Rumor, Outrage, and “Fake News”

coek9auvuaajigfBack when I started this blog, I had high hopes that the internet would allow people to bring together more and more information, resulting in an explosion of knowledge I referred to as the “Great Informationing.” To some extent, services like Google and Wikipedia have already started this ball rolling by essentially creating searchable databases of crowd-sourced data on a scale and at a speed never known before in human history–indeed, this blog would be much more limited in scope could I not look up at a moment’s notice almost anything I desire to learn.

In the past year, though, I have become disillusioned. While the internet does put a great deal of information at my fingertips, it also puts a great deal of misinformation at my fingertips.

Rumor flies halfway around the world before Truth has got its pants on.–variously misattributed

It’s bad enough to try to delve into subjects where I don’t speak the correct language to read most of the sources and thus can’t even begin properly searching. It’s even worse if the news I am getting isn’t reliable.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “fake news.” I’m not sure which sites, exactly, have been promoting “fake news,” but I noticed toward the tail end of the election a seeming proliferation of websites and news sources I’d never heard of before. Clicking on these links generally led me to a site plastered with adds and images (which had a high probability of instantly crashing my computer) and headlines that looked lifted from other sources.

Since noticing this trend, I’ve tried to avoid linking to or trusting any headline that comes from a site I don’t recognize on the grounds that I have no way to confirm whether they are trustworthy, and further, I don’t like having my computer crash. The downside to this policy is that the internet is vast and I certainly do not know every respectable site out there.

I noticed some time ago that even “respectable” papers like the WaPo and NYTimes had quite a lot of one-sided or otherwise questionable reporting. Lies and more Lies were another theme that got hounded a lot in the early stages of this blog, but my focus was more on society than the media. Since reading a lot of iSteve, however, I’ve grown more sensitive to the ways media shape narratives, especially via what they chose to report and chose to remain silent on.

When you realize that there are stories the media isn’t commenting on, or is giving you a particular spin on, what do you do?

quote found on Twitter
quote found on Twitter

Look for other sources, I guess.

Last summer I noticed prominent papers printing not just mistakes or one-sided stories, but outright false statements that could only have made it into print because someone purposefully decided to make them up. (For privacy reasons I’m not going into more details, but you can probably supply your own cases.)

There are a variety of things going on with the media, but the internet, sadly, appears to be making matters worse.

borders-store-closingIt’s no secret that traditional print media has had a rough time since the information super highway started jazzing up our lives.

I remember when Borders first opened in my neighborhood. I loved that place. I’d bike over there and spend endless hours browsing the shelves, especially during the summer. I found my first anthropology books there.

And I remember when the Borders went out. The empty husk of the building is still there, unoccupied. It’s been empty for years. I wonder what on Earth is wrong with the person who owns that spot. Can’t they find someone to rent it to?

Newspapers have also suffered; with dwindling subscriptions, they’ve simultaneously cut everyone with enough expertise to demand a high salary and turned to generating click-driving content.

Familiar exploits of beloved characters are related from a respectful, prejudice-free perspective: the Emperor is no longer naked in his new clothes but “is endorsing a clothing-optional lifestyle,” Snow White escapes to the cottage of “seven vertically-challenged men,” and Goldilocks is an ambitious scientist studying anthropomorphic bears. --
Familiar exploits of beloved characters are related from a respectful, prejudice-free perspective: the Emperor is no longer naked in his new clothes but “is endorsing a clothing-optional lifestyle,” Snow White escapes to the cottage of “seven vertically-challenged men,” and Goldilocks is an ambitious scientist studying anthropomorphic bears. (source)

When you have subscribers who actually pay for newspapers, they value thoughtful, high-quality reporting. (Otherwise, what are you spending all of that money on?) When readers are just clicking through, outrage drives the news cycle. Articles don’t even have to be about something outrageous–the article itself can be the outrageous thing, so long as people link to it and say, “OMG, can you believe they wrote this?”

Every hate click makes things worse.

The outrage machine is helping drive the SJW-fueled obsession with “identity politics,” particularly feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT issues. This isn’t the first time this style of political correctness has broken out–remember the much-mocked silliness of the late 80s? But back then, only the National Enquirer could hope to use stories about transgender elementary school kids to sell papers. Now everyone can.

