The use of the term “fake news” has not had the effect that many analysts have desired. I first heard the term in relation to the rise of spam news sites that have tenuous connections to the truth and often have wildly inflated and tendentious headlines having little relation to the material they use as evidence.
The aftermath of coining that phrase has inspired many to use it as an excuse for President Trump’s victory. (In between complaints about the racism of the Electoral College and Russian collusion!) I hoped it would inspire people to become more discerning consumers of information and I used extensive examples from Greek history to demonstrate how one might do that.
But instead, the trickle-down effect of fake news has further coarsened our discussion and is used as a stop/think measure. Opponents of Trump might point to his use of the term “fake news” to describe any information or articles that contradict him. (I tend to think that the media bias and the bad habit of beginning at the middle of the story —as Polybius criticized— gives Trump a fair point to criticize them.)
I’ve seen it from the other side in personal discussions. For example, in the 2018 election here in Nevada there were several contests that didn’t have a Republican candidate because the districts were so heavily gerrymandered that the Republicans didn’t bother. I also posted a more comprehensive example published by OpsLens. A person to whom I was responding took a brief time to peruse the site, apparently to see if it was fake news, and instead of reading the article and engaging with it, he simply made a mocking joke about an article that he thought was mockable. In short, this annoying liberal’s stand against fake news became a reason to ignore the specific arguments and evidence in the post.
The second example has to do with the affordable housing crisis. In response to a Las Vegas Journal review, I posted the very simple and correct arguments about its cause. I explained why on that thread, and even offered proof from people like Thomas Sowell and The Foundation for Economic Freedom. Instead of considering the arguments, the person briefly looked at the websites, and concluded that since he didn’t hear of one of them, and the other was a .com, that they weren’t credible. In his mind he considered this attempt of screening sources as a failsafe against fake news, but instead he simply found a good reason to double down on his ignorance. (Thomas Sowell is a leading economic scholar at the Hoover Institute and a prolific author on this subject, as is the FEF.)
The lessons I’ve taken from this is that the warnings about fake news have been bastardized by the masses as a way to disqualify news and arguments they don’t agree with, and to justify their ignorance. Fake news has become a real impediment to productive dialogue. I offer a rule that helps me: if the person is not engaging substantive arguments, but instead complaining about all sorts of things —from your intelligence to the credibility of your sources— then it’s simply noise and the person should be ignored. You can post a good link and move on, while trying really hard to have the best information at your disposal.