Note: This is the second article in a series on how should Christians think about ‘the news.’ You can find part one here.
Fake news—the term—seems to be everywhere these days. The phrase has become so ubiquitous that world leaders are even using it.
From December 2016 to July 2017, President Trump used the term fake news 66 times on his Twitter feed. And Pope Francis said the first fake news is found in the book of Genesis, when the “crafty serpent” tempted the woman “by pretending to be her friend,” to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In a recent speech titled “The truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace,” the pontiff called on Catholics to denounce “snake-tactics” employed by fake news writers who can “strike at any time.”
Some people are even considering fake news justification for violence. Earlier this month a Michigan man was arrested by the FBI after allegedly threatening to shoot and kill employees at CNN. “Fake news,” the man told a CNN operator. “I'm coming to gun you all down.”
Almost everyone in America agrees fake news is a problem. A new study by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 73 percent of Americans say the spread of inaccurate information on the internet is a major problem with news coverage today, more than any other potential type of news bias. But there is less agreement on what the term means. A majority of Americans believe people knowingly portraying false information as if it were true “always” constitutes fake news. Yet 40 percent of Republicans say accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light should “always” be considered fake news.
The reason fake news has become so common is there is a strong demand for fake news.
Because there is no agreement on the meaning let me offer my own definition.
How to understand fake news
Thirteen years ago the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an influential essay called “On [BS]” (I’ll refrain from posting the full scatological title) in which he posits that “BS” is speech intended to persuade without regard for truth. As Wikipedia summarizes his view, “The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the [BSer] doesn't care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether or not their listener is persuaded.”
Fake news is a particular form of Frankfurt’s BS: information about current events that is distributed as news but has no concern for the truth; its purpose is only to motivate a particular form of acceptable thought.
The reason fake news has become so common is there is a strong demand for fake news. It isn’t the “fake news” of those we disagree with that we should be worried about but the news from those on “our side.” Many of us want at least a small portion of fake news in our media diet because we want to have our opinions confirmed, not challenged (40 percent of Republicans tacitly admit that in the Gallup/Knight survey).
We tend to think the problem with news outlets and media consumers is that they are “biased.” This is rather facile understanding of what is really going on (as we’ll consider in a future article). Instead, we should think of the media environment (including our place in it) as being everywhere influenced by motivated reasoning.
The motivation behind fake news
Motivated reasoning, as Dan Kahan explains, refers to the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal. Kahan provides a classic example:
In the 1950s, psychologists asked experimental subjects, students from two Ivy League colleges, to watch a film that featured a set of controversial officiating calls made during a football game between teams from their respective schools. The students from each school were more likely to see the referees’ calls as correct when it favored their school than when it favored their rival. The researchers concluded that the emotional stake the students had in affirming their loyalty to their respective institutions shaped what they saw on the tape.
The end or goal (wanting their team to win) motivated the reasoning process in a way that directed their mental operations (in this case, sensory perceptions) to find what they wanted to come to a specific conclusion—even if their interpretation didn’t match reality. Sound familiar?
Commitment to truth as protection against fake news
We all want to believe, especially when it comes to politics, that our preferred ideas, policies, and politicians are so obviously superior as to be above reproach. But for Christians, the priority must always be the truth. Truth must even take precedence over our political objectives. As Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “Christian values . . . cannot be accepted as a superior utilitarianism, just as a means to an end. The biblical message is truth and it demands a commitment to truth.”
Here’s a simple exercise to determine how protected you are from fake news. Over the next few days set aside all conceptions about the motives of the news industry and focus solely on your own reaction. Whenever you encounter a specific news item think about your reaction to the news. Do you want it to be true or false? Are you more inclined to believe the news (or its source) if you want it to be true or disbelieve it if you want it to be false? How is motivated reasoning affecting what agendas you accept from the news industry?
You might be surprised by what you find. But once you know the truth, the truth will set you free—free from the allure of fake news.