Let's stop talking about fake news

Ever since the phrase ‘fake news’ found its way into the minds of everyone with an internet connection, we’ve been doomed.

Arguably, fake news reached its apotheosis in Donald Trump’s Social Media Summit at the White House yesterday, with the President inviting a whole host of ghoulish supporters and cheerleaders to discuss their dismay with what they believe is the ‘liberal bias’ of digital platforms. (Never mind that these very platforms are instrumental in their success and visibility.)

“A big subject today at the White House Social Media Summit will be the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression practiced by certain companies.” Trump wrote on Twitter (3 words I feel terrible for actually writing). “We will not let them get away with it much longer.”

Peter Kafka did a good analysis of the event on Recode, suggesting the purpose was to reignite his supporters before his 2020 re-election campaign kicks off, and to simply troll the substantial proportion of the public that loathes him. It was a circus.

But let’s go into a bit more detail - what’s actually going on here? What’s the intended effect? And does this tell us something about fake news in general?

Let’s start with the basics: the Social Media Summit feels, to those of us of a broadly liberal disposition, like a twisted joke: the very people we associate with fake news are visibly protesting against it.

This tells us something about fake news that might sound stupid: fake news is itself fake news.

Yes, news might be false, it might be incorrect, it might simply be misleading, but the way in which fake news manages to conflate all of these things is a rhetorical strategy that asserts that ‘news’ should do something that it can’t: tell the whole truth.

It can’t tell the whole truth because even the most truthful (ie. directly presents and records something that occurred in reality) news doesn’t have a pure and unmediated relationship with the truth. It’s impossible.

Fake photography

Re-imagine it in the context of photography. If you described something as a ‘fake photograph’ you might have an inkling about what someone was referring to, but there would be a number of important questions:

  • Do you mean the photograph doctored and manipulated after it was taken?

  • Or do you mean the scene itself manipulated and set up?

  • Or, alternatively, has it just been presented with a misleading context?

These aren’t trivial questions - they’re all examples of things being faked, albeit in very different ways.

Fake news discourages curiosity

So, to return to the question of fake news, you can see how the term itself doesn’t actually elucidate anything - it only really stops us from asking more questions. It tells us that we don’t need to be curious or critical. It tells us not to go near being fooled.

An article published by Nieman Lab yesterday highlighted the way in which attempts by governments to tackle ‘fake news’ could have an adverse affect on journalism.

To stem the rising influence of fake news, some countries have made the creation and distribution of deliberately false information a crime. Singapore is the latest country to have passed a law against fake news, joining Germany, Malaysia, France, Russia, and others.

But using the law to fight the wave of fake news may not be the best approach. Human rights activists, legal experts, and others fear these laws have the potential to be misused to stifle free speech, or unintentionally block legitimate online posts and websites.

It’s impossible not to overstate the danger these sorts of laws pose. They completely fail to account for how news and information is created and shared - not as binary index of truth and falsity, but rather as social things in a network of competing interests (in all senses of the term) and biases.

This isn’t to say there’s no such thing as false information - but ‘fake news’ as a term is pretty glib and unhelpful. It’s okay to call something a hoax - it’s okay to point out that something is a conspiracy theory. But once we start talking about fake news we start playing Trump et al at their own game - and we’re probably never going to win.