Countering the real threat of fake news.

Short version: To counter the real threat of fake stories – e.g., “Right-Wingers Stand By Their Fabricated Mexican Drug Cartel Raid Story” – it’s not enough to expose a lie by replacing it with a rational proof. We must also require that the leaders who benefit from such lies renounce them publicly.

Long version: We’re not so modern, our society is not so transparent, our media are not so well trained and our networks not so efficient that we are not at constant risk of visiting death and destruction upon millions as a result of a single well-placed lie. Or, worse, the lack of a truth.

The Spanish American War was, at the very least, co-produced by the yellow press. The same could be said for the second U.S. invasion of Iraq. Dozens of modern-era conflicts around the world have been launched with the help of rumor mongers. Or, more precisely, with the help of their audiences.

In the U.S., the rise of online media has re-enforced a concurrent trend towards fragmentation. It is now possible to recreate the isolation that afflicted much of 18th and 19th century America using 21st century tools.

It’s not the rare community of Amish who live curiously out of touch with mainstream reality, but the millions of Americans in every city and state who choose to break away from the difficulties of reality – the paradoxes of being human, so frail and so noble – by immersing themselves in a stream of “perfect news,” where no revelation ever contradicts dogma.

We turn to news for information that is “new” and thus valuable. By definition, that which is news is a discontinuity in the state of things. (If the weather was 70°F every day and night of the year, if it never changed, there would be no interest in weather reports.) True news is challenging. It is a process by which we confront the external.

But orthodoxy does not tolerate change from without. Thus, “perfect news” must simulate the experience of encountering new-ness which, quite to the contrary, is old as it never challenges prejudices or held beliefs.

Perfect news – or propaganda – is thus a fantastic and especially pernicious trap. It’s the appearance of a rational process which disguises an ongoing flight into fancy. It’s the inspector who signs off on a building filled with empty fire extinguishers. The hospital pharmacy stocked with placebos. The emergency phone that has been unplugged from its jack.

Such entirely superficial arrangements inevitably fall apart. Idiots do not make effective leaders. Communities under the spell of crazed authoritarians or a collective delusion always collapse. (The emperor’s new clothes is an ancient and universal reminder.) But dupes play an indispensable role in every con. Even complex democracies such as our own, where there are myriad checks and balances to prevent such catastrophes, can host dangerous con games.

Well-informed, rational leaders can benefit tremendously from the support of constituents who have lost their grip on reality. History is rife with examples of leaders who have “shorted” their own clients (supporters) by making private deals that are contrary to their own public and/or their constituents’ positions. (The person selling the magic beans seldom believes they are magical – otherwise, why put them up for sale?)

These cons can only be carried out for as long as the constituents believe their leaders share their delusions. By forcing leaders who are playing a con to lay out their positions, these leaders are forced to take on the exposure inherent in that position. Live by the lie, die by the lie.

Side note
Whatever the short-term costs of news gathering may be, they are an essential “operating expense” for maintaining a transparent and thus efficient marketplace.

We’re not quite sure how we will pay to expose lies and replace them with rational proofs – i.e., journalism in the digital age – but I think we can be sure that we’ll find a way to cover this cost as long as we’re all invested in an efficient market.