Due in part to the democratization of opinion through the internet, the recent back-and-forth on “fake news” has predictably led to the term being weaponized by groups of all political stripes against one another. This has led to a significant erosion of the term’s potency when used by any one side, caused an erosion of any shared truths, and most importantly, further hampered true dialogue between warring ideologies.
It is difficult to have a debate on the term without wading into the difficult waters of relativism, absolute truth and so forth; allow me to do so in a most careful, ginger fashion, dipping my toes into those treacherous waters with the hope of not being swept away.
As my last blog entry has pointed out, perhaps the left/right dichotomy should be seen less from the angle of truth, but rather through the lens of individual preference; continuing on this vain, I would like to further elaborate on the problematic aspects of accepting the existence of an “absolute truth”, and therefore “fake news”, in some contexts.
Though there is a rich history of philosophers and radical skeptics drawing it into question, I would venture that there are some topics in which an “absolute truth” can
be ascertained, as long as some very basic conventions are accepted. For instance, if Jane and Mark are taking a hike in a snowy forest in the winter, and they find tracks, they may disagree on the animal that left them: for instance, Jane may say it was a bear, and Mark that it was a dog. If they follow said tracks, however, they may spot the creature, and at that point, the “truth” will be revealed, with one side usually conceding defeat. In the same way, if a “fake news” article claims that Michael Moore endorsed Trump in a certain interview, and the user finds the interview on Youtube and listens to it, barring any manipulation, it will be revealed whether the news was “real” or “fake”. However, this type of “obvious truth” forms really only a small subset of “fake news” accusations — even propagandists know that, at least in early stages of convincing the unconvinced, easily check-able false claims have questionable merit.
Let us return to the case of Jane and Mark, however. Let’s suppose both agree that the tracks were made by a bear and the question instead is whether they should break off their walk, in other words, whether a “dangerous” creature is around, or not. This time, Jane may be of the “more prudent” opinion that they should leave, whereas Mark may want to investigate. The difference to the last scenario is obvious: the answer to the question whether the tracks should be followed is uncertain, as hinges on contingencies that are very difficult to predict (is the bear hungry? is it alone, or with cubs?), as well as individual skills and preferences: how fast can Jane run? Is Mark a zoologist with experience in dealing with wild animals? Generally, are Mark and Jane curious enough about wildlife that they are willing to take risks? There is no “right or wrong” answer to this question. Instead, there is an answer to the question of whether, based on Mark’s and Jane’s preferences, and a probabilistic weighting of likely outcomes, it makes sense for Mark or Jane to pursue the bear. Indeed, the “correct” answer hinges, to no small part, on Mark and Jane’s character and how they weigh their joy of seeing a bear versus the probability of being mauled.
What makes the “fake news” topic such a bugbear is that most of the discord concerns the second type of scenario, or, more realistically, some difficult-to-dissect mix of the two scenarios. Does striving for rapprochement with Russia endanger US interests? Should we favor gun owner’s rights to shoot their guns, or other’s rights not to potentially get shot? Will rescinding the residency permits of unemployed immigrants cause more or less well-being? The answer, of course, depends on whose interests and well-being is being prioritized, and which “risk model” is chosen to view the world. It is a messy function of future contingency, personal preference and societal prioritization.
Ultimately, we arrive at a scenario where there is an “objective truth”, however, part of that “objective truth” is that everyone would like to see his or her particular interests and projections on the future taken into account. We therefore face the problem that for these questions, we need to asses whose well-being certain actions are going to impact, how, and what the underlying risk models are; furthermore, what the compromise solution will have to look like for a common, good society where diverse people can live in relative harmony (if that is our goal).
Such discourse and compromise, of course, seems impossible in today’s climate of commercially-driven media polarization, simplified, 140 character messaging and most importantly, extreme focus on one’s own interests (and that of one’s own narrowly defined ‘peer group’). But maybe the first step would be to keep in mind that a “right-and-wrong” way of framing sticky issues is counter-productive; instead, the conversation must be re-framed from groups defending a perceived objective truth to them representing and promoting a (legitimate) social preference.