We Can’t Fight Fake News with More Fake News
Every piece, no matter how short, offers the writer an opportunity to cross the line — to exaggerate, fabricate, or cherry pick facts in a way that ever-so-slightly misrepresents reality for what feels like the greater good. Whether writing an extended essay about the conflict in the Middle East, or a single tweet about Covid policies, there’s always a moment where we can choose to press on the truth just a little too hard. It scores an easy hit, generates more reaction, and maybe even gets us to the next rung of social media celebrity.
But at what cost?
I’ve watched over the past few months as several of my colleagues have succumbed to the temptation to fight what they see as fake news with what could only be called more fake news. They are transforming from journalists into propagandists, and ultimately undermining not just their own reputations but the entire landscape of public discourse. I mean, if we so-called professionals can’t do this with civility and integrity, then who can?
It tends to start on Twitter, where the absurdly low signal-to-noise ratio makes fidelity to truth seem less important than capacity for wit. For example, one respected public intellectual has gotten it into their head that the media is now surreptitiously editing its previously published stories about Covid’s origins. Now that there’s renewed interest in the possibility of an accident at the Wuhan facility, they believe that certain periodicals are trying to make it look like they didn’t ban and censor this information last year. So they posted side-by-side versions of the piece before and after editing, saying these are the differences between the piece in March 2020 “and now.” It turns out the changes were made between March and April, 2020. So while technically that’s between then and now, it’s really between then and then.
Another writer, who has been otherwise rigorous in their reporting on the ways America has mishandled the Covid crisis, nonetheless felt compelled to cross the line. They posted pictures of Americans being subjected to the most severe mask and shield standards, and people from another country enjoying total social freedom. The headline suggested these photos were representative of our nation’s contrasting approaches to life under Covid. Dozens of people retweeted the photo, enraged at America’s draconian measures. In reality, the other country’s restrictions were more severe than our own, and the photo was cherry picked from one district there with different standards. Photos from a state like Florida could just as easily made the opposite point. Our policies may suck, but this was a reach.
Yet another journalist posted on their blog about how a hospital had started “letting whites die” in its exercise of an overly woke anti-racist agenda. In reality, the hospital had issued guidance to its doctors to pay extra attention to symptom complaints from Black patients. Studies had shown that Black people’s symptoms were being ignored or perceived as less severe, leading to fewer necessary procedures and poorer outcomes. So it wasn’t about denying necessary treatment to white people, but learning to hear better. There may be a debate to be had about whether paying special attention to people of color could lead to unintended consequences, but this post was about stoking rage, and beneath the journalist’s otherwise high standards.
Factually “true” but intentionally misleading posts from people who should know better. I get it.
The list goes on. Factually “true” but intentionally misleading posts from people who should know better, but nonetheless got caught up in the issues they’re championing. I’ve been there. I get it. All three of these writers and thinkers have been correct about so much, for so long, yet garnered mostly criticism for their efforts. New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and other mainstream coverage of these writers’ beats has been worse than tilted, and — in some cases — suspiciously resistant to viewpoints that either challenge the interests of their owners and advertisers or could be construed to offer legitimacy to anything that may have been uttered by Donald Trump. I understand how these beleaguered writers might occasionally think up clever, potentially viral comparisons and feel compelled to post them in the heat of the moment—like irresistibly good jokes.
So I did not call them out. (I’ve even attempted to shroud the details here.) Instead, I wrote or called them, in private, asking them to consider the inaccurate impressions they were creating. They agreed with my assessments of their truthiness, but instead of removing or adjusting the tweets or blog posts, they all doubled down on them.
One of them explained to me that it’s just Twitter, not the New York Times, so it doesn’t have to rise to the same standards of accuracy. Another said their posts weren’t intended to inform so much as to inflame — to get people activated and angry. Liked Larry Kramer’s ActUp, these provocations would stoke some necessary rage. But is that really the problem? There’s not enough rage on Twitter, already? (Besides, Larry Kramer used facts and performance art — not fake news.)
I admit I may have grown too intolerant. These are just tweets, after all, and I should know as well as anybody that the Twitterverse is not the place to conduct legitimate debate. And all of this fake-ish news is particularly triggering for me because of the friends I’ve lost over the past couple of years to Qanon and worse. They start with a few over-the-top tweets like these, and then get into a positive feedback loop of likes and follows from people just as angry as they are, while also receiving pushback from magazines and editors who don’t want to publish their vitriol. Then they cry “censorship” and end up retreating to self-publishing platforms under the premise that their ideas are just too dangerous for the mainstream media. Once siloed, these writers become practically unreachable — trapped in filter bubbles of their own making. Their output becomes more strident and less useful.
It ultimately undermines not only their own arguments, but the whole social fabric and our collective quest as human beings to figure out what the heck is really going on here.
Yet we, the egregiously uninformed public, are still depending on people who have chosen to proffer not-quite-factual, ends-justifies-the-means arguments that express whatever axe they have to grind. They draw us into the yes/no, all-or-nothing, by-any-means-necessary culture to which they have succumbed, and distance us even further from any hope of rapprochement or even just honest debate. It ultimately undermines not only their own arguments, but the whole social fabric and our collective quest as human beings to figure out what the heck is really going on here.
The lesson for me — and part of why I’m here on Medium — is to learn to be more careful about this, myself, and maybe help engender a more productive form of engagement in the process. I’ll be writing weekly pieces through the summer, and more after that (when I’m done with my next book). But I’ll be doing so as part of cohort of writers and community of readers who I really hope will have each other’s backs. I don’t mean that we’re here to defend each other’s contentions, but to challenge one another to improve the rigor and honesty with which we make them.
Having each other’s backs means being attentive to one another’s well being, and checking each other when one of us goes off the rails. Not with angry insults, but under the assumption of good faith. We don’t usually err because we’re being intentionally false; it’s because we’ve been overwhelmed by our own passion, disgust, or righteous indignation. That’s getting increasingly difficult to avoid as our society itself appears to be disengaging from both reason and understanding. (People can’t even agree on who is President.) We need each other’s help.
Most of all, my work here is going to be about developing better comportment: the bearing with which we engage one another and the world. For it’s this moment-to-moment approach to people and their ideas that may end up more important to our collective welfare than any of the particular ideas we mean to share.
Douglas Rushkoff writes a weekly column for Medium. You can follow him here. He’s the author of twenty books on media, technology, and society, including Media Virus, Present Shock, and Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. His latest book, Team Human, is being serialized on Medium in weekly installments. Rushkoff is host of the Team Human podcast, a professor of Media Studies at CUNY/Queens, and a graphic novelist.