It’s bad enough being the kind of person who worries about whether or not the division between “tree” and “bush” is just a social construct, or the basic unknowablity of what one doesn’t know.

But now we have to consider the effects of hate-clicks and outrage on everything we know.

18 thoughts on “Rumor, Outrage, and “Fake News”

  1. If they cannot control the web then they’ll ruin it.

    Tabloidization is poisonous to serious media and so it will be the Alinskyite Left’s preferred technique for vandalizing new media.

    Imagine a scenario where the average quality of the content on the WWW approximates the squalor found on the front page of the National Inquirer. Yuck!

    Some might say we’re already there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The printing press predated Martin Luther by about a generation. I remember first reading about iconoclasts, then becoming uncomfortable when someone called me one. People capable of being thoughtful in the face of social pressure are exceedingly rare, and any medium capable of transmitting scientific information will more easily transmit social information.

    I’ve finally stopped projecting my capacities onto others. Intellect is important, but I lately believe that ego is even more so. Most people have areas of their lives where they cannot even see their own limitations. Ask the reporter why he distorts and he will tell you that he does no such thing.


  3. I, too, remember the silly (so it seemed at the time) PC stuff back then… I can’t help but think of how the plague returned every few decades after it first hit. It makes me wonder if in the late 80’s and early 90’s we still had some immunity leftover from the 60’s and 70’s, and now through a combination of weakened immunity and mutation, we’ve just been more vulnerable the last decade…

    Going on metaphorically, I was going to try to work the internet in… Thinking about the timing, it almost seems kind of like an antibiotic, initially tamping down political correctness, but now the ideas have adapted, at least in the 90’s incarnation… Maybe 2016 was the beginning of a new formulation…

    OK, I’ll stop with the metaphor attempts now.


  4. Well said. You’ve put Plato’s Republic in mind: there are some newspapermen who publish to sell to their readers, and other newspapermen who publish to outrage their readers, but the true newspaperman is he who consents to publish only so that he will not be lied to by men worse than himself…


  5. It occurs to me that reading comprehension is heavily influenced by ego. Written words that buttress an ego are more powerful and enduring than spoken words (before voice recording, at least).


  6. I think this is really a teething problem. The internet is still too new for systems to have evolved. Just a few years ago Wikipedia was really unreliable but it has improved a lot. A teenager managed to insert his name into several pages stating that he was a company executive although he wasn’t. Now its much harder to do this sort of thing.

    Its easy to see the negative aspects and miss the positive ones as well. What has become increasingly obvious, thanks to alternative news sites and social media, is how much the current mainstream media that we have relied on for so long often in fact are misleading us by misrepresenting what is really going on. A good example of this was seen in coverage of the migrant crisis in Europe. The migrants were overwhelmingly fit young men, but the MSM chose to publish pictures of the few small children and women who were among them, giving a hugely distorted picture of what was really going on. The MSM’s “politically correct” agenda has been to a degree exposed and undermined by video evidence that circulates on youtube.

    Something I’ve noticed is that news and opinion sites that decide to disable feedback comments under their articles quickly start to lose readers – because readers WANT to comment, often to challenge the information and opinions that the news sites want to impart. This is a very healthy thing because those sites who have the courage in their convictions, and that tend to have more valuable things to say, also tend to be less troubled when some of their readers disagree.

    The greatest danger is government attempts to censor and control the internet. Its early days yet – given time and freedom to operate, new high quality sites will rise and the false news peddlers will sink. Crucial in this will be a new willingness by readers to donate financially to the content providers. This will require a new mindset among web users who have until now been rather reluctant to reward them.

    A couple of my posts on related matters:

    “A Post-Truth Era? Part 1 – Trump and Brexit”

    “Political Correctness Was Always Mad”


  7. Re: Fake News?

    NBC Headline: Warren Silenced For Reading Coretta Scott King Letter at Sessions Debate

    Factual Headline: Warren Admonished for Violating Senate Rules

    The Senate voted along partisan lines, 49-43, to admonish Warren, effectively barring her from speaking during the remaining debate on Sessions.


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