The issue of “fake news” is one that’s currently being discussed around the internet, and it’s being framed as a big problem in the digital age.
Some have suggested that fake news is an ugly target that needs to be eradicated and blocked from the internet. Both Google and Facebook have taken steps to make fake news less prevalent, and a host of major news outlets from NPR to CNN and Forbes are all discussing this “problem.”
In many ways, it is a problem. For example, the owner of a pizza joint in Washington D.C received death threats and negative online reviews after a fake news story reported that Hillary Clinton was running a satanic child-sex-trafficking ring out of the back of the restaurant. In other ways, fake news can be highly entertaining– satire often is. It has a way of exposing our fears, our assumptions, and bringing a degree of humor into what can often be a depressing news cycle.
But honestly, in a culture that places such high value on the freedom of speech, I’m surprised at the way the entire discussion is being framed. I’m surprised that so many seem to think that the fake news itself is the problem that needs to be addressed.
You see, the problem isn’t fake news at all– the problem is a lack of critical thinking on the part of so many Americans.
The problem isn’t that people write things that are untrue, but that so many people are quick to believe things that are untrue.
We’ve probably all seen it from time to time– that relative or friend from high school who shares an article or video that’s so ridiculously and obviously untrue, but insists it is gospel to the point of outright dismissing even the most concrete evidence to the contrary.
Trying to dialogue and reason with these people is often one of the most frustrating experiences in life.
“Snopes is just a liberal propoganda site.“
“Do you really believe the lamestream media? Gosh, you’re such a sheeple.“
But these interactions demonstrate that stories of Obama being a Muslim, 9-11 being an inside job, and Hillary Clinton running a satanic child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor, are not the core problem we’re dealing with. The real problem we’re dealing with is something called confirmation bias.
I believe that confirmation bias is one of those things that can rapidly and permanently stunt our intellect and the way we see the world around us. It’s something that both liberals and conservatives are prone to, something that impacts our political views, our religious views, and everything else.
Essentially, the problem of confirmation bias is this: the easiest way to travel through life is to keep believing what we already believe deep down in our hearts. Thus, our natural inclination is to dismiss any information that conflicts with those inner beliefs– it’s a natural reaction, as having core beliefs challenged can be down right frightening.
This is precisely why people are so quick to believe fake news (or dismiss real news): the fake claims are confirming what they already believed, and having that inner belief challenged with the truth is too risky– so all information other than that which confirms our previously held belief, is quickly dismissed.
In science they say that the direction water travels in is always the “path of least resistance” and this concept is also true in the way we hold our beliefs. The path of least resistance is to simply keep believing what we already believed was true, and to only accept information that confirms those beliefs.
While this may be the easiest way to travel through life, and while it may be the path of least resistance, it is not the most enlightening way to live. A far more rewarding journey is that which invites us to step into fear, to step into tension, and to allow those cherished beliefs to be challenged and shaped by new and differing information.
The reality is however, not everyone chooses that kind of journey. For these people, fake news websites are a treasured gift because they enable one to dismiss reality and continue confirming those beliefs that, for one reason or another, feel safe.
So is fake news a problem?
No, not at all.
The real problem is that so many people are quick to believe it.
But this reality also invites us to search ourselves: are we only willing to believe information that confirms what we already believe?
Or, are we willing to walk on a more enlightening journey?
I know which one I’m choosing, and I hope you’ll join me.