Fake news has been with us for a very long time. Has anyone heard about (I won’t ask if you remember it, because nobody is that old) the Gulf of Tonkin attack on U.S. ships that never happened, but that caused Congress to validate the Vietnam War? Anyone remember Saddam Hussein’s fictional weapons of mass destruction? If we stop and think about it, a large proportion of all news is, and always has been, fake. But then, if we stopped and thought about it, it would be a victimless crime.
There is much less going on here than meets the eye.
If you get an email from a deposed Nigerian oil minister offering to share a fortune with you, do you turn over your bank account details and social security number and wait for the windfall? Of course you don”t. (Wait, you did?) Because you are not consumed by greed nor activated by an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. You and I have a hard time mustering sympathy for the scammed and the pfished and the swindled, because if they hadn’t lusted after unearned wealth, or if they had informed themselves just a little, they would not have been victims. Con artists cannot flourish without eager victims — a basket of gullibles, so to speak.
What does the victim get out of a fake news story? Cheap confirmation of preconceived ideas. A thrill of validation (I knew Hillary was rotten, and here she is running a child sex slave operation out of a pizza parlor, or, I knew Trump was rotten and here he is bragging on tape about groping women. He didn’t, by the way, he said if you are rich and famous they will let you grope them.)
It has always been our choice, whether to be deluded, or not. When the con is laid out on the table or the screen, we can pick a card, any card, or we can walk away. And we, you and I, have been making the wrong choices for a very long time.
When Edward R. Murrow famously posed the question: would we use television to educate, inform and elevate us, or to amuse us, we had already decided. TV stations that featured violent crime, terrible accidents and celebrities got way more viewers. Very quickly, the rule for editors became, “if it bleeds it leads.” And for decades, as a result, Americans have been convinced that violent crime is far worse in this country than it has ever been. That fake news and its adherents led to any number of “law and order” candidates and consequent “wars on crime.” So yes, fake news has consequences, but that particular deception was a drumbeat that went on for decades and continues today.
We make other bad choices. We reward with our spending the most vacuous and illogical claims made by advertising, we click on Internet headlines proclaiming that “one simple trick cures cancer,” we constantly display our willingness to be hornswoggled. So it should come as no surprise that those with the most to gain from manipulating us did so with a remarkable torrent of fake news during the election and since.
For example, take the story now known everywhere as “Russians Hacked U.S. Election.” This is the very best kind of fake news, because it contains a tiny germ of truth somewhere in it, and many high officials are intent on keeping it alive (although no one with any standing has said anything like, “Russia hacked the election” — for the simple reason that no one seems to know what exactly was done, or whether the Russians did it, or what effect if any it may have had on the election.
So here’s what we must all remember about fake news, past and present:
- Fake news isn’t news unless we say it is. If we don’t believe the Nigerian oil minister is who he says he is, no money changes hands, no harm, no foul. So let’s stop talking about preventing fake news, or banning it, or punishing it — just stop reading it.
- Fake news is easy to debunk. Google it. Check it on Snopes.com. The Internet has more to offer than cute animals and trolls.
- Fake news has remarkable little real effect on the real world. Stanford University found that only 15 per cent of Americans were even aware of any fake news stories during the 2016 campaign, and of those who were aware of them, only half believed any of them. This is about how many Americans believe that they personally have been abducted by aliens from space.
Millions and millions of whom voted against Trump, and that’s why….no. wait, that’s another fake news story.