The Fallacy of Fake News & Both Sides-ism

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Note: I was asked to give a sermon at the local Unitarian Universalist Church. The audience was mainly folks over 60, and I think they found this talk useful. I hope you will, too.

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I’m a Democrat but I come from a long line of Republicans, so it’s always been difficult to hold different political beliefs from my family. But things have never been so taxing as they have been since the election of Donald Trump. Yes, my family and I disagree on many of Trump’s policies and approaches. But more worrying to me, as a scholar of the media, is how difficult it has become to support claims with evidence that will be accepted. I’ll offer an example to illustrate:

Last weekend my family drove north to central Pennsylvania to see my mother. As with most visits, our conversation invariably turned to politics, specifically, a widely reported story about how the US Navy hung a tarp over a warship docked in Japan, where President Trump was giving a speech last week. The warship in question, the USS John McCain, is named after the father and grandfather of the late Senator John McCain. As I’m sure you all know, Donald Trump maintained a contentious relationship with John McCain, a member of his own party, in both life and death. This particular story—the fact that the warship was covered by a tarp during Trump’s visit—was reported in prominent sources including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, NPR, CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, and yes, even Fox News. While there is no full consensus on who made this request, all of these news sources cite a statement released by the US Navy’s chief of information, that a request was made by the White House, “to minimize the visibility of USS John S. McCain.”

My mother a  staunch Republican, agreed that the story was embarrassing, but then told me that her close friend, Richard, a strong Trump supporter, disputed the veracity of the story.

“Richard said the reason the boat was covered with a tarp is because it was being repaired.”

“And where did he hear that?”

“Fox news,” she replied, but then, before I could say anything, quickly followed up, “But Fox News is where I heard about the story in the first place.”

In other words, both my mom and Richard, staunch republicans who watch Fox News regularly, learned about the covered USS John McCain through the same news source, but came away with very different conclusions. I decided to investigate the root of Richard’s story on Fox News. With a little Googling I found a series of articles on Fox News which mention that the warship’s name was obscured by a tarp and a paint barge, but that this was due to repairs on the ship, not a request from the White House. Faced with dozens of sources reporting that the White House requested the warship be covered and just one source reporting that the ship was simply under repairs, my mother threw up her hands and concluded: how can we ever know the truth?

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This question troubled me because my mother reads the local newspaper every morning, and the New York Times on Sundays, and is generally aware of both national and international current events. Of all the people in her educated Boomer demographic, she should know where and how to find reliable  and consistent information about the world. So what happened? The first problem my mother faced, and which so many Americans are facing right now, is the misguided belief that there are two sides to every story, and that, at the end of the day, it is simply a matter of one’s opinion. The second problem my mother faced is a deficit in media literacy. While my mom now knows how to minimize a window, print a PDF, and share articles on Facebook, she is less aware of how information functions in today’s media environment. In this respect, my mother is like the great majority of us, not just the Boomers, who consume and share content in an ever-shifting online environment. How does content circulate online and how do we know which sources to trust? This morning, I’d like to unpack these two causes of fake news and the spread of misinformation.

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“Both Sides”

One of the most lauded virtues of American society is the idea of free speech and that a plurality of voices is always preferable to the restriction of some in favor of others, hence the appeal to hearing “both sides” of an argument. This feels objectively true and logical, but like all things in life, functions quite differently in different scenarios. Both Sides-ism causes problems when we incorrectly decide that all views on a single topic deserve the same amount of consideration. All political issues elicit a range of opinions, depending on who you’re talking to, but these opinions, these “sides,” do not always carry equal weight. I might be pro-choice because I believe women should have sovereignty over their bodies or because I just hate babies. Both are indeed opinions but one carries far more validity (and morality) than the other. The phenomenon of Both Sides-ism, or false balance, occurs when viewpoints are presented in public discourses as having roughly equal weight, when they objectively do not.

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In a New York Times editorial, published in the final delirious months of the 2016 election season, economist Paul Krugman described the phenomenon of Both Sides-ism, this “cult of balance,” as “the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.”

