Fake News: What is Truth?

Fake news comes from deep within a person’s basic beliefs about the world. The person is usually not aware of how these beliefs are shaping the spin given to a story. Fake news is the product of an anti-rational worldview that reduces humans to appetites and all human society to power. This worldview avoids and denies the reality of and the need for truth.

Fake news is corrupt and insidious. It purposely misleads an audience by relying not only on falsehoods but on mischaracterizations and personal attacks. It is a desperate and last-ditch effort by persons who cannot construct rational arguments to address their opponents. It almost always involves claiming that someone has a phobia or is a kind of “ist.” This is a sidetracking of the reader’s attention to avoid dealing with actual beliefs. It denies the very basis for rationality itself.

Fake news could simply mean false news or mistaken news. A story is put out that sounds official, maybe even from a media outlet that is considered reliable, but the content is false and is meant to mislead or cause a specific reaction. False news is duplicitous but is somewhat easier to identify than the kind of fake news I’m interested in here. There is intentionality behind fake news to cause harm, but ironically also a failure of self-knowledge to understand how basic beliefs shape interpretations. When these beliefs are exposed, there is a refusal to bring them into the light for debate.

Fake news is an epistemological issue. How do we know what is and is not fake? Fake news is the problem of a counterfeit, something meant to look real in order to deceive. We often rely on reputable sources to answer this question quickly. However, the problem now is that it is many of these supposedly reliable news sources that are resorting to fake news and being caught doing so.

Fake news is different than false news and is a kind of propaganda or editorializing that tries to hide its behavior in legitimate news. The pushers of this kind of fake news are often not aware they are doing it. Nevertheless, this ignorance is culpable because they should be self-aware enough to catch their own worldview filter. This filter can be identified in a kind of bias, or tone, or attitude, that alerts the reader to the opinions of the author. Many times these opinions are justified by appealing to anonymous sources and it is the hiding behind anonymity that makes the duplicity apparent.

The bias and tone are a result of the opinions or beliefs of the author. In many cases neither the author nor the reader are even aware of these shaping beliefs. Let’s call them basic beliefs. They are unconsciously shaping how news is reported. To combat fake news we need to bring these basic beliefs to the surface and have vigorous, critical debate about their meaning and truth.

On the face of it these opinions are about political and economic theory. Who should pay for health care? Can nations enforce their borders? Why is marriage important and what is the definition of marriage?  But supporting a person’s opinions on these matters are prior beliefs about human nature and the human good. And supporting these are prior beliefs about the origins of human nature and about how we can know anything at all.

Princeton University professor Robert George, in Conscience and Its Enemies, gives an admonition that we can apply to rooting out fake news:

I say, let’s have a debate about these questions-a debate that goes down all the way to fundamental assumptions about human nature, the human good, and human dignity and destiny. Let’s bring those assumptions, and the assumptions of contrary views, to the surface. Let’s examine them closely and see how well the competing positions hold up under critical rational scrutiny. . .I have found that secular liberal views are so widespread as to largely go unquestioned.

The authors of fake news ask us to accept their interpretive presuppositions without critical analysis and then agree with their spin on a politician or issue. When we disagree with them they have righteous indignation and ask how we could be opposed to what is obviously just and fair according to them. This response is an indication that they are not aware of their own interpretive assumptions and it is going to take time to back up and make these apparent and to critically analyze them.

In this sense fake news has served a purpose. It has brought to the forefront our need to think presuppositionally and to be committed to the critical use of reason. We can no longer pretend that a reporter’s worldview has no force in shaping how that reporter interprets the world and selects what is important for comment. We can use the problem of fake news to make us more competent in our worldview analysis.

We can and should identify fake news for what it is: a turn from rational dialogue to incoherence and insult. We should be disgusted with fake news. Those who peddle it should lose any credibility for future rational discussions unless they show evidence that they have examined their assumptions and set aside personal attacks. Until then they have excluded themselves from rational discourse.

–Owen Anderson, Ph.D.

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