“Fake News” is not that Dangerous

I have been seeing a lot of articles on the Internet about “Fake News” and how it “swung the election”, and it seems to center around a few different ideas, none of which seem right and most of them go against the principles of our government’s foundation, specifically of free speech vs censorship of free speech.

“Fake News” seems to fall into one of two types, satire or misinformation.

The first examples of “Fake News” come from satire sites, which are sites which public parodies of news.  They usually do this by being about fake people and fake events, or public figures and fake events.  These are the kinds of “fake news” that lead to moderate embarrassment as people share satire that they mistakenly thought was real news (An article about an $8 billion “abortionplex” being built in Alabama was taken seriously?).   I think this is a problem easily solved the same way we “solved” the problems with tobacco use – putting a big warning on it so that nobody is misinformed about the nature of the product.  If there’s a notice on works of satire that clearly identify them as satire, then present and future generations will be spared the embarrassment of citing this brand of “fake news” as a source.

Of course, that’s the least controversial part of Fake News, because the whole point of that satire is that it is fake.

There are also some articles which seem to be deliberately misinformative, such as a couple different articles stating the Pope had endorsed a candidate, and another reporting on primary election violence that never happened.  This version of “fake news” seems much more malevolent, since it tries to sway people by deliberately misinforming them.

The go-to solution seems to be censorship of that material, but censorship carries its own problems.  The problem with censoring this brand of “fake” is that it can be difficult to sort lies from truth, especially when the truth is not clear.  While there are a few cases where something is clearly and factually wrong (like the aforementioned endorsements), I am concerned at the thought that some ideas might not have the opportunity to be expressed and considered – and corrected if they are wrong.  It is also almost impossible to know that something is false, even with firsthand knowledge, and I would not trust “respected authorities” to see the “truth” the same way that their opponents do.  I worry that opposition and minority voices would be silenced if we start allowing censorship, and I worry on behalf of both liberal and conservative minorities.

I also think a substantial part of this problem comes from where the responsibility is being placed.  Almost all of the solutions suggested are top-down, where the government or some corporation (like Google or Facebook) imposes limitations.  For example, certain content creators may have their kind of work removed from advertising on those sites.  Some part of the blame definitely lay at the feet of people who deliberately or accidentally create false news stories, but it is also partly our own responsibility to keep ourselves reasonably informed and avoid spreading lies as best we can.  We can improve this with critical thinking in our education, but that requires that we tolerate and engage the occasional “trouble maker” with a contrarian viewpoint.

I don’t have a perfect solution, but I think that satire should at least carry an obvious warning label to identify it, so nobody will mistake it for “real news”.  That way, it will be easier to sort the lies from the jokes.  I suspect part of the rise in recent news sites is the fact that journalistic integrity is no longer expected from the major corporate sources, which often have a deliberate, obvious bias in their coverage.  Then we can focus on debunking false statements in open conversation.  I would not support censorship, not even of outright lies.  In free conversations, lies can be unraveled, but suppressing ugly truths becomes too easy with censorship.

Supporting Links:

Satire

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/29/fooled-by-the-onion-8-most-embarrassing-fails.html

http://www.theonion.com/article/planned-parenthood-opens-8-billion-abortionplex-20476

“Chair Throwing” incident at the Nevada Caucus this year: http://www.snopes.com/did-sanders-supporters-throw-chairs-at-nevada-democratic-convention/

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