Fake news is not the real problem

It’s the Internet’s fault, we’re told. Brexiters and Remainers, Republicans and Democrats — every side of every political dispute now lives in its own separate reality, bellowing “fake news!” at every attempt to breach their borders of belief. The fragmentation of the media, coupled with the filter-bubble effect and the dominance of Facebook and Google, means that we no longer share any consensus view of reality.

…But I saw The Post this week, and it struck me: we never did. We used to have an imposedview of reality, not a consensus one. As the movie makes clear, editors and Cabinet members palled around weekly, and implicitly agreed on what news would and wouldn’t be fed to the public. (See also Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.) The moral crisis of the time came from the realization that the government was lying to its pals in the media, and had been for a very long time.

If that sounds like ancient history, remember that Iraq was not particularly different from Vietnam: in both cases, the White House (and, this time, Downing Street) lied through their teeth to the people; the media accepted and promoted those lies; and a war which consumed hundreds of thousand of lives, and trillions of dollars, ensued. Donald Trump may be the most personally vile President of all time, but his presidency has not (at least yet) been anywhere near as catastrophic as those of Richard Nixon or George W. Bush.

However. The other assumption implicit in traditional journalism was that their job was to provide evidence to the American people, who would then judge it, adjust their views, and vote accordingly. It was assumed that people had an engineering mindset, where one’s worldview can and will be adjusted by new evidence. That mindset, that willingness to allow contrary evidence to adjust what you believe, is why science and engineering work. It is arguably why democracy works, too.

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