In both the blogosphere and the realm of social and conventional media lately there is a high level of concern regarding “fake news” — that is, false, misleading, or inflammatory reporting and opinion. Alongside this, there is a similar level of distress and puzzlement in regard to what to do about it. Tasking publishers with vetting, flagging, or censoring all communications is an impossibly large task - and further may run afoul of the constitutional First Amendment. People may rightly be fearful of an Orwellian Ministry of Information.
Long before the term “fake news” was popularized, social psychologists and advertisers knew that emotionally activated people are more susceptible to influence. Accordingly, dealing with the problem of fake news puts for-profit publishers and news organizations in a bind. “Juicy” content tends to draw more viewers and inspire more engagement, commenting, and sharing. Yet these are the very things that support the creation of fake news and enable it to “go viral”.
First, let’s understand that the purpose of fake news is fairly simple - it is generally a manipulation toward one of two intended outcomes:
1) Arouse the reader emotionally, so that they will be more readily influenced and motivated to act in response to commercial or political messages, opinions, calls to action, solicitations for money or other support … and the like. This always involves a benefit for some other party, at an expense to the reader — which can range from a mild effort – a benign “like” in support of a sick friend -- to calls for harmful sacrifice or violence.
2) “Stochastic terrorism” (… word for the day. It’s OK, I had to look it up too.) An effort to maximize chaos in society -- in the form of general levels of agitation, fear, insecurity, hatred, division, suspicion, mistrust, hopelessness and other socially damaging dynamics. “Normal” terrorism typically involves an interest group, an enemy, and some action that is intended to force the latter to change their ways through a fairly predictable cause-and-effect effort (“I bomb your military base, you get out of my country”). By contrast, stochastic terrorism doesn’t concern itself with directly predictable results. It is simply a matter of doing something — anything— that will increase the statistical likelihood of something bad happening. Its goal is simply to disrupt the natural order, such that an enemy is weakened, misdirected, confused, paralyzed, and off balance.
In view of these dynamics, I suggest that fake news can be relatively easy to spot. Here is the litmus test:
Do you find a report to be extreme to the point that it is difficult to believe? Is your impulsive gut-reaction one of shock, outrage, horror, or extreme fear? Are you immediately tempted to think in terms of “those people!” versus “our people”? Do you feel a compulsion to lash out in some way? If so, it is likely to be fake or at least exaggerated news.
This was easier to spot in earlier days when the subject titles themselves indicated the desired response: “Outrageous!”, “Shocking”, “You won’t believe …”. Now, things have gotten a bit more subtle, leading into a story that may evoke those reactions. To the right is one example that recently came through on Facebook:
Let me say at the outset that I’m not a “true believer” nor a fan of Pat Robertson. My initial gut reaction to this report was one of the above. However, upon listening to the referenced video interview with Robertson (link at end), I simply heard an old man, raised in a different era, espousing a sentiment of an older time: that “disrespectful” children need to be taught discipline, using the old metaphor of “being taken to the woodshed”. Yet if one only saw the initial posting, one might conclude that Robertson was calling for the reinstatement of the Spanish Inquisition. (Note also that the particularly deranged photograph was not from the actual interview.)
It is pretty clear that the intent of the poster, be he an evil foreign agent or not, was not to inform but rather to inflame – to create maximum outrage.
Even as the writer of this current Op-Ed, my initial reaction to the Pat Roberson posting was to drag out the pitchfork and torch — suggesting how great a challenge it may be to check our worst impulses. Yet as more and more of us do so, hopefully the momentum will build in the positive, constructive direction.
Perhaps the guide-star ultimate solution is a simple acknowledgement that raging and hating, that “othering” and division, will never take us to the better future we all hope for. Challenging as it may now appear, an America and a world that is truly “great” again will have to find a place for everyone — and in doing so, I suspect that most of the divisions will evaporate.
Editor's note:This article was originally run at the Daily Kos, which stipulates that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified."