fake news

I keep tripping over the phrase “fake news.” That phrase implies that there is news out there that is not fake, that is entirely real, that is totally accurate. But nothing is totally accurate; everything is an approximation, and how close or far it is from the “truth” depends on where you are looking from and what you need to hear. 

Obviously all “news” is fake in the sense that it is selected and highlighted among all the many things you can choose to talk about and it is shaped according to generic media conventions that allow us to ascertain what “news” is. News is a manufactured media product; it is not a piece of truth that reporters happen to find lying around. It is accurate in so far as it conforms to journalistic conventions that connote objectivity and a concern for “both sides,” as if there are only two. 

As a manufactured form of truth, “news” must be understood according to the specifications to which it is made, the media slots it is produced to fill, the demand it is designed to meet, and the repeat forms of demand it hopes to elicit. The questions that can be answered are “why choose to report this as news, and for whom?” A question that can’t really be answered is “Is this news true?” 

So when we call something “fake,” we mean that we don’t approve of the purposes for which that media product was made, and the desires and demands of the audience for whom it was made. But if we pretend that we have privileged access to the “truth” in making that assertion, we are likely to run into thickets of hypocrisy. 

I am highly skeptical of the argument that “fake news” affected the election results, because it seems to me that view assumes that if not for Facebook, people would otherwise be well-informed, and that most people read for “facts” instead of feelings or entertainment. I think we enjoy fake news the way Barnum’s clientele enjoyed being hoaxed: It was funny to see what you are expected to believe, to imagine a world where it could be true, and to be in on the joke of your own gullibility. 

I don’t think that people are simply empty vessels that can be filled with “real” or “fake” news in order to make them behave as experts or elites or whomever expects. You can’t simply inform (or misinform) people into the politics you want. 

The idea that we approach the news as if we are fact gatherers ourselves, collecting neutral information in order to exercise our judgment about the “concerns of the day” seems very inadequate. We consume news because it entertains us and moves us and confirms our ideological beliefs about the world. That is true whether we are trapped in our Facebook-enforced filter bubble or if we are watching TV or reading the Weekly World News.

So I believe Zuckerberg when he says, “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic.” I believe that because it is a tautology. I would go further and say that 100% of what appears on Facebook is “authentic” in that it actually appeared there. There was an appraised demand for this content that was in some instances met when people clicked on inaccurate stories. Everything that happens on Facebook is “real”; all the opinions and stories posted there are “true” in that they are expressions of real opinions people have and yearn to see reflected in the world. I get the sense when people get mad about fake news, they wish they could “correct” the opinions of the people who want that content by simply changing the nature of what is reported. Again, as if you can inform people into holding the “correct” opinions. If people only read real news, they couldn’t possibly be bad people!  

Facebook is simply a better engine for creating the news that people want, by harvesting a more detailed picture of what sort of stories they like. News on the site is manufactured to more specific specifications, and with more success. Facebook takes our inchoate world view as expressed by who we know and what we click on and so forth and turns it into a blueprint for content manufacturers to make product for us.

When we are “engaged” with Facebook, we by now know that we are seeing material meant to entertain us. Those who choose to project their entertainment onto the world as a version of reality would likely do that with whatever entertainment they consumed. People who want to make the effort to learn something will not expect Facebook to anticipate that desire and serve it to them. 

But Zuckerberg’s claims that “we don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook” and that users “want accurate news,” seem ridiculous. Facebook wants its users to keep scrolling the newsfeed, and users tend to comply when the newsfeed gives them something to feel. The point of the news feed is to make the world a side show to fill the user’s spare moments, bored at work or in traffic or in line. Facebook shouldn’t bother to root out any hoaxes, as if they are localized to specific stories. The whole news feed is a hoax. 

In fact, the nice thing about Facebook is you can use it to gauge the limits of your unreflective entertainment-driven and friend-driven view of the world; it brings those limits into clear focus. If you are content getting your information from Facebook, you can rest assured that you are only entertained and not informed.

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