What Explains the Growth of Fake News?

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Recently, within just a couple days of each other, we saw two particularly egregious cases of mainstream media journalists and commentators frenetically trumpeting dubious news stories that were quickly debunked. The first was the anonymously sourced story from Buzzfeed News claiming that hard evidence exists of Donald Trump directing his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. The second was the claim that boys from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, in Washington for the March for Life, surrounded, mocked, intimidated, and abused an elderly American Indian—a story that relied upon unverified claims from the (not very elderly) American Indian activist and a deceptively edited yet still ambiguous video. (In a third humiliation to the mainstream news media in the span of one week, its 2008 monument to itself on prime DC real estate—the Newseum—announced its closing.)

Journalistic standards are supposed to prevent missteps such as the recent Buzzfeed and Covington cases. Why did they fail? Why were media professionals so eager to believe the worst immediately—and in some cases to launch into remarkably vicious attacks—on the basis of shaky evidence and unverified claims? One clue is the obvious fact that most of those who spread the false narratives did so because they fit their agenda; they desperately wanted Trump to be guilty of witness tampering, and they wanted the pro-life Catholic boys—some of whom were wearing Trump-supporting MAGA hats—to be obnoxious, nasty racists. The hatred was already there, looking for a new opportunity to be expressed. Others may have felt less intensely about the subjects, but the narratives nonetheless fit with their worldviews and so were naïvely accepted.

There is, of course, nothing unique about these recent incidents. It has become commonplace for media professionals, members of the political and entertainment classes, and their like-minded followers to latch onto narratives that should inspire a great deal of skepticism. Why did so many people express such certainty of the veracity of Christine Ford’s claims about Brett Kavanaugh, despite a lack of corroboration that should have been readily available, and despite weaknesses and suspicious changes in her story? Why, for that matter, do so many believe that Donald Trump somehow conspired with Vladimir Putin to win the election, or that he is some sort of “Russian agent?” Such claims have been advanced in the opinion pages of some of the nation’s most prestigious publications. Whatever Trump has done in the past, claims like these should arouse skepticism in any person with common sense. Indeed, many commentators who seized upon such Trump narratives had only recently been promoting the contradictory narrative that Trump did not want to win the election.

Edmund Burke, who observed that people often accept dubious claims on the basis of little or no evidence, but reject other claims that are much more soundly supported, had a general sense of the epistemological biases noted by psychologists and political scientists today, such as “perception bias,“ “attention bias,” “retention bias,” and “confirmation bias.” To function effectively in the world, it is necessary to develop and maintain a coherent understanding of it. Consequently, we have a strong preference for information that conforms to and reinforces our existing worldview, and a resistance to information that contradicts or challenges it. We want some things to be true and others to be false, and this can profoundly influence the burden of proof we place upon the various claims.

 

Of course, not only do biases impact different people’s perceptions in different ways, but in particular contexts, the distorting effects can be much stronger for some people than for others. One writer for Atlantic, Julie Irwin Zimmerman, can be commended for acknowledging and discussing her error regarding the Covington affair. Notably, however, she says that she “failed the test”—“along with most others.” But did most other people fail? Her essay suggests that her own teenage son and his friends were skeptical of the story, and open to more diverse sources of information about it. The “most” were probably Ms. Zimmerman’s associates. As a writer for Atlantic, Ms. Zimmerman lives inside “the bubble” of progressive elitedom. But as residents of Cincinnati—not of a coastal metropolis—her son and his friends live outside it.

In contrasting the French philosophes and Jacobins with ordinary Englishmen, Burke remarked that

In England we … still feel within us, and we cherish and cultivate, those inbred sentiments which are the faithful guardians, the active monitors of our duty, the true supporters of all liberal and manly morals. We have not been … filled, like stuffed birds in a museum, with … paltry blurred shreds of paper about the rights of men. We preserve the whole of our feelings still native and entire, unsophisticated by pedantry and infidelity. We have real hearts of flesh and blood beating in our bosoms.

