Tuesday, December 06, 2016

I Love Fake News

Maybe this has cycled out of the public consciousness in the weeks since the election, but I saw another story about it today, so why not wade in, right? I like fake news. I don't think it's a problem for anyone, except maybe actual journalists and their employers. The problem is us. People read "news" looking to have their own ideas reinforced and bolstered, seeking support for their "team" in this political game we call life. No one bother to double check a source or do their own research - we just decide if something makes sense and go with it.

If you really look at this "fake news" stuff, yeah there's some talk that it's being secretly funded by foreign governments to mess with US elections, but for the most part, it's a product of economic disparity in a globalized world. Most of this stuff comes from shops set up in rural Macedonia, where low-level gangsters pay school children to write (or even just copy and paste) stories about the US elections in their off hours. With the advent of online advertising, you don't need any actual substance, just a headline click-baity enough to draw interest. People get paid for the eyeballs on the ads - that's all that matters. Fake news is no different than kitten videos or clever memes - it's just content meant to make someone money.

It might be poor satire, but it's certainly inventive - well, some of it - the best fake news is genuinely creative and clever, people make up stories that other people want to read. We live in a world where almost everyone universally doubts the bias of the press, even historic, well-established journalistic brands - even if a fake news site bills itself as real news, people are conditioned not to trust media. Heck, even fake news sites like the Onion that are overtly up-front about the fakeness of their news still end up getting retweeted by actual elected officials.

The problem is not some masquerading pseudo-journalist who's really a fourth grader in Gostivar (look it up); the problem is us. The great Western Individualism that we've come to know and love (and claim is the reason much of those who hate us hate us) has led us to be self-absorbed egotists, assuming that our common sense is the closet approximation to truth. We're also lazy. It doesn't take much in this internet age to research a story and then utilize that profound common sense with, you know, a basic level of information. It's the same internet these fake news sites mine to figure out what stories we might click on and then provide them to us.

If you listen to any of the numerous reporting pieces on fake news, you can hear interviews with these kids and their bosses. They're not interested in shaping US policy (although they take pride in the fact that they are), they just want to make money. If people click on Trump stories, they'll write Trump stories. It's industrious and inventive and intelligent - all things you need to be to avoid falling for this kind of news.

I hear all this hand-wringing from people lamenting the place fake news held in the recent election and I've heard nothing about the responsibility of a society to educate its people and motivate them to perform basic functions. It's not like you have to drive down to some college library to look up economic charts from the past five years - you type a couple words into google and you click on a few "about us" tabs and then you click on google a few more times to verify the information you're finding.

Yeah, it's not perfect, but the more information one has the better capable we are of making real, informed choices. Not doing the work to be informed is our fault, not someone else's.

I love fake news. If I'd had time and a little more internet marketing savvy, it sounds like a fun way to make some money. I like writing. I'm pretty creative. I'm pretty knowledgeable about the political landscape. I bet I'd be really good at it. About ten years ago, when I had a break from grad school, I'd go onto Yahoo Answers and write long, details answers to questions that were entirely false. For example, one girl was trying to get help with her homework on Romeo and Juliet and I described in 1500 words, the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire (I just used the names Romeo and Juliet instead of Stanley and Stella).

There's really no excuse for believing something just because it sounds good. I imagine it has to do with our aversion to suffering - we only work as much as we have to work, and we try to avoid it as much as possible. Talk to a middle school teacher sometime - one of the most difficult things to teach is research - good research - it's too easy to get into a mindset of "it says this somewhere" and "their opinions is as valid as anyone else's." I don't disagree with the opinion part, but there's a certain level of knowledge that's assumed. Opinions are equally valid when they come from the same level of knowledge. My opinions on the origin of black holes is not nearly as valid as that of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. If I were ever going to disagree with him, I'd have to do a lot of actual work to gain the kind of knowledge I'd need to do so.

That or I could just tweet some fake news at him.

Sadly, in the court of public opinion, that would probably be enough to win the argument. But that's not my fault; it's the fault of all those people who believe me. Don't penalize creative people exercising their gifts for a better economic future. Let's pull the plank out of our own eye before we go after the speck in someone else's. I feel like that's good advice I heard somewhere once.

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