers are not conspiracy theorists, yet their common sense might incline them to pay attention to some particular story they find offensive or outrageous to their sensibilities. That is normal. If journalists are so convinced that that story is false, then it is their obligation to falsify it.
Falsification by the way proves easier than verification, as Karl Popper so comprehensively showed way back in the twentieth century. Though it is not necessarily simple, it simply requires counterfactuals that disprove the original story. Data that disproves something can’t be impossible to find, in most cases. There are of course exceptions. If a wild story is thrown out there, a journalist might go searching to see whether it is plausible and finding little or no plausible evidence, he/she might then tentatively conclude the story is false. But then they might go further to look for falsifying evidence. If the evidence is non-existent then it is impossible to verify or to falsify. But even here, the journalist has a responsibility to tell the reader clearly that no evidence exists either way. He does not need to, nor should he, engage in hack journalism that focuses on attacking the sources or ranting against all people on the opposite ideological side.
I have seen a couple of pretty good articles recently that have dealt with the issue I have raised here. They correctly point out that false news comes from both sides of the ideological spectrum—as it has always come from both sides of any dispute. They have also pointed out that on balance, the Left today is using this fake news issue as a cudgel with which to beat on the Right. I don’t expect that practice to remain confined to the Left only. I expect the Right will (and has to an extent already) do the same to the Left.
But before we all get into a frenzy and begin to call for restrictions on speech, let’s remember the words of John Stuart Mill and many after him, that (paraphrasing) bad speech requires not less speech but more speech. Let’s see how all this plays out. Almost always the alleged conspiracy or event is eventually shown to be true or false—but because of further investigation and “speech.” Of course this is at the political-constitutional level. Certainly Christians have the same responsibility to suspend judgment until further information is available one way or the other. However, Christians also have a duty not to pass on data that they know is not yet reliable (and may never be). That practice is akin to gossip. I am not suggesting that Christians never discuss the latest theory about some issue or person in the news. But let’s be charitable until we can speak with clarity or certainty. I myself have been guilty of jumping to conclusions. I hope I can do better by God’s grace in the future.
But the main point is still crucial. Journalists are bound to be as objective as possible and to look for data either way when it comes to stories, before they begin to conclude that some specific story is false. You can’t legitimately assert something is false before you give evidence going to its falsity. There is at least one exception: generally, if something is “metaphysically” impossible, it may be called false. Of course for those of us who believe in miracles, this is not an iron rule, but even we have some duty to determine whether this could be called a miracle in the true sense of the word.