Perhaps one of the catchiest memes that made the rounds of the Internet since President-elect Donald J. Trump decided to run was the one in which he’s quoted by People magazine back in 1998 as saying that if he ran for president he’d do it as a Republican. His purported reason: “They are the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”
It wasn’t true in the slightest. But the chances are you saw this meme, a number of times, over the last couple of years. Or maybe you heard the totally unfounded and pernicious claims that Hillary Clinton could be the leader of a pedophile ring, or that the U.S. putting a man on the moon was a piece of flash fiction.
The information superhighway can be a kind of Wonderland, but one we must navigate carefully. While we wait for Facebook Inc., in the words of the tech media, to “fix its fake news problem,” to create algorithms that can determine the difference between truth and fantasy, we might be better served by relying on that old and trusted capacity called “skepticism.”
Google Inc. has just said that it plans to curtail the proliferation of fake news. This announcement came shortly after it was reported that the site that appeared top of Google’s rankings for the search request, “Who won the popular vote?” was a conspiracy site with incorrect information.
To make matters worse, it now appears that Facebook was well aware of the problem of fake news but execs in its highest ranks had forestalled doing anything about it, according to a Gizmodo report. “High-ranking officials were briefed on a planned news feed update that would have identified fake or hoax news stories, but disproportionately impacted right-wing news sites by downgrading or removing that content from people’s feeds,” the report said.
Gizmodo’s source said that Facebook could easily shut down fake news. The New York Times also said it had sources inside Facebook and also said that the matter of news fakery was indeed a matter of concern, creating a “internal culture of fear” after employees who had been fired from Facebook in May over Trending News issues.
The Difficult Truth
Yet the truth is not always so black and white. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, activist and author Chris Hedges, formerly a New York Times correspondent for the Middle East, left the newspaper mostly because of his anti-Iraq war stance, something that wasn’t popular in the public and media sphere back in the day. If you have ever read Hedges’ grim tales of warfare, upcoming environmental catastrophe, inveterate government corruption and the manufacturing of consent of the public partly via the internet, you might only hope he is making some of it up. Echoing Hedge’s worldwide woe is the prolific Noam Chomsky, at once called “America’s greatest intellectual” but also harangued by online detratctors as a fraud out to destroy America.
Contempt and admiration toward both writers can be found all over the net, on blogs, Facebook posts, and in mainstream media. Their interpretation of war and the environment is often very different from mainstream media, so we might ask which interpretation is true.
Can we expect Facebook and Google to do that job for us? Some observers believe they cannot, and they shouldn’t be expected to do so. By expecting them to find the truth for us, we may set them up as powerful arbiters of truth, a decision we could come to regret.