The harms of “fake news” are all too often overlooked. We search for trustworthy news purveyors, those that provide us information about the world around us without intentionally ignoring parts of the situation’s reality. When we can’t find a source that simply provides information without hiding/dismissing the parts that complicate the intended conclusion, we search for a source that agrees with our own understanding of the world. This is called an echo chamber.
Technology has increased our access to the world. We can, in an instant, see life through the eyes of a 50-year-old in Pakistan or a 33-year-old in Lufkin, Texas. We can see the newborn of our college roommate across the globe within minutes of its birth. The connectivity is awe-inspiring and world-changing.
In this same light, we have greater access to unfolding news stories across the globe. If a child goes missing in Georgia, it shows up on our Twitter feeds within seconds of the story breaking. If you allow it, the inundation with these local stories you never had access to beforehand will lead to a misguided fear that we are less safe than we once were. When your Facebook feed is filled with friends sharing sad/scary stories from their own communities it causes one to believe that crime, fear, violence, war and hate are more prevalent today than they were before the internet.
Statistics say this isn’t so. According to U.S. News & World Report (https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-09-26/us-crime-rate-rises-slightly-remains-near-20-year-low), violent crime has decreased by almost 50% since 1996. Pew Research echoes and expands upon the statistics cited in U.S. News & World Report (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/21/5-facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/). We are simply not becoming less safe. Yet, it feels differently, doesn’t it?
That’s the problem with an echo chamber. If we use our own gut feelings based on the aggregation of internet information we access we begin to doubt facts. This is the direct cause of alternative facts – facts that feel true regardless of their support by independent verification. These facts begin with a whisper between friends – “I don’t let my kids play outside anymore because the world is so dangerous now” and lead to online opinion posts about the same subject matter. Add in enough likes, enough re-tweets, enough shares and these posts take on a life of their own as alternative facts.
Anecdotal evidence has always been an argument used against scientific facts. This is prevalent enough that there is a logical fallacy of the same name (http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Anecdotal_evidence). However, if enough people have the same anecdotal evidence, it becomes a group theory. Before the internet, most folks didn’t know enough people to build past their own feeling that a fact is incorrect. Today, you can find a thousand people who agree with your feelings simply by typing your theory into google search.
These pods of people with the same feeling begin by affirming their original theory to one another. They look for others who think similarly and link out to their anecdotal posts about the subject matter. Once the network becomes broad enough, it begins to echo back. New feelings emerge and are sent to the group. Since the group has bonded over the mistrust of scientific fact, they trust each other wholeheartedly as the only true source of information. If my friend online also thinks Obama was born in Kenya, when they tell me he is going to invade Texas, I listen.
The far right has courted these feelings via AM radio for decades. Today, they court them via online media. These posts are shared between pod members, reaffirming their own belief sets and expanding the areas where they distrust facts. This grows and grows until the readers no longer trust any other source for news. If you, an outsider, tell them the Mayor of Detroit says crime is down, they’ll ask about your source. If you say it is anything other than a far right alternative facts blog (or sometimes Fox News), they’ll declare your facts skewed and therefore invalid.
Oddly enough, the readers of these blogs are grateful. In the face of complex and constantly evolving internet information, their worlds have become simple again. Their feelings are real and valid and everything else is false. Fake News. Just like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, talk show hosts like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson all state they are not journalists. Not a single one of them has done investigative work on anything on which they report. Their only job is to digest and define the issues for their viewer. To be frank, they’re glorified Maury Povich/Jerry Springer types, trying to be the most extreme for ratings. Yet, they’re called news.
So, what’s the harm? Why are alternative facts so dangerous?
When we cannot trust the media, we begin placing all of our trust in demagogues. Their words are the truth. They have no need to independently verify. They aren’t interested in debate. Their opinion is the the only way to think, to feel.
We were warned against demagogues by our founding fathers. In the Federalist Papers #1, Alexander Hamilton warns “… of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” To give any person command of truth is to give them the power to become a tyrant. The DPRK is an excellent example of this fact. In a post-fact society, the ruler becomes God.
Across the globe today, people joined in the March for Truth. We must continue to rise up against the falsities in our feeds, the fallacy of anecdotal evidence and the belief that any one person has a firm hold on what is real. We must fight for universal, scientifically proven truth in all areas of life. Real patriots stand on the side of justice. Real patriots stand on the side of truth.
Micah Crittenden is a writer for American Research and is also on twitter at @thatgingerish