Today on the Rogue Fundagelical blog, Philosophy Professor Ted Preston returns to inform us what is fake news and how to detect it. This is well worth reading and you just might learn something. Take it away Ted.

“Fake News”

What is it? How do we detect it? How do we overcome it?

This is a well-known and studied psychological tendency known as the “confirmation bias.” What makes the confirmation bias dangerous, though, is that it distorts our ability to honestly and objectively evaluate claims. This is not merely some anecdotal complaint about the state of debate today. There is scientific evidence to suggest that our brains are “wired” to be resistant to change with respect to “firmly held beliefs.”

A study published in 2016 showed, via neuroimaging, that when subjects were presented with arguments that contradicted their strongly held political views, they experienced “increased activity in the default mode network—a set of interconnected structures associated with self-representation and disengagement from the external world.”[1] The default mode network is normally shown to active during such states as daydreaming and mind-wandering. It is labeled “default” because the network activates “by default” when the person is not engaged in a task requiring attention.

This is fascinating, if true! It suggests that when our firmly-held political beliefs are challenged, our brains “check out” in ways analogous to daydreaming. How responsive to evidence and argument are we likely to be if our brains are in a “day-dreaming” state when evidence contrary to our firmly held beliefs is presented?

In the final speech President Obama gave as President, he warned against our increasing tendency to operate within our own ideological “bubbles.”

For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.  The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.  And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.[2]

This isn’t merely some anecdotal cautionary tale about liberals only watching MSNBC and conservatives only watching Fox news. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America concluded that “selective exposure to content is the primary driver of content diffusion and generates the formation of homogeneous clusters, i.e., ‘echo chambers.’ Indeed, homogeneity appears to be the primary driver for the diffusion of contents and each echo chamber has its own cascade dynamics.”[3]

In other words, people on Facebook mostly share news that they already agree with, that is consistent with their worldview, and they don’t share information that challenges it. As the researchers put it: “users show a tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information that confirm their pre-existing beliefs.”

Combine this tendency with the fact that Facebook has nearly 2 billion users (out of roughly 7 billion people on the planet), and reaches 67% of U.S. adults, and that 62% of Americans get their news mainly from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.[4] A majority of Americans get their news primarily from social media, and research confirms the application of the confirmation bias to social media platforms. It should go without saying that these trends seriously compromise our ability to think critically, and to responsibly accept or reject claims. Unfortunately contributing to this effect is the relatively recent phenomena of so-called “fake news.”

As of 2017, “Fake News” had entered into the American vocabulary, initially and specifically in the realm of politics—though the phrase is likely to “trend” and apply to other contexts as well. Initially used by liberals to describe right-wing “conspiracy theories,” the phrase expanded in use just as did the frequency of fake news itself. Conservatives then adopted the phrase themselves, and the phrase now gets used to describe multiple, significantly different things. This is where philosophy has a chance to shine, considering the experience philosophers have with conceptual analysis. The primary meanings of “fake news” seems to be the following:

  • A work of fiction, known to be so by the author, but presented as real/true for personal, political, or financial motives.

This is the original meaning of fake news, and all other meanings are a departure from this. Another word to describe this kind of fake news is a “lie.” A clear illustration of this kind of fake news is the example of Cameron Harris. As reported in an interview with Harris by the New York Times, he admitted to writing multiple completely fabricated stories that he thought would be effective “click-bait” for Trump supporters.[5] He claimed to have done so for financial reasons, citing that he made $22,000 in ad-revenue from his stories, though it was later revealed that he also worked as an aide to a Maryland Republican lawmaker.[6] Eight of his fake news stories were popular enough to attract the attention of (and debunking by) Snopes.com.[7] His most “effective” story claimed “Tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse.” By his own admission, he invented an imaginary electrical worker and named him “Randall Prince.” He copied and pasted a screen shot of man standing in front of ballot boxes using a google image search. He also identified the motive for the imaginary ballot-tampering: “the Clinton campaign’s likely goal was to slip the fake ballot boxes in with the real ballot boxes when they went to official election judges on November 8th.”

The fact that the story was a complete lie did nothing to stop it from being shared with 6 million people. The fake news story went sufficiently viral that the Franklin County (Ohio) board of elections was forced to investigate—after which they confirmed the story had no basis in reality.[8]

  • Satire: while also a work of fiction (and known to be so by the author), the work is presented as fiction for the sake of entertainment or to make a point.

