Sunday, December 11, 2016


"Fake News" has gone from "often-false click-bait stories presented as if if they were legitimate news stories by parties looking to drive advertising revenue" to including "things that are presented by established media outlets, but that contradict my view of the world," in a very short time. But maybe that's because that second understanding had already been well established, and all that the fake news stories if this past election cycle have done is give people an easily-remembered name for the phenomenon.

And I understand the overall distrust of "the Media." I remember when, in the 1980s, there was a big to-do over the fact that an Aldi grocery warehouse was found to have mice in it. I, as it so happened, lived across town from said warehouse, and I, like everyone else in the area, knew perfectly well why there were mice in the warehouse - field mice are afraid of bulldozers, and when construction of a new building ramps up, they seek shelter in existing buildings. We'd wound up with field mice in our garage every time they put up a new house near ours. Of course, this was not the angle that the TV stations took on the story. Even though they never actually came out and said that the mice were the result of sloppy or unsanitary conditions, the implication was there. Given this, I understand people who don't trust "the (Mainstream) Media" as far as they could throw a satellite truck. Once you understand that news outlets are willing to leave out important information in the interest of making a story seem more immediate, it's not a huge step to presume that they're willing to make up information for that same reason - or for more sinister ones.

In my experience, people in the United States have a tendency to take things personally, even broader events. I was listening to former King County Executive and Deputy Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Ron Sims and former state Attorney General Rob McKenna talking about the recent presidential election. Mr. Sims noted that that "resource counties" here in Washington State were hurting due to lose of jobs in the industries that once sustained them, and Mr. McKenna noted that for people in these communities, the opposition to new industries that would bring jobs (such as coal export terminals or natural gas terminals) by environmentally-conscious urban and suburban dwellers is definitely seen, at least in part, as personal - people from elsewhere are deliberately attempting to harm their communities. And so when these same people see in the news media stories about the scientific consensus around anthropogenic climate change, they interpret that as the urban media siding with urban dwellers against them. And that erodes their trust in what they see and hear.

Of course, this is all kind of moving away from the point. What it comes down to is that many established media outlets are not seen as neutral and honest brokers of information. Whether people view them as beholden to the interests of large urban media markets, "billionaires"/corporate profitability or just to the businesses that want to sell advertising to their audiences, there is a widespread suspicion that the media is not in the business of informing us about the world, but of shaping our understanding of it for the benefit of a third party that doesn't have our interests at heart.

And the recent surge of interest in fake news plays into that. Much of what I've heard about fake news during the election season positioned it as a form of negative campaign advertising that's outside the reach of campaign speech regulations; something that's designed to suppress voter turnout by raising Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt about a candidate, with the added bonus of being untraceable to anyone who has an interest in the outcome. And that understanding of fake news as public manipulation via dissemination of misinformation is what is leading to a broadening of the term. The story I talked about before, with the mice in the Aldi warehouse: fake news? Although there were no obvious falsehoods in the story as I remember it, there was a clear push to make the story seem newsworthy by implication of something that was likely not the case. That seems like manipulation of the public to me.

I understand the impulse to view leveling of charges of fake news against journalistic professionals to be a cynical ploy to draw attention away from hoaxers of the sort who convinced people that Hillary Clinton was somehow running a child sexual abuse ring from a Washington D.C. pizzeria. When falsehoods lead to armed vigilantism, I can understand the cause for alarm. But the simple fact that someone is a professional journalist doesn't mean that they're incapable of believing that news coverage should further an end other than giving people a simple recitation of the facts. Any number of people accept advocacy as a valid purpose of journalism, and many people understand that the purpose of advocacy is to spur people to right action, and that this is more important that right knowledge. And it's worth pointing out that people don't always see this as a bad thing. Advocacy organizations are consistently being called out for playing fast and loose with the facts, and many people are perfectly okay with this, seeing it as a necessary evil in the name of making the world a better place.

But seeing MSNBC, the Atlantic or the Economist as willing to purvey fake news is not going to make "fake news," as a descriptive term, meaningless. Sure, it blurs the line between some guy running a one-person operation that milks partisan echo-chambers for cash and Rolling Stone dropping the ball on a campus rape story, but I'm not certain that the distinction being protected in that case is a worthwhile one. For those people who understand "fake news" to mean any story, presented as genuinely newsworthy, but is actually intended to mislead it audience into supporting an agenda designed to advance illegitimate interests or damage legitimate ones, the issue is never going to be who puts out the information, or how sketchy their website might be. It's going to be whether or not "lies" are being spread to injure someone. For the people in Ferndale, Washington, who were placing their hopes on a coal export terminal to ship fossil fuels to Asia, the idea that scientists are united in the understanding that burning coal is damaging to the environment isn't a neutral fact. It's a tool that Seattle hipsters use to justify opposition to a project that would have meant "good jobs" for their community. And whatever the reality of the coal terminal would have been, the grass is always greener on the counterfactual side of the fence, because you can paint it whatever color you want. So jobs that never materialize can work wonders. And so when a scientist who's a skeptic (or open denier) of the link between human activity and climate shows up, the (overstated) unanimity of scientific thought becomes more than journalistic simplification. It becomes a deliberate falsehood, perpetrated in the name of picking winners and losers. And given that there is no system of dividing scarce but necessary resources such that those whose needs will go unmet will all concede that they are receiving no less than they deserve, people who feel that they have been selected to lose will always find reason to doubt the stated reasons for their selection.

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