ALTERNATIVE FACTS CAN KILL YOU: My family's 300-year history with fake news

Posted in News Last updated on: Tuesday, 07 February 2017

fake newsThe year was 1950.  As a lark, the tiny magazine that my father wrote for published this photo of an alleged 27-inch alien who was said to have crashed outside Mexico City.

The picture had come from a flying saucer fanatic and was so obviously faked that the staff thought no reader would take it seriously.  Instead, the issue sold out and the story went national.  The office phone rang off the hook.  People called in confirming they’d seen the craft.  The magazine had inadvertently discovered the future readership of Weekly World News, the tabloid that revealed the location of the Garden of Eden (it’s in Colorado) as well as the 43 entrances to Hell.

That same audience has bequeathed us the dreamscape we all now inhabit, a place where no claim is too ludicrous to be bandied and believed.  Perhaps you took heart at the defeat of the candidate for the Texas State Board of Education who declared that Barack Obama had worked as a gay prostitute and that climate change is a hoax started by Karl Marx.  Consider, though, that she pulled in 41% of the vote.  What’s going on?

I got some insight this week.  I was writing a talk on news literacy, laying out basic tests of veracity that claims should meet, when I realized I should mention the need for an open mind.  We should begin undecided, not weighted with preconceptions, and have to be willing to follow the truth wherever it leads.

Suddenly, I saw where we’re pinned.  If we fail the open mind test, we’re prone to accept claims that fail all the others.  Why?  Because our minds’ first allegiance won’t be to the truth, but to our party, nation, religion, reputation, opinions, college football team.  Facts that discredit these will be explained away or ignored; fantasies that support them will be believed.  We’re caught between our ability to reason and the tidal pull of our attachments.  The latter often win.

What makes them so strong?  We know the power of financial vested interests, but our social interests have just as much clout.  We’re a social species that gathers naturally into groups, shown by the declarations of membership all around us, from team logos to gang colors to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Groups demand our loyalty.  When they’re attacked, we’re supposed to counterattack, not weigh the justice of the complaint.  This can require disengaging our reason and sometimes our humanity.  Those who don’t are branded traitors, a word that still buzzes with high voltage.

Our mental holdings exert similar sway.  Once we’ve invested in an opinion, from trickle-down economics to the existence of aliens, we’re averse to revising it.  Our minds crave certainty.  When inconvenient information arrives, denial and the rest of our suite of defense mechanisms rush into action to slay doubt and preserve the mental status quo.

how to weigh informationTrue believers come in all shapes, from the illiterate to scholars beholden to their theories.  Most of us are looking for confirmation, not challenge.  This, I think, is the true lure of fake news.  People ignore it unless it offers corroboration of what they already believe.  The news bubbles we’ve congregated in hold the same appeal.  They in turn have caused a bump in the outlandishness of claims, since public figures worry less about their supporters hearing dissenting voices and feel freer to make ever crazier charges.

In short, we’re apt to believe what we want to believe.  Which is a lousy test of veracity.

What do we do?  Focus on the young.  Adults are more likely to be set in their mental ways and beyond reach, but the young are still tasting and testing.  They’re gullible, as the recent Stanford study showed, but that’s easier to cure than close-mindedness.  To do so we’ll need to do what we did with driver’s ed and sex ed: start carving out classroom time to teach a new subject we now realize is vital.  Giving students the tools to test claims is our best hope of forging a bond with the truth that won’t bend under pressure.

The “How to Weigh Information” chapter in Eyes Wide Open was my attempt to give them something else they’ll need: a tour of the media landscape, from most reliable to least and the reasons why. This knowledge is crucial for countering attacks on mainstream media and the creation of an alternate news universe. The slogan of Weekly World News? “The World’s Only Reliable Newspaper.”

image011Students should also know that fake news is anything but new.  I sat among 20-year-olds in a college class last year and found that current events seemed to raise no historical echoes in their heads.  The 1930s and 1940s are simply too distant for them.  We need to let them know that we’ve been here before.

Or, in my family’s case, several times.  An ancestor of my mother was tried as a witch in Northampton, Massachusetts.  She escaped the noose but the misogyny, bad science, and search for scapegoats that ensnared her haven’t died out.  Two hundred years later my father’s father lived in a Russia where Jews were the scapegoats of choice.  The most popular fake news headline?  “Jews Murder Christian Children to Use Blood in Passover Bread!”  That shocker was the spark behind centuries of pogroms, creating the climate that spurred my grandfather’s emigration.

Fast-forward from bread to pizza and from Jews to Democrats and you’ve arrived at the Comet Ping Pong hullabaloo in Washington, D.C.  So it goes.  Spreading fake news for advantage will never die.

But neither will our unmasking of it.  These times demand extra effort in keeping the light of clear thinking lit.  Graduating without the informational facts of life should be as unthinkable as leaving without the biological ones.