Satire is a long-practiced means of both entertainment and persuasion. “The Onion” is perhaps the most famous satirical website today, and it makes no pretense that its stories are true. When The Onion runs the headline, “Trump Calms Nerves Before Inaugural Address By Reminding Himself He’s The Only Person Who Actually Exists,” it is presumed that the reader will know that are only trying to be funny.[9] Similarly, when Jonathan Swift famously argued that a solution to Irish poverty was for Irish parents to sell their children as food to wealthy Englishmen, he wasn’t being serious! Despite eating children being presented as his “Modest Proposal,” his actual proposals were much more serious:

Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither clothes, nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: . . . Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

Satire is “fake news” in the sense that it is not real, but nor is it intended to be—and that is a significant difference

  • A work thought to be true and intended to be true by the author, but mistaken in one or more significant details.

In another words, a mistake. An example of a mistake in reporting that was, nevertheless, denounced as “fake news” occurred on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as President. A White House pool reporter tweeted that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office.[10] In fact, the bust had simply been moved to a different part of the office, and the reporter hadn’t seen it—something the reporter later acknowledged and for which he apologized. Nevertheless, the initial report was called “fake news” by detractors all the same.[11]

At the risk of editorializing: honest mistakes, while bad, are not properly “fake news.” A relevant indicator of intent is whether or not the person who made the initial claim is willing to admit (and correct) the mistake, and apologize.

  • A news story deemed “irrelevant,” or unimportant, or distracting from “real” news (according to the person making the claim).

An example of this might be when reporters comment on the fashion choices of a politician, rather than the substance of her policies. As another example, when Senator Jeff Sessions was nominated to be U.S. Attorney General by President Trump, some reporters (and Democratic politicians) pointed to allegations of racism from his past as a potential disqualifier for confirmation. This was labeled by some as “fake news”—though it’s far from obvious that a history of racist behavior is not relevant with respect to one’s qualifications for the top law enforcement position in the Federal Government.[12]

  • A news story disliked by the reader.

This is perhaps the most disturbing usage of “fake news” of them all, in my opinion. This usage occurs when information is dismissed as “fake” simply because it conflicts with the reader’s worldview, or because it would be distressing, if accepted as true. To be blunt: not liking a piece of information doesn’t mean that it’s false. If your medical doctor tells you that you have cancer, dismissing it as “fake news” is of no help.

The problem with the varied and inconsistent usage of the phrase “fake news” isn’t just an issue of conceptual fussiness from overly-picky philosophers. Words have meaning. When President Trump refused to take questions from a CNN reporter, and dismissed the network as “fake news,” it’s likely that what he really meant is something like “I don’t like CNN, and how CNN is reporting on my presidency.”[13] However, people who listen to and respect President Trump might take his words to mean that CNN intentionally prints stories they know to be false for ulterior motives, and thereby lose confidence in the network as a reliable news source.

This isn’t just bad news for CNN’s ratings or profit margins. If confidence in mainstream media sources is undermined, people will retreat even further into their ideological bubbles, and their critical thinking skills will be even further compromised. President Trump later again labeled major media sources (viz., the New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN) as “fake news,” but went further by denouncing them as the “enemy of the American People.”

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff finds this strategy to be both intentional and dangerous. The adjective “fake” modifies the function of “news.” The primary purpose of “news” is to pass along factual information in service to the public good. If “news” is modified with the term “fake,” it implies that the basic function of “news” has been compromised.

It is done to serve interests at odds with the public good. It also undermines the credibility of real news sources, that is, the press. Therefore it makes it harder for the press to serve the public good by revealing truths. And it threatens democracy, which requires that the press function to reveal real truths.[14]

Perhaps we would be better and more accurately served by refraining from using the phrase “fake news” entirely?

When Hillary Clinton claimed in 2008 to have run from sniper fire in Bosnia, and her claim was proven to be false, the best-case scenario is that her memory was “mistaken,” and the worst-case is that she intentionally lied for some reason.[15] Why bother calling it “fake news” when a “lie” or “mistake” more accurately conveys what occurred?

When President Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, in his very first press briefing, not only claimed that President Trump’s inauguration audience was the largest ever, but also condemned journalists for writing “fake news” downplaying the size of the crowds, several troubling things occurred.

For one, his claim about viewership was demonstrably false. President Trump’s Nielson television ratings were the fifth highest since President Richard Nixon—lower than President Obama’s first inauguration, for example, but higher than the inaugurations of both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.[16] It’s likely that President Trump and his staff would have liked it if their inauguration attendance and Nielson ratings had been the highest, but that preference doesn’t mean that reporters who provide the factual numbers, in contrast, are disseminating “fake news.” To suggest that they are is, again, to undermine confidence in the press, in general. It also seems unlikely to be helpful when President Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway described Spicer’s actions in the following way: “You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving- Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”[17]

For the sake of conceptual clarity: facts are objective, and are, by definition, true. An “alternative fact,” therefore, is a clever term for something that is false—either a mistake, or a lie.

