Fake news isn’t the ailment. It’s the symptom.
The problem is education. We’ve tolerated a slow slide in the quality of education over the last few decades, leaving many of our fellow citizens without the basic skills required to participate in or understand the world around them, making them vulnerable to manipulation and misdirection.
Combine that with a dizzying array of media choices and some intentional confusion injected into the system and you have a recipe for poor decision making at multiple levels. At the very least, it leaves a substantial portion of the population at the whim of whatever rumors float their way.
We’ve always had “fake news” in some form or another. We’re gullible people. Ben Franklin would write letters for and against issues under a fake name to be published for all to read. Tobacco companies produced reams of news about the benefits of smoking. And every April 1 every corporation on the planet tries to peddle some fake news in the aim of fun, while hoping you fall for it for a while.
Granted, some “fake news” is hard to spot. When A New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, was writing stories about the dangers of Iraq for the paper, we generally took her words seriously. We went to war in no small part because of those stories. But they were fake stories, planted by the Bush administration, with the aim to intentionally confuse.
Sometimes lazy editors confuse with misleading headlines, and lazy readers don’t read to the end of a story to get a key bit of information. A mistaken impression can linger.
Other “fake news” should raise red flags immediately upon reading a headline with extraordinary claims, a story with no source quoted, or facts and figures being used without sources.
I was taught, mostly by parents but sometimes by others, to question just about everything, and even to return and take another look at prior assumptions later on.
The first lessons were to help me avoid being a sucker for advertisements. We looked at claims made by toy and cereal companies. I was taught that words can have multiple meanings, to look for the asterisk* leading to additional information, and to read the fine print.
This was followed by applying similar critical skills to what I read. I famously complained to my mother that the Weekly Reader was biased in about 3rd grade (and I was right.)
I was taught that ads exist in a phony universe, and each one wanted me to part with my hard earned allowance.
In high school, I got a job working at a radio station and learned a very important lesson: the only thing that mattered was the commercials. All of the songs, the banter, the contests, and so on were all there to get you to the block of commercials.
Management only cared about the piece of paper certifying that the commercials were played when they were scheduled to play. What happened in the other minutes, as far as they were concerned, was filler.
This led me on an eventual path to create my (and advocate for others to create their) own media. Making films, photos, scripts, web pages, animation, radio shows, and so on teaches and informs in multiple ways. We can learn how to edit a video, but also need to learn how messages are created and presented to be effective. And we have to know enough to come up with something worthwhile to say.
Working with children to create media often garnered a similar response regardless of age - “This is a lot of work!” Yes, and it is a key insight. Think of the time and money that goes into making sure we all remember a brand name. Why is so much time, money, and energy spent?
Blaming “fake news” creation is the wrong path. It will remain, and will get more sophisticated especially as artificial intelligence makes it exceedingly difficult to figure out human authorship.
The answer is to challenge ourselves, alas, to become smarter and more resilient. We need the skills to spot the fake news, pat it on its head, and go back to business. We need to learn to recognize it, have doubts, investigate those doubts, and find answers.
A well-educated and informed populace would not be distracted or diverted by false stories and click-bait headlines. But we are.
Citizens trained in healthy skepticism, media literacy, logic, and analytical thought could not be swayed by the untrue. But we are.
Would-be manipulators of the masses would need to generate real, useful, information to get any attention. But they don’t need to.
As Susan B. Anthony once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”**
* Interesting that asterisk contains “risk.”
**Please doubt this attribution.