Fake news has always been with us. Governments give selective information in order to justify their policies, claiming all of it real and verifiable, and fifty years ago Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan sang of this dishonesty in “With God On Our Side.” Politicians always exaggerate. But fake news today, which Politifact called the “Lie of the Year in 2016,” is different. Spurred on by social media, the ubiquity of Fox News in public places, and the ability of corporations to spend hundreds-of-millions of dollars to influence debate, honest news looks down for the count.
Today, fake news often functions as political advertising. As is clear in Jane Mayer’s great new book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, elites have been quite strategic about crafting public opinion and changing the world. Fake news on topics such as climate change is simply propaganda to skew the debate.
But while fake news has a poisonous political effect, it cuts deeper. Fake news devalues truth, no matter how well-researched or lived. As director Martin Scorsese put it while discussing his latest movie, Silence: “Words certainly don’t mean anything anymore, they’re twisted and turned. So where’s the meaning? Where’s the truth?”
This ghastliness eats at the values of our spirit and soul, weakening our ethics and ability to work together. And without community, society falls apart.
The greatest modern thinker on this issue is the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who argues that though universal truths and moral principles can exist in a multicultural, globalized world — they can only be achieved through public discourse and consensus. This means the talkers have to be open to a new truth, even if it is not their starting point.
To that end, it’s important to recognize that it is not just right-wing nut jobs enabling fake news.
One reason for the rise in fake news is missteps by respected mainstream media. Examples include the debacle of the media-hawking of fake weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or The Washington Post‘s recent scandalous story that many progressive websites in the United States, like NakedCapitalism.com, are Russian plants. Lapses by august journalistic institutions blur the line between “hard” news and fake news for the average citizen.
No surprise, liberal government is also culpable. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of “black swan” fame, wrote scathingly last month at Medium.com of misleading “facts” being peddled by U.S. agencies about Syria. This fake news is then parroted by mainstream media and supported by much of the country’s “intellectual” establishment.
It also doesn’t help that respected organs like The New York Times spend increasingly more time advocating for the status quo. Of course, the Times has fabulously talented journalists, and is still the paper of record for our country. But the paper often looks like the house organ of those who profit off corporate globalism, lecturing the rest of us on how great things are. Its hard news is compromised by this direction. For example, Times business writer David Leonhardt wrote this month that the election “was a victory for gut instinct over empiricism, for cynicism over reason.” Think about his dismissal: He assumes his empiricism and reason are correct — his view of the facts and the way to think about them — with the subtext that those who disagree are simply stupid or irrational. Many voters left behind by globalization experience a different “empiricism” — life experience — than Leonhardt. They are not simply dim-witted.
For those in the Democratic center, there is blame, too. Fake talk, which compromises our ability to counter fake news, encourages even more fake news. As comedian Sarah Silverman said in her recent hilarious HBO special, “It’s about teams now, not ideas or ideals.” If fake talk helps your team, it is good; if it helps the other team, it is bad.
For instance, Democrats are outraged over Donald Trump’s Goldman Sachs appointments, yet supporters of Hillary Clinton had no problem with her making millions off fawning speeches to Wall Street, and refusing to release her scripts while claiming in the campaign she was going to crack down on the financiers. That was fake talk. And when Black intellectual Cornell West spoke of the indifference of the Obama administration to workers, white and Black, he was demonized by “Team Obama” with fake talk. Don’t we now wish Obama had heeded West’s warnings?
Fake talk also destroys our ability to make social change. Take the important word “sustainability.” Our planet is reeling; we have to find a sustainable path. But both the left and right claim to be acting sustainably, no matter what they do, sucking the life out of the word, and ultimately out of the concept. Even Koch Industries companies trumpet their sustainability. But the reasonable and progressive are the worse. Many “responsible investors” who are aligned with Democratic causes and often speak of a commitment to sustainability proudly invest in companies like ExxonMobil, the fragile planet’s biggest enemy. CalPERS and others help finance the Dakota Pipeline. And, as I’ve written here before, CalSTRS put out an Orwellian “sustainability report” even though it uses its assets and influence to destroy jobs and communities in the Midwest for a quick buck. This fake talk is emaciating “sustainability.”
Speaking of corrupting language: “Sharing economy” proponents, who claim to be concerned about workers, laud the “freedom” in the rise of the gig economy — even with its destruction of full-time jobs with benefits. The “freedom” to job-hop may be cool for the intellectual class, armed with good degrees and family money to fall back on. But if you are struggling to support your family or are caring for a loved one, as millions of Americans are, precarious job-hopping sucks. “Freedom” then becomes a nonsensical term, hurting our discourse and our ability to make change.
So, what to do? Fighting fake news is going to be a struggle. Habermas would say we must take others seriously, presume them to be honest and moral, and give everyone an equal chance to express themselves. Facebook executives and others claim they have a plan. But we will not succeed unless those who claim to care about the planet and its people stop fake talking.
Finally, all of us should pay more attention to the journalists who are calling out fake news and fake talk. In 2016, Naomi Klein, Glenn Greenwald, Lee Fang, and David Sirota did especially well.
And do yourself a favor and read The Onion’s fake news roundup of 2016. At least this fake news can put a smile on your face as this year comes to a close. Certainly we can all use that.