The consequences of Both Sides-ism are most destructive when all views about personhood are given the same consideration. Take, for example, the recent case, Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in which a baker refused to make a cake for a same sex wedding, claiming that to do so conflicted with his religious beliefs. The plaintiffs argued this was discrimination while Masterpiece Cakeshop thought the refusal couldn’t be discrimination when it was actually freedom of religion. In this way, Both Sides-ism, this false balance in our discourse, works to legitimate opinions which are not legitimate because equal rights are not up for debate. Another consequence of Both Sides-ism is that, just as it converts opinions into truths, it turns truths into opinions. Because my mother’s friend Richard reported to her that the USS John McCain was covered with a tarp due solely to repairs being made, a story supported by one news source, she felt compelled to give this claim the same weight as the story reported by dozens of news sources, which is that someone in the Trump administration requested that the ship be covered.

We need to be mindful of these slippages and logical fallacies. While there are dozens of opinions for every major political issue, we must always remember that some are more valid than others. And considering some of these opinions, like the idea that same sex marriage is a sin, is damaging. While there is much fake news out there, that does not negate the fact that real reliable news and facts exist. But how can you determine how to find reliable news? That brings me to my second point…

Media Literacy

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Scholars who study the media and the way it’s content is shaped and deployed have long known that much of the news on cable channels like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, as well as network and local newscasts, tend to focus on the sensational at the expense of the newsworthy. These scholars have also long known that, in a bid for more eyeballs (and advertising dollars) news headlines, and even news content, can be purposely misleading, incorrect, or yes, even “fake.”

However, in the lead up to, and following, the contentious 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the term “fake news” was deployed more frequently, and in more contexts, than ever before, and not because Americans were suddenly becoming more media literate.[1] The prevalence of the term “fake news” coincided with a rise in conspiracy theories getting traction on social media and then finding their way into public discourse.[2] Take, for example, when White House advisor Kellyanne Conway cited something she called the “Bowling Green Disaster,” an event invented out of whole cloth, as a justification for the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban in February 2017.[3] This increasing inability to discern truth from lies has changed in relation to the technology we have developed for communicating authentic facts. That is, technology is conditioning the way we understand the look and sound of reality and truth. Let’s take a quick trip into our technological past to illustrate what I mean.

Before the global spread of the printing press in the sixteenth century, information about anything outside what you could personally verify was simply not available. When we move forward in time to the circulation of newspapers in the seventeenth century, we are able to learn factually-verifiable things about the world outside our immediate purview, and we are consuming the same facts as our neighbors reading the same newspaper. Again, there is an implicit trust that what we are reading is in, fact, from a reliable source and that this source would have no motivation for misleading us.

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The development and deployment of radio and television for the mass distribution of information in the twentieth century likewise carried an implicit trust, inherited from the media that preceded them (namely print newspapers and newsreels that ran before cinemas screenings). Rather than buying a newspaper or venturing out to the movies to watch a newsreel, consumers could enjoy the radio, and the information it provided, without leaving the comfort or the intimacy of their home. Radio also acted a democratizing technology: it gave anyone with a radio common access to events and entertainments that only a tiny minority had been able to enjoy previously.[4] In the 1920s and 1930s, the medium of radio made the world feel like a smaller place when everyone with a radio could listen to the same content being broadcast at the same time.

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Just after WWII, when the new medium of television gained a foothold in the American consciousness,  it was likewise viewed as a tool for the production of social knowledge, part of a postwar television cultural moment that embraced the medium for its ability to convey realism. The technology of television—its ability to record human behavior and broadcast it live—was linked to a general postwar interest in documenting, analyzing and understanding humanity. By 1960, 90% of American homes had television (compared with 9% in 1950). More and more, Americans were able to consume the same information at the same time, all across the country.

