Critical Thinking & Fake News (1st in a series)

fake-news

I’m currently writing a book on critical thinking. A first draft is being reviewed by Peter Lang Publishers. Peer reviewers are giving it the once-over. In this series, I’d like to expose some of the book’s key ideas. What I share immediately below tries to set the stage for  the analysis that will follow in subsequent postings, usually on Tuesdays.

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By all accounts, we’re living in a post-fact age, where it’s increasingly difficult to tell truth from falsehood. That’s why in our culture, contemporary debate rages over terms such as “post-truth,” “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fake news,” outright “bullshit,” and “propaganda.”

In fact, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the 2016 Word of the Year (WOTY) was “post-truth.” That same year, the Australian Macquarie Dictionary identified “fake news” as its own WOTY. The trend is unmistakable – signaled as far back as 2006, when “truthiness,” a term coined by Stephen Colbert, took the Oxford Dictionary honor. The Colbert term synthesized the trend’s direction. “Truthiness” was defined as “The quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.”

That’s what the post-truth era centralized: feelings over analysis. “Trust your gut and not your brain,” as Beppe Grillo put it while urging Italians to vote with his conservative Five Star Party against constitutional reforms.

Shortly after being elected, Donald Trump’s team took the trend a step further. Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway, introduced the phrase “alternative facts.” She was debating “Meet the Press” host, Chuck Todd about the size of Trump’s 2017 inauguration audience.

Conway defended the position expressed by Sean Spicer, President Trump’s Press Secretary. He had described the crowd was the largest in inauguration history. Todd disagreed citing D.C. police estimates that it was four times smaller than the number attending Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Conway responded, “. . . Our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. . .” Todd answered, “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”

Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt would put Todd’s point in even starker terms. Drawing on the title of his best-selling book, Frankfurt would say it’s simply “B.S.”  In On Bullshit the professor contrasts liars and bullshitters. The Liar, Frankfurt writes, cares about truth and attempts to hide it; bullshitters don’t care if what they say is true or false. Their only concern is whether or not their listeners are persuaded.

According to another philosopher, Ken Wilber, polls taken during the 2016 election cycle showed that truthiness was valued more highly by a majority of voters than researched facts. Day after day, Wilber writes, newspapers would keep count of questionable statements made by Donald Trump the previous day. Reporters would write things like, “Our fact checkers have found that Mr. Trump told 17 lies on the campaign trail yesterday.” To a lesser extent, they criticized Ms. Clinton’s statements. And yet, when asked who is more truthful, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? the polls consistently ranked Trump first. This signified, Wilber says, that poll respondents valued persuasiveness more highly than what news reporters called truth.

Truthiness, alternative facts, and bullshit have given rise to widespread concern about “fake news.” During the 2016 presidential campaign, the phrase received prominence when it was discovered that Eastern European bloggers had concocted from whole cloth wild stories about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The stories were directed towards supporters of Donald Trump, and the concoctions’ only purpose was to have the tales go viral – while earning thousands of dollars for their authors. So, readers were treated to headlines such as: “JUST IN: Obama Illegally Transferred DOJ Money to Clinton Campaign!” and “BREAKING: Obama Confirms Refusal to Leave White House, He Will Stay in Power!”

Such headlines might make one laugh. However, Noam Chomsky reminds us that “fake news” is by no means a trivial matter. However, its principal perpetrators are not Macedonian teenagers trolling for cash. They are the C.I.A., the NSA, and the White House (under any president). Their messages are communicated to the rest of us through the mainstream media (MSM) whose function is the dissemination of propaganda. In Necessary Illusions, Chomsky and Edward Herman put it this way:

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”

In other words, at least according to Chomsky and Herman, fake news has long been with us. It is the official policy of the country’s ruling elites.

Now that’s the “fake news” that should really concern us. It’s just about all we get from the mainstream media in this country. And it’s been that way at least since the end of the Second Inter-Capitalist War. In that sense, Donald Trump’s continual lambasting of the press is right on target. (Next week: There Really Are Alternative Facts!)