The Fake News Problem: It’s not them, it’s us.

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(Okay, it’s a little bit them.)

It’s kinda like on November 9th, everyone suddenly discovered that social media fosters a fake news problem. Well, better late than never I suppose, but just because the topic of fake news is trending now, that doesn’t make it news. It’s been a problem for a long time, and if there’s a solution to be found, it probably does not begin by asking what Facebook, Twitter, or Google can do about it so much as what we can do about it.

Information, meaning facts, should not be political, or at least not partisan. But that ship has not only sailed, it’s gone straight over the edge of the flat Earth. And while there’s no question that I’ve seen both liberals and conservatives (for want of better terms) share unsubstantiated garbage posing as news, it’s hard to get past the fact that finding a reference point for truth in the digital age takes a lot more work than it did in the analog world of “scarcity.”

But who ceded so much power to these platforms? We did. Conservatives and liberals did. Republicans and Democrats did. Everyone who defines all professional journalism by the pejorative “mainstream media” has given power to social media as the new temples of truth. So, now, various factions are jumping on Zuckerberg, blaming fake news for the outcome of the election and insisting the company must do a better job of weeding out bogus news sites and hoaxes.

As an aside, I see no problem if AdSense or Facebook want to cut off the revenue spigots for fake news creators. Caitlin Dewey, writing for the Washington Post, profiled a fake news maker who earns about $10,000/month in ad revenue from spinning catchy dreck that your friends and mine share on social sites. But while the OSPs are reacting to the election and the backlash against fake news, they and their cadre of pundits and advocates ought to be a little chastened about their chronic abuse of the word innovation as a catch-all to describe what an unbounded internet actually produces. Just like pirate sites have managed to innovate revenue from creators’ pockets into their own pockets, these fake news creators innovate attention away from legitimate journalism toward utter gibberish simply because there’s money in it. But that doesn’t make it the OSP’s fault that so many users believe and spread all that fake news?

So, here’s a thought: Facebook is not, and never has been, a news source. At best, it’s a high-speed synthesis of the community bulletin board with the bathroom wall. And it’s one that is manipulated, adjusted, and monitored in order to maximize data harvesting and advertising value. I say this as someone who enjoys sharing a zinger, a comment, or a conversation on the platform. But news? It really depends.

Sadly, even paying attention to the publishing source is not always helpful. The tragedy of expanding, democratizing, and glitzing up news is that even the brand-name sources compete with the lowest common denominator. Many professional news organizations are apt to publish a story with thin research and a grabby headline just to remain visible in the multi-species stampede of stories careening through social media, kicking up huge clouds of dust.

Fake news is not nearly as big a problem as the real news that’s being filtered through marketing templates that drive reasonable and decent people apart, creating a vacuum in the middle.  Not only are we destroying the middle-class economically, but we seem to be doing an excellent job of ruining the center politically.

I have long believed that one of the reasons the United States is so fragile—but also the reason it can be great—is that we really don’t have a common culture. We have a million competitive or compatible narratives happening at any given moment. Then, the customization of social media seems to have exacerbated the lesser angels of diversity, fostering new forms of segregation, obliterating common ground for the sake of a complex and phantasmagoric venn diagram of American society. I suspect it’s how we look to a computer–especially one that wants to market to us individually–but not quite a fair representation of how we might wish to look to ourselves.

© 2016, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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One comment

  • This has been going on since forever hasn’t it? 15-20 years ago people were sending nonsense emails to each other reagrding some kid and postcards. Or some other nonsense. In the few months one has seen things posted that were being promulgated even before the internet age. Simply change FDR to HRC, or whatever.

    I look in on FB and people I would have once taken to be rational are posting about chemtrails, anti-vax, ufos, 911-truthers, and other irrational crap. I suppose once you’ve bought into one set of idiocy you might as well go in for the whole hog. Rationalizing it with them is pointless – you haven’t researched it as much as me, followed by a spewing of 20 woo sites.

    Wikipedia is a mess of POV pushing, and advocacy. Their ‘fix’ is to expand everything to give equal space to all opinions. Its as if you can the stem stench of a dung heap by sprinkling eau de cologne over it, and fixing the over powering smell of the eau de cologne by dumping more dung on the pile.

    More and more people are siloing themselves off into little private groups, cliques, and cults, and for every bit of irrational nonsense there is an echo chamber already waiting.

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