News about Fake News May Make it Worse

The Washington Post’s “The Fix” recently had this to say about fake news.

What caught my eye was the following argument levied in the piece:

More than two out of three middle-schoolers couldn’t see any valid reason to mistrust a post written by a bank executive arguing that young adults need more financial-planning help.

WSJ via WP

Here’s the thing – the middle schoolers aren’t wrong. To criticize an argument based solely on its source is a logical flaw call the genetic fallacy.

So is there a better way to capture our intuition that a bank executive might have mixed motives when talking to us about financial planning? Well… how about just that statement?

Guess what, kids. A bank executive might have mixed motives when talking to you about financial planning. That’s not a reason to assume she’s lying (i.e., to mistrust her) but it is a reason to gather more opinions.

This is actually a huge difference. And it’s one reason why some of the news and commentaries on fake news is actually making the problem worse.

Why it’s Getting Worse

Let’s say I’m someone who really likes a fake news site. I read the Washington Post article, and it tells me that I should distrust news based on its source, i.e., like distrusting a banker’s financial advice. Well, then it’d be completely coherent of me to distrust articles from the Washington Post!

In other words, by arguing that we should distrust a source rather than content, WaPo has set a precedent that people who believe in fake news can distrust sources like the NYT, WaPo itself, USA Today, and other “lamestream” media outlets.

What to do Instead

As described above, rather than fall prey to the genetic fallacy, the real lesson from the banker and financial advice is gather opinions and be aware of motives. What are the consequences of this?

Instead of a fake news reader ignoring the Washington Post as ‘untrustworthy’, this new advice implores that even though they disagree with the Post, they should still read it. Just read other news sources too, and be aware of their biases.

What Fake News Gets Right

I don’t personally believe we live in a post-truth world, but one thing that the fake news purveyors have right is that we all need to realize that mainstream media has no monopoly on truth. Truth is not something doled out by certain institutions. It is built entirely within the minds of people.

People build truth based on various sources of information – some false, some true, all biased. They have to take as much information as they can, and create a theory that is the most plausible theory to explain at all.

You shouldn’t rely on a single source of information – information is not truth – whether that information is fake news or the Washington Post. You should read everything you can, and read carefully. Apply reason and evidence to figure out what most likely is the case.

Figure it out for Yourself

If fake news is truly fake (which I believe it is), then it should be easy to prove – simply watch how many fake news stories end up being true. If we accept a source of information’s relation to the truth as simply a function of how often it turns out to be true, then it’s easy to figure out who’s trying to fool us and who’s not. And if we accept Occam’s razor, then the layers upon layers of conspiracy usually invoked to explain why the world isn’t’ actually how it looks become foolish.

The world most likely is how it looks. Also, conspiracies like “an elite liberal media cabal” are notoriously hard to keep under wraps for long. Hell, even OPEC can’t set the price of oil reliably. It’s most likely ‘not a thing’.



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