In a prior blog, Word-of-the-Day (WotD) distinguished facts from “alternate” facts, noting that another word for alternate facts is lies.
Limitations of time and space prevented WotD from