There is a kind of specious sophistication that can take us further from, rather than closer to, the truth. This is the case because a more conventional worldview can provide a more sound grounding for reason or judgment than one that departs radically from it. For one thing, traditional thought has stood the test of time and proven itself; though imperfect, it is generally reasonably effective in representing reality. Though largely unarticulated, it is deep, subtle, and complex, having been built up over time to address the vast scope of human existence. A central part of it has been, of course, traditional religion, especially Catholicism and other orthodox forms of Christianity generally.

Because the “inbred sentiments” of a traditional worldview tend to represent reality better than the wrong sort of superficial sophistication, they tend to yield better judgment or “common sense.” But it goes beyond that. To the extent that those sentiments include internalized ideas of fairness, of humility, of the inherent value of all persons, and, perhaps especially, of the importance of truth—as those of Christendom traditionally have—they further check a rush to judgment. And, most importantly, a traditional or conventional worldview incorporates a set of standards that are at once external to the person in their source and internalized in their effects, so that they help provide a check on a capricious will; they give us pause and may help deter us from acting too rashly.

Of course, tradition is far from perfect; it certainly does not prevent all bad behavior. And, since it is impossible to be completely free of bias, it can impose its own constraints and limitations on one’s perspective. The quasi-intellectual classes of the French Enlightenment were keenly aware of this—too keenly—and so sought to shake off tradition, including traditional religion. They imagined traditional frameworks distorting and excessively constraining “reason,” so that without them reason would be set free. Here they made a fatal error. For reason does not function in a vacuum; there must always be a context—an internal understanding of reality—for it to work upon or within. (Without some conception of reality [correct or incorrect], meaningful thought is impossible.) Abandoning tradition, or conventional views of the world, does not set reason free to allow for a God’s-eye view of reality. It simply substitutes (partially) a new and different context in which one’s reason operates: the ad-hoc, cobbled-together assortment of ideas, impressions, and prejudices that one has picked up along the way.

Typically, this new framework is inferior to the traditional or conventional one that has been abandoned, and so it gives one an inferior grasp of reality. Because one’s reason is functioning within an inferior context, it typically yields inferior results; one appears to lose common sense. To the extent that one’s new framework is based upon high-sounding ideals, they have not yet been grounded and fleshed-out in largely inarticulate ways by centuries of experience. Consequently, they rarely play out as they should. One may rail against “hate” and “abuse” while being the biggest “hater” and abuser of them all.

When one’s newly adopted framework takes on a more coherent (even if not totally coherent) form, it has a name: ideology. One must always have some way of understanding the world, and in the absence of tradition, there is ideology. Unlike a long-established, largely inarticulate, traditional or conventional framework that is inherited, an ideology provides no check on the will; instead, it feeds it. One adopts it and amends it as necessary to conform to one’s prejudices and desires. Just as a made-up, “New Age” religion fails to check or morally challenge its adherent as a traditional, orthodox religion would, a made-up conception of the world fails to serve all the functions of a traditional outlook.

And, as one’s biases get to work and screen the information one takes in, and as one’s ideas feed off of those of like-minded others (groupthink), one’s ideology spins one further and further away from the real world. The resulting tensions with reality impair one’s judgment further and can propel one into revolutionary dogma. It is not a coincidence that the country whose elites were rejecting tradition and orthodox religion in the mid-1700s became the locus of a bloody, brutal, disastrous revolution in 1789.

Today, the United States is in dangerous, uncharted territory. Events of recent months and years have increasingly revealed that many, perhaps most, in our elite classes—especially the information and communications classes—have indeed spun far from reality, and have enclosed themselves in rigid ideological boxes that have impaired the effectiveness of their reason, voiding their common sense. Sadly, the Church, which should be a bulwark against this, has, to a significant degree, also been caught up in this late modern disease.

Perhaps we will reach a point when successive failures will prompt our elites to “snap back to reality.” But things may get worse before they get better. We must, however, do what we can to promote a sound, traditionally-based grasp of reality in all its complexity, majesty, and depth.

William F. Byrne

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William F. Byrne is Associate Professor of Government and Politics at St. John’s University (NY), and is the author of Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics.

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