How We Solved Fake News the First Time

tags: Fake News, printing press

Stephen Marche is the author, most recently, of “The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the Twenty-First Century.”

At this moment in the history of the information revolution, a significant number of Americans—it is impossible to know how many—believe that a video circulating on the Web shows Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin slicing the face off a small child. The lie is gruesome but far from extraordinary. “Fake news” is rampant—although that phrase lost its significance more or less the moment it was coined. “Fake news” has quickly come to mean nothing more than “other people’s news”—the news made by the other team. The information infrastructure that a generation has spent its time on earth building has been twisted into a vast and prolific distortion machine. And the power of distortion is growing. Last week, BuzzFeed released, as a P.S.A., a highly convincing clip in which President Obama apparently calls Donald Trump “a total and complete dipshit.” (Jordan Peele did the voice work.) You have never been able to trust anything that you read. Soon you won’t be able to believe anything you hear or see, either.

“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after,” Jonathan Swift wrote, in 1710. Recent examples of Swift’s truism are far too easy to come by. On Twitter, a cardiologist claimed that a video of Syrian children dying from poison gas was fake because the ECG pads were misplaced. His initial post received more than twelve thousand retweets; his subsequent admission of error received fewer than fifty. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the Pew Research Center revealed what may be the most disturbing number of the whole sordid election: fourteen per cent of Americans admitted that “they shared a story they knew was fake at the time.” Do people who actively spread falsehoods even deserve the truth?

Wherever social media’s power increases, distortion follows, and the distortion has consequences. Politico reported that Trump was most successful in the emerging news deserts where social-media sites are people’s primary source of information. As severe as the consequences of fake news have been in the United States, they’re much worse elsewhere. Marzuki Darusman, the chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, has described Facebook as playing a “determining role” in the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, saying that it “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict.”

Even though the technologies are new, the horror and despair of the current informational carnage are not unprecedented. Since the beginning of the Internet, the unintended consequences of its arrival have been routinely compared to the fallout from the invention of the printing press. The comparison has always been problematic. A more precise historical analogy—though itself as incomplete as any historical analogy—can be found in the pamphlet culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England. The nature of public debate changed, through technology, in a climate of nascent individualism, with a politics rife with conspiracy, and the incipient, continuous threat of national breakdown. Sound familiar? ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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