It used to be that when someone would say something outrageously false (“the moon landing was faked”) it would be ignored by most folks with the reasoning that “if that was true, I would have heard about it by now.” By that, they meant “heard about from creditable, independent sources.” Filters (primarily, editors) worked to not only weed out the bad, but to make sure the truly extraordinary real news made it to the surface.
The internet has made that reasoning moot.
Many of us are ensconced in our own information bubbles. Few people reject crazy claims based on the fact they hadn’t heard about them before now, because chances are they already have heard about them, or something close to them, from the sites that tend to confirm their biases. That makes them more susceptible to taking fake news seriously.
One reason all this matters is that it perpetuates a feedback loop of deception that is particularly useful to demagogues here and abroad. Deliberate postings invented by entrepreneurs are the manure that make the seeds of doubt and credulity grow. ...It becomes a cycle where few are deliberately lying, but deception is spiraling ever outward.
A second reason this sort of deception matters is subtler, and concerns our attitude toward evidence and even truth itself. Faced with so much conflicting information, many people are prone to think that everything is biased, everything conflicts, that there is no way to get out of the Library of Babel we find ourselves in, so why try? ... [W]ho among us has not shared posts without fact-checking them? Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it right. Almost everything that we encounter online is being presented to us by for-profit algorithms, and by us, post by post, tweet by tweet. That fact, even more than the spread of fake news, can be its own sort of shell game, one that we are pulling on ourselves.
As the late-19th-century mathematician W. K. Clifford noted in his famous essay, “The Ethics of Belief,” ambivalence about objective evidence is an attitude corrosive of democracy. Clifford ends the essay by imagining someone who has “no time for the long course of study” that would make him competent to judge many questions. Clifford’s response is withering: “Then he should have no time to believe.”--Michael Lynch (NOV. 28, 2016) "Fake News and the Internet Shell Game" @The New York Times. [Bold and Italics added for discussion--ES]
Michael Lynch's very fine essay has been shared with approval by my friends. And, indeed, it has a fine analysis of the difference between deception and lying as well as the "feedback loop of deception" that can be exploited by demagogues, and worse. Yet, I wish to demur from two strands of argument in the piece: (i) one on the nature of the demise of editorial "filters;" and (ii) one on the nature of truth in a democracy.
It's true that the internet disrupted the traditional news media. It did so by undermining the political economy of traditional city/region-based newspapers, who were the best place for advertising. (I focus on newspapers here, but one can tell a related story for other media.) But on the way to the internet and the demise of "creditable, independent sources,” newspapers did a couple of things to promote their own decline. (I focus on the New York Times because Lynch is writing in it and it is a non-trivial agent in the story I wish to tell.) I mention two: first, as the New York Times eventually (partially) acknowledged, it became an especially significant instrument of US warmongering in the service "to have Saddam Hussein ousted" (Hussein was the former dictator of Iraq; the NYT puts the point more delicately, as follows, "Administration officials were allowed to hold forth at length on why this evidence of Iraq's nuclear intentions demanded that Saddam Hussein be dislodged from power.") Not to put too fine a point on it, the NYT reported as facts, the outrageously false. I am not suggesting that the NYT was the cause of the greatest foreign policy and ongoing humanitarian disaster of our age, but it played an indispensable role in facilitating it. It undermined its own ability to be creditable and an independent source of news. (I am not expecting Michael Lynch to explain this in the very pages of the NYT.)
Second, any attentive reader of the NYT will notice that its pages are filled with promoting, judging, and displaying lifestyles of the rich and famous. That is, the "filters" are not busy "weeding" out "the bad;" they are actively promoting the bad. They do so, in the first instance, not to promote the outrageously false, but they do actively promote the trivial and irrelevant, and thereby contribute, if not cause, the undermining of good judgment. The deception I am calling attention to here is the undermining of what counts as 'news' altogether. This is also a species of deception. As Lynch suggests correctly, deception can happen even without false belief. That is, the NYT and most of the 'free press' became part of the entertainment industry a long time ago (as sociologists have noticed long before). Whether that can be avoided in a capitalist-liberal-democracy is an unnerving question for liberal political philosophy, I leave aside here. But the problem of 'profit' did not just affect "conspiracy sites." President Trump is a product of the ways in which entertainment has taken over news.
Note, that unlike Lynch, in the previous two paragraphs I am disinclined to use the language of truth. But that's because (echoing Plato, Madison, Arendt), I would argue that political life is dominated by opinion not truth, and the key to political life is the existence of salutary opinions. This is also true in a liberal democracy. Society does have two institutions devoted to the discovery and establishment of truth: universities/research institutes and independent law-courts. (The previous sentence is compatible with these institutions being corrupted and malfunctioning.) There may be more; in particular, a free press can play some truth-conducive role, although due to constraints on time and resources (and, as noted above, influence of the rich and powerful) one should not expect too much truth from it. That's also compatible with the non-trivial role that Lynch emphasizes that a free press filters out the obviously false.
In fact, not even Clifford thinks that political life is governed by truth. Rather it is governed not by truth, but by what he calls "moral precepts." These can be "excellent" (or not) and facilitate social functioning (or not). In context, Clifford is discussing the political success of Islam, which allows him to grant that a moral precept can be excellent and undoubtedly merely a matter of opinion (he clearly does not want to grant that they might be true in the case of Islam).
Somebody may worry that by allowing that political life is dominated by salutary opinion, I am opening up the door to the propagandists. But that's why we need workable, political theories of ideology and propaganda in terms of (as Jason Stanley correctly noted [recall and here]) the right ideals. Lynch wants to eradicate the false (by doubling down on "fact-checking") whereas what we need is far better political rhetoric for the right ideals.*
One may also worry that I am giving up on an Enlightenment project which advocates, as it were, a republic of truth. But most Enlightenment thinkers were not so foolish to assume a nation of philosophers, which (to echo Spinoza) would not require a state at all--if all of us were moral and informed we would not need politics. Rather Enlightenment requires mass, ongoing education (among other institutions) so that individuals can form independent judgment and attachment to the right ideals. Education is not the solution to all social ills, but to paraphrase (and transform) Clifford: members of a liberal society need a "long course of study” not to believe, but to judge.
*I am not suggesting this is a sufficient condition.