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Until the mid-1980s, American television programming was dominated by a small number of broadcast networks: ABC, NBC, CBS and later Fox in 1986. Cable television technology existed as early as the 1940s, a solution to the problem of getting TV signals into mountainous areas. But cable subscriptions steadily rose throughout the 1970s and 1980s in response to new FCC regulations and policies allowed the technology to grow. What’s important for our discussion of fake news is that cable provided access to targeted audiences, rather than the more general demographic targeted by networks. Special interests, homogenous groups, had content made specifically for them.

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The development of cable had a massive impact on journalism because, rather than being relegated to the morning or evening news, cable allowed the news to run 24 hours per day. In the 1980s, Ted Turner launched CNN which provided “saturation coverage” of world events like the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 or the first Gulf War. Instantaneous and ongoing coverage of major events as they happen is incredibly useful but also has its drawbacks.

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For example, this type of coverage demands an immediate response from politicians, even before they have a chance to inform themselves on developing stories, aka “the CNN effect.” Former Secretary of State James Baker said of the CNN effect “The one thing it does, is to drive policymakers to have a policy position. I would have to articulate it very quickly. You are in real-time mode. You don’t have time to reflect.” CNN’s saturation coverage also  increases pressure on cable news to cover an issue first, leading to errors in reporting and even false and misleading information.

In 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News as a corrective to the liberal bias he argued was present in American media. The new channel relied on personality-driven commentary by conservative talk radio hosts figures like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, only Fox framed right-wing positions and coverage as “news” and not “opinion.” Thus, the news channel served as decisive blow to the boundary between fact and opinion in journalism. This blurring of fact and opinion, along with the drive for 24 hours of content, has led to an onslaught of information of varying levels of utility.

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The development and widespread use of the internet and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter over the last 20 years has profoundly impacted our relationship with facts and truth. Complex search algorithms, like Google, make information retrieval and organization easier and faster, thereby giving human brains more free time to think and do and make, something engineer. Engineer Vannevar Bush first addressed how creation and publication of research and data was far outpacing the human mind’s ability to organize, locate, and access that information in a timely manner in a 1967 article titled, “Memex Revisited”.[5] He was particularly concerned about a problem that plagues us today: information overload. If attention is a finite commodity and information is increasingly boundless, how can we reconcile the two?

u.pngBush’s essay proposes a solution: a hypothetical microfilm viewing machine, a “memex,” which mimics the way the human brain recalls information and makes connections between different concepts and ideas. While most file storage systems at this time were structured like indexes, with categories, subcategories, and hierarchies of information, Bush’s hypothetical memex was structured by association, working much as the human brain does when searching for an answer. Bush foretells the development of the modern search engine, which is able to process 40,000 queries per second, searching for the exact information a user seeks.

We often think of the ways technology shapes the way we think, but Bush’s essay highlights how the ways we think can also shape the structure of technology. Indeed, complex search algorithms, like Google, make information retrieval and organization easier and faster, thereby giving human brains more free time to think and do and make. Bush described this as the “privilege of forgetting.” But when this perspective bumps up against our current experience of the internet, a memex that exceeds Bush’s wildest dreams, we can also see how the privilege of forgetting might also be one source of the current distrust of the news and the rejection of facts and science.

With that in mind, I made up a hand out outlining basic tips and tricks for figuring out whether or not the news you’re consuming can be trusted, and, more importantly, so you can share these tips and tricks with friends and family. We have to hang onto the truth, and find ways to help those around us hang on, too. Please feel free to share with family and friends (especially your racist uncle): UU Detecting Fake News

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Notes

[1]  Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” Journal of Economic Perspectives. 31, no. 2 (2017): 211-236.

[2] Andy Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler, “Selective Exposure to MisinFormation: Evidence from the Consumption of Fake News During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign,”2018, https://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/fake-news-2016.pdf 2018.

[3] Schmidt, Samantha and Lindsey Bever, “Kellyanne Conway Cites ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ that Never Happened to Defend Travel Ban,” The Washington Post, February 3, 2017.

 

[4]  David Hendy. “Technologies,”  The Television History Book, ed. Michelle Hilmes (London, U.K.: BFI, 2003), 5.

 

[5] Vannevar Bush, “Memex Revisited,” Science is not Enough (New York, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1967).

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