Fake News: An Appraisal
19 May 2017 in Media
The issue of Fake News is upon us. We now experience the spectacle of news sources calling each other's reportage fakery. What can anyone remote from the things reported on make of this exchange of accusations?
Well, one useful way to the topic by definition. We can define fake news as news devoid of evidence. If I should lay some claim to "facts," it is, to start, the expression of an opinion. If I can't back up my assertion, by producing evidence, then it cannot graduate from opinion to fact. So, the issue comes down to claims supported by evidence. But evidence is, itself, a form of fact. This leads to the entailing question, what backs up a claim to evidence?
When you think about it, it becomes clear that we enter an infinite regress. Every claim to back up a fact with evidence is itself subject to a requirement that the evidence, itself, be verified as factual, and so on.
The quintessential example for our time is the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq. The "fact" proclaimed was that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction. On 5 February 2003, the "evidence" was presented by US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to the UN. Subsequently, once Iraq was destroyed, both "fact" and "evidence" were shown to be groundless.
Gideon Polya points out, in the Global Research website, that there are two ways for news-media to lie, by commission and by omission. The first entails statements the proponents know to be untrue. The second, more pernicious, method is to leave out essential information. There is a third way the media lies: by redefinition. Prisoners of war? Not at all, the Geneva Convention does not apply since they are simply unlawful combatants. Torture? Of course the US doesn't torture, it is simply applying enhanced interrogation.
Well, how can we deal with this conundrum? There is no mechanical way of avoiding the pitfalls of fake news. This is because facts are not concrete things. They are also not personal epiphanies. They are communal entities, social products. The existence of what Orwell called the "Ministry of Truth" is not as easily avoidable as it may seem. Even in Science, a fact is a communal product. Consider that the word proof shares a lineage with the word approval in the sense that the factual status of a claim depended on its communal acceptance; the community being in this case, qualified scientists. Note the instinct to recognize this when we cite the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding global climate change.
While we may gain confidence from membership in a consensual community, we need to be extremely careful in subscribing to any particular community of thought. An especially critical problem in our time is the degree to which we accept media organizations—especially the major "news" outlets—as suppliers of verified facts. I, for one, give far more credence to the embattled alternative Left media than anything coming out of mainstream presstitutions
There are other criteria we might consider. Maybe we can have a dialogue on this problem.