If it is a fact that 2+2 = 4, it is silly to label 2+2 = 5 as an “alternative fact.” In reality, 2+2 = 5 is simply a falsehood. If it is a fact that Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States, to claim that Bernie Sanders is the 45th President is not to offer an “alternative fact,” but is simply to claim something that is not true. That President Trump’s Nielson ratings for his inauguration were not the highest ever is a fact. To assert otherwise is not to provide an “alternative fact,” but is simply to be either mistaken, or lying.

If you agree that “fake news” is troubling, and if you are motivated to be a good critical thinker, what can you do to be more wary when it comes to the news stories you accept or reject?

First of all, is the claim supported by evidence? Press Secretary Spicer didn’t offer any evidence in support of his claim about the inauguration Nielson ratings—he just made an assertion. If he had offered evidence, such as citing Nielson numbers, you could easily fact-them—probably on your phone!

In general, it is reasonable to accept a claim as true if it:

  1. Does not conflict with our own observations
  2. Does not conflict with other credible claims
  3. Comes from a credible source that offers us no compelling reason to expect bias
  4. Does not conflict with our background information/worldview

While it might not always be practical for you to investigate the source, at the very least you can try to be aware of the influence of your own worldview. If you know you are firm Trump supporter, then be aware that you are especially vulnerable to believing negative stories about Hillary Clinton—just as Hillary supporters would be especially vulnerable to believing negative stories about President Trump. Before getting indignant and retweeting or sharing an incendiary piece of news, try taking a few moments to carefully reflect on the claims being made, and maybe even do some fact-checking before taking a stance. Snopes.com is as very helpful resource in this regard.

Try to employ the “principle of charity” when evaluating claims—especially if you’re inclined to disagree with them. It’s all too easy to develop a “straw man” interpretation of someone else’s position, and then dismiss it as foolish, fallacious, or misguided. The fact of the matter is that people don’t tend to view their own arguments as foolish. This doesn’t mean they aren’t, but in order to perform an honest evaluation of an argument or claim, we need to present it in its best possible light. We must put ourselves in the position of the person who presented the argument, consider the argument in the strongest possible way (given the original author’s intentions), and then evaluate the argument, so charitably constructed.

Another very simple tip is to be initially skeptical about any stories riddled with spelling or grammar problems, or that use lots of CAPS or exclamation marks!!! Actual, serious journalists are usually pretty good writers, and poor writing can be a sign of an amateur blogger or internet troll.

Keeping all of these different tools in mind can help you to be a good critical thinker, less vulnerable to “fake news,” and can better enable you to be a voice of reason and truth rather than someone who (perhaps unwittingly) fans the flames of ignorance.


[1] Kaplan, J. T. et al. Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Sci. Rep. 6, 39589; doi: 10.1038/srep39589 (2016). Available at http://www.nature.com/articles/srep39589

[2] http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-obama-farewell-speech-transcript-20170110-story.html

[3] http://www.pnas.org/content/113/3/554.full

[4]http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/?utm_content=bufferae870&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[5]https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/fake-news-hillary-clinton-cameron-harris.html?_r=0

[6]http://www.inquisitr.com/3901102/cameron-harris-fake-news-writer-bought-christian-times-newspaper-for-5-made-22000-and-got-fired/

[7] http://www.snopes.com/tag/christian-times-newspaper/

[8] http://files.constantcontact.com/b01249ec501/58eeb35a-7d61-4807-b168-765d27ca11cf.pdf

[9]http://www.theonion.com/article/trump-calms-nerves-inaugural-address-reminding-him-55095

[10] https://twitter.com/philipindc/status/822603029950173187

[11]http://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2017/01/fakenews-media-falsely-reports-trump-removed-mlk-bust-oval-office/

[12] http://eaglerising.com/38617/cnn-fake-news-story-jeff-sessions-is-a-racist/

[13]http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2017/01/11/donald-trump-jim-acosta-cnn-fake-news.cnn

[14]http://www.npr.org/2017/02/17/515630467/with-fake-news-trump-moves-from-alternative-facts-to-alternative-language

[15]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2016/05/23/recalling-hillary-clintons-claim-of-landing-under-sniper-fire-in-bosnia/?utm_term=.e6222cd61035

[16] http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/trump-inaugurations-nielsen-ratings-fourth-highest-since-nixon/article/2612602

[17]http://time.com/4642689/kellyanne-conway-sean-spicer-donald-trump-alternative-facts/

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