The last time a kid came out of Macedonia and took over the world and changed governments was Alexander the Great. Today, it’s Fake News. Teenagers making it rich by making shit up. Isn’t that what kids do? Make believe? Yeah, and lots of people all over the world are falling for their stories. In fact, some are saying it’s what caused Donald Trump to win the election. I doubt it. I think comedian Jonathan Pie is probably more on the mark. But people are passing these stories around on the Facebooks and Googles, so much to the dislike of these companies that they are taking steps to block them outright.
Now, these companies have the right to block whoever, whatever they want. The First Amendment isn’t the issue here (let’s also understand these companies serve the entire globe and the First Amendment only applies in the United States). These companies are trying to serve their customers or, at least, a vocal enough section for the companies to take action. They’ve got Terms of Service agreements and if you don’t follow them, you can lose access to their service.
At any rate, blocking fake news is a bad idea and here is why:
1) The companies are going to be playing Whack-a-Mole forever with this. Garbage is fluent on the Internet. And when you block a site or user, they come back under different domains and names. Seems like a waste of resources to be constantly banning.
2) The block-Net could end up catching non-fake news sites thereby forcing the owners to plead their case to be unblocked. And what about fake news sites like The Onion that everyone loves? There’s tons of other fake news, satire sites. Mistakes can happen.
3) Blocking reduces reader’s choice. If you’re going to block fake news sites, why not block reports on spell casting, astrology, demonology, alchemy, spirit photography? I could post a picture of a flying saucer every day and say this was over my house and social media wouldn’t do anything about it. But if I create a website which looks like the New York Times and report that Donald Trump reports seeing a flying saucer while aboard his jet plane, well…
4) News that readers report as fake may just be news they don’t agree with. Where’s the fine line? Should we also block 9/11 Truther websites too? How about Who Killed JFK websites? Or websites dedicated to demonizing or pledging allegiance to Israel?
5) What actually counts as “fake news”? Erick Erickson penned a good piece showing that the mainstream media sometimes fails to tell the truth too. Sometimes it’s a mistake in the material the journalist is working with. Sometimes out right lies.
6) If Facebook and Google swear to block fakes, the users may fall into a sense of false protection and start figuring if they’re seeing it, the services must have determined it’s real and if the service is allowing it, it must be true. Again, it takes away reader’s choice and most of all, a reader’s use of judgement, for better or worse.
These are just six reasons off the top of my head for not blocking anything called fake news. But the critic of my reasoning might point to PizzaGate or the Sandy Hook conspiracy victim threats and note that false information can result in very dangerous actions. Yep, that is very true. People believe lots of stupid things and end up injuring or killing others. Parents who believe vaccines cause autism come to mind.
Why should it be up to Facebook and Google and those who follow their lead to ban things? Should, say, bookstores follow their lead? Booksellers, big and small, they carry all kinds of literature. They carry books on alien abductions and government conspiracies, astrology, spell books, self-help (most of which is nonsense, garbage psychology), Dianetics, and more. And yet despite the nonsense, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million and others continue to sell them. In fact, some bookstores specifically exist for New Age material. They’re not responsible for the content, they have chosen to give their customer’s choices. In fact, Barnes and Noble celebrates every year this freedom with Banned Book week.
I have a better solution that social media companies could implement instead of blocking and banning. Here it is: An education on critical, skeptical thinking. These tools, if properly used, combat all forms of nonsense. Social media companies or otherwise could offer advice on how to treat everything their customers see. Here’s what I do with everything I see that these services could dedicate a page to:
1) Look for obvious falsehoods. When I read a headline that Barack Obama was going to refuse to leave the White House on January 20, 2017, I knew it was an instant fraud. Just applying what I know about him was enough to know that isn’t going to happen.
2) Corroborate the information. If Obama really wasn’t going to step down on January 20th, other sources would be reporting this. In fact, this would be the front page of the New York Times and every other news source in the entire world.
3) What do the experts say? Expert doesn’t mean authority. Leave authority for the Pope. No, I mean people who major in the sort of thing you’re looking into. If you, like me, are a cancer survivor, don’t get excited about the latest cure in the tabloids. Talk to your oncologist or two or three.
4) If you can, ask that person directly. I love Twitter for this and am usually pretty good about getting responses. If I hear someone said something, I go to Twitter (or occasionally email still) and ask that person if the quote is real.
5) If you believe something, ask WHY. This can’t be stressed enough. You must challenge your own beliefs much more than what you don’t believe. Always be asking yourself why you think something is true. Make a graph, if necessary. I’m betting Trump supporters more easily bought fake news about Clinton than Clinton supporters and vice versa. I’ve been spending some time lately with socialist articles and conversation because I feel if I can defend libertarianism over it, then I’m in the right camp. You strengthen (or change) your own stance by engaging with the other.
6) Do Gut-Reaction-Mathematics. Ask yourself what is the likelihood this would happen? Size up the claim to history and what we know. If you read that there’s a mother who keeps bringing her child to the hospital with fresh wounds because she’s suffering from attacks from a poltergeist, what do you do with that? Conclude there’s awful poltergeists? Or figure more rationally the mother suffers from Munchausen Syndrome?
These are just six things from the top of my head anyone can do when they read something or hear it reported on the nightly news. In the end, no matter who’s trying to save you from bad information, it’s up to you and you alone.
When my own children ask me questions about whether Santa Claus or mermaids or god exists, or if it’s true that we live on a planet in space, I always tell them that’s an interesting question. How about we examine the evidence? This has led to a lot of good conversations with my kids and book purchases for study. Because in the end, I won’t always be able to censor what they read or hear, now or in the future when they’re adults. They’re already bringing home misinformation from other kids at school. It’s better if I give them the tools to think for themselves than give them direct answers whenever I can. And it’s always very possible I’m wrong on something. So if I provide the tools, they can question me. We all get to learn something.
In closing, I can’t recommend highly enough some publications worth investing in regardless of how good you think you are at skepticism and logic. I subscribe to the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic magazine. Both excellent publications and rather cheap for digital subscriptions. I also recommend using Snopes.com for everything. I mean every rumor or story or otherwise. And for United States politics, I recommend PolitiFact.com.
The Truth is Out There.