Sunday afternoon’s shooting at a Washington pizzeria fed fuel to the already-raging controversy over “fake news” and its effect on our politics. But the phenomenon was prominent long before the rise of Twitter and Facebook. Just ask Dan Rather about those memos. Or ask Brian Williams about his war stories. Or ask Rolling Stone about those ritualistic gang rapes on the University of Virginia’s campus.
Yes, the new rash of fabricated stories is awful, toxic to public discussion, and worthy of rebuke, just as the stories pushed by Rather and Williams and Rolling Stone were. But those now proclaiming a “fake-news crisis” are long on furious denunciation and short on anything resembling a plan or a proposal to deal with it.
“Serious news organizations need to push back against this,” the chorus cries. But they do push back, at least when they notice it. No credible journalistic outlet ran any reports suggesting that Comet Ping Pong was a front for a shadowy child-abuse ring extending to the highest levels of government. Institutions such as the New York Times, in fact, pointed out that there was no evidence to suggest anything of the sort.
But the unpleasant truth is that “Pizzagate” is just one conspiracy theory among many. What news organization wants to dedicate real manpower to debunking every fake story that pops up on Facebook? How many reporters would consider that a valuable use of their time, when true believers inevitably greet every debunking as further evidence that the reporter is complicit in the conspiracy?
Conspiracy theorists don’t care about a lack of evidence or counter-evidence. If they did, they wouldn’t believe in conspiracy theories. What’s more, they seem to take a certain amount of solace from their ideas. The idea of a sinister, shadowy conspiracy imposes an order and narrative on what seems like a chaotic world full of random injustice. To some people, it is less terrifying to believe that a vast U.S. -government conspiracy could abet a terrorist attack on American citizens than it is to believe that 19 men with box-cutters could change the life of every American one September morning.
Worse yet, a conspiracy theory automatically creates a sense of purpose in the believer, a feeling that he is more enlightened than the “sheeple” around him. The theorist’s previously humdrum, seemingly meaningless life suddenly has a clear mission. Dangers abound! Sinister enemies lurk around every corner! Just typing on a message board becomes a daring act of rebellion! Vindication for all of life’s disappointments is just around the corner: The conspiracy will be exposed, and the theorist will be a hero!
No amount of effort to debunk fake stories is going to dissuade people with this mentality. Nor is an official disavowal.
#related#Reliable news organizations and political figures can denounce “fake news” until the cows come home, but it isn’t likely to change the thinking of those who consume it. The New York Times editorial board concluded that further steps were needed; it called on Facebook to stop allowing “fake news” to appear on its social network: “Surely its programmers can train the software to spot bogus stories and outwit the people producing this garbage.” But is that really wise? Surely any attempt to filter out fake news stories would run the risk of filtering out legitimate stories along with them.
“Fake news” is terrible. But not everything in life that is terrible can or should be snuffed out. Sometimes, the proposed remedy is worse than the disease.