truth defintiion

Is That Real Fake News or Real News Called Fake?
By Joe Jarvis - December 30, 2017

At what point does hyperbole become fake news?

Because an article on Axios decrying the ill effects of fake news starts:

Donald Trump in one year has done more to discredit and diminish truth, facts and media than any other figure in our lifetime.

Oh boy. Where to start? I guess the first thing is first: this is not a defense of Donald Trump. Surely he has tweeted and said many things that can be considered false or misleading. I got an angry email the other day after I wrote a piece called Headlines Like These Are Why Trump Isn’t Worried.

The article was about how the media fixates on stupid things that don’t matter, versus actual policy issues. I even cited things about Trump they should criticize, like his Federal Reserve picks. But the email I got expressed anger that I seem to think the media’s focus on trivial matters “somehow absolves Trump of all his past crimes.”

Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough that the media’s focus on Trump’s tweets and “gaffs” is exactly what he wants. It distracts from the real issues and failures. And it keeps the government on your mind.

But back to the issue at hand: the claim that Trump is more of a threat to truth than “any other figure in our lifetime.”

What exactly is “our lifetime”? Mao Zedong died when my father was 26 years old. Has Trump done more to damage truth and media than the Chinese Communist Party Dictator responsible for tens of millions of deaths of his own people, including journalists and political opposition? What about Fidel Castro, or Hugo Chavez, both of whom were alive during my, and presumably the Axios article author’s lifetime?

I won’t belabor the point. They started an article about fake news with an extreme exaggeration… dare I say bordering on fake news?

They continue:

  • Despots use fake news as a weapon: Leaders or state media in at least 15 countries have used the term “fake news” to try to quell dissent or defuse questions about human rights violations.

Great point! It is very dangerous to allow the government to define what constitutes fake news. Surely they will use that against their critics in order to silence them.

Trump is certainly not among good company when it comes to who levels accusations that reports about their crimes are fake news. The President of the Philipines, Duterte, has been responsible for thousands of deaths in his war on drugs, which allows vigilante justice for alleged drug dealers. He is quick to denounce journalists as spies, even with Trump sitting next to him laughing. Not a good look.

So to be sure, allowing leaders to regulate free speech and the media by declaring critics peddlers of fake news is a huge problem.

So you might be surprised by Axios’ phrasing when they say:

  • Regulators around the world are beginning to take the problem seriously. Communications enforcers in the U.S., U.K., South Africa and elsewhere are all looking at ways to crack down on the problem, without inhibiting free speech.

Woah there. Are they taking the problem seriously? Or are they doing exactly what Trump and Duterte are doing, and cracking down on opponents by labeling them “fake news”?

It’s absurd. Who do they think would make or heavily influence the regulations against fake news in America? The President of the United States might have a little something to do with it.

So far what I have gotten from this article is: The “fake news” charge is a huge problem because world leaders use it against their opponents to curb free speech. Luckily, world leaders are looking for ways to crack down on fake news.

Does anyone else see the inconsistency here?

  • Elsewhere in the West: In Spain, Russian state-backed news organizations and bots “promoted digital misinformation and outright fake news” about the politically charged vote in Catalonia, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. That’s in addition to fake news campaigns to meddle with elections this year in the U.S., U.K., France and Germany…
  • Regimes like those in China and Russia turn to censorship, with government-run media spewing propaganda — another form of actual fake news.

Okay, so now we are jumping back and forth between two issues. One is that leaders label real news “fake news” in order to stop dissent. The other is that fake news actually exists, which government should really do something about. Except that sometimes that “fake news” is sponsored by governments.

It’s not that Axios is wrong to point these things out. But they seem to be joining in on confusing the problem with the solution. Certainly having the government do something about “fake news” will only exacerbate the problem.

Axios concludes:

Be smart: We can’t say it too often: The real problem with fake news is that people don’t believe real news. That’s terrible for society and democracy, making good decisions less likely.

Great advice. Only believe the real news, and ignore the fake news. But how exactly do we do that?

The worst possible thing that can be done about this is any government intervention whatsoever. There is no way for regulation to stymie fake news. At least an equal proportion of falsehoods come from the government sector as the private sector.

The “fake news” phenomenon makes free speech more important than ever. It makes open discussion and freedom of expression paramount to getting to the bottom of the truth.

If we have people leveling accusations of racism and bigotry every time a contrary view is expressed, that does not foster open discussion. It is not an academic approach to considering data.

Admittedly this is a difficult task when both sides of a debate do not agree to engage constructively.

Fake news can only be dealt with if people engage in rational, clearheaded discussion. So perhaps in 2018, whatever our position on the various issues, we can leave behind the screaming matches, and actually listen, instead of just waiting for our turn to talk.

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