Monday, April 17, 2017

Progress and Falsehoods

"On the left if you're consuming fake news you're 34 times more likely than the general population to be a college graduate," says [Jeff] Green[, CEO of internet advertiser Trade Desk].

If you're on the right, he says, you're 18 times more likely than the general population to to be in the top 20 percent of income earners.
The rise of left-wing, anti-Trump fake news
This was, of course, only to be expected. While "fake news" has become a buzzword for deliberate misinformation designed to mislead, in the end, the entire phenomenon is less about taking in the public than it is about taking in advertiser dollars. For those of us who don't earn money this way, the fact that even relatively obscure websites can generate enough traffic to enable someone to make a living from advertising revenue may be something of a surprise. But that's the reality of the situation, and that reality places a premium on one of the Web's primary forms of currency, the pageview.

And this isn't a new phenomenon.
Whatever the social effects of talk radio or the partisan agendas of certain hosts, it is a fallacy that political talk radio is motivated by ideology. It is not. Political talk radio is a business, and it is motivated by revenue. The conservatism that dominates today's AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits.
David Foster Wallace ("Host" Atlantic Magazine, April 2005)

All too often the truth is often secondary to what people want to hear and what they want to enjoy getting worked up about, whether it's in a sexual or righteous way. Information finds its level and its target.
Yoz Grahame (Comment on "Banning blogging, 'Toothing, and Yoz" Many2Many, 5 April 2005)
(Given this, now might be a good time to re-launch liberal talk radio.)

This combination of information seeking its own level and the fact that the dissemination of information is a business, is what is driving the shift in fake news from stories designed to appeal to the American political Right to the American political Left. Okay, so consumers (and sharers) of Right-wing fake news might be individually wealthier than most of the general public, but an overwhelmingly college-educated audience is nothing to sneeze at either, given the general wage gap between the the college-educated and their less credentialed fellow citizens.

And this is important because it points to an important concept: Education is no defense against being told what you want to hear - or other wanting other people to hear it. Fake news poses as news because that gives it the appearance of a legitimate source, and that appearance makes it more likely that, once it resonates with someone, it will be passed along to someone else as "proof" of the correctness of the audience's political sentiments. This is independent of a person's level of education; anyone can want something to be true badly enough to skip checking its veracity when it's handed to them on a plate.

Because the American Left sees itself as educated, and thus, skeptics by default, it was easy to see people on the Right, who are typically regarded as uneducated, provincial, yokels as being taken in by fake news because the purveyors of the medium were smarter than their targets. And this sentiment was likely reinforced by the laughably poor quality of some of the information presented. But one thing that following media outlets on social media has taught me is that all someone needs to respond, positively or negatively, to a news story is the headline. And headlines are often enough at least somewhat inaccurate - and that inaccuracy will often allow someone who has read the article to quickly pick out which commenters haven't. And even when people do read the pieces to which headlines are attached, the desire to be proven right is often stronger than reading comprehension. I have found myself impressed by people's ability to conclude that the main takeaway of an article is something directly contradicted by the text; someone confronted only with vague innuendo or sketchy sourcing will have a simple time of things.

If it is next to impossible to get a person to believe something that their livelihood demands that they don't, it is quite easy to get someone to believe something that their sense of the world asks that they do. Politics, by itself, will never elevate people above that.

No comments: