Fake News: Hint, this blog is not fake news

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.

 

7 thoughts on “Fake News: Hint, this blog is not fake news”

  1. It can be very hard to disprove a fake story.

    How do you prove thousands of people didn’t cheer for the collapse of the twin towers?

    How do you prove the Clintons didn’t murder many people?

    How do you prove the Clintons aren’t using a pizza joint as a child sex trafficking ring?

    How do you prove bush wasn’t behind 9/11?

    How do you prove the holocaust happened?

    There is a very real problem with fake news. And when the public doesn’t trust fact checkers then we have no checks and balances to convince half the population they believe something groundless.

    And I do apologize the majority of my claims are right wing conspiracies. Those were the ones more readily available to me but the problem is on both sides.

    1. Agreed, Anonymous. Many of these same questions ran in my mind as I read this earlier today. Would be interested to hear a response from Dr. Clauson.

      Such examples make patently clear that “fake news” is more than just a convenient dismissal for perspectives you don’t agree with. The term exists precisely because it’s an accurate descriptor for a phenomenon that’s quite familiar, and that provides a voice and a convenient smokescreen for the worst kind of divisive, hateful rhetoric. The absence of such an acknowledgement in this attempt to complicate “fake news” seems odd.

      And overall, I’m struggling to recognize the abstract world of journalistic empiricism imagined in this post. Fake news doesn’t present a problem simply because no one has taken the time to falsify it, nor do the problems of fake news disappear when its claims are falsified. So understandably, critiques of fake news don’t focus primarily on falsifying content, because their concerns extend much more to questions of distribution, audience, and sociology. I don’t see any of those concerns being addressed (or falsified) here.

      One case in point that prompted me to return and comment. Breitbart misuses Weather Channel video to bolster a dismissive and misleading argument against climate change. Weather Channel responds with a specific critique and rebuttal of Breitbart. Problem solved!? Hardly.

      http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/12/07/504676327/weather-channel-tells-breitbart-not-to-use-its-content-to-mislead-on-climate-cha?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=202807

      1. To clarify: I wouldn’t describe the Breitbart example as “fake news.” But rather an example of how little even direct falsification does to alleviate the problems raised by willful bias and media echo chambers.

  2. There is a lot of fake news going around today that bashes political parties on their heads, and I feel like different news teams are bias so that there isn’t a clear picture on either side. As long as people are people, they will have an opinion of some sort, so there is no neutral area from which news comes. In order to get a better view of any issue, it’s almost as if you have to consult every news media to get all the facts.

  3. So we can all agree that BuzzFeed isn’t real news. Any site that could feature the 27 potatoes that look like Channing Tatum is not news.

    From my perspective it does feel like more trusted sources by the far right that are fake news exist then far left. I of course don’t consider CNN or fox fake news, I consider them slanted and partisan news sources, I’m okay with that.

    Can anyone point me to a far left fake news site that’s taken seriously by those on the left? And not a satire or comedy site but a site that actually presents itself as news.

  4. I don’t believe that this blog possess fake news, but I do believe it can be bias towards a certain view point. It’s only natural that contributors have opinions and they want to be heard. That being said, it is very hard these days to trust what a journalist writes about because their sources sometimes can be seem a little sketchy or bias themselves. Also, I believe that as Christians we need to be sharp with our minds and be discerning. What the world says is true isn’t always true so we must be on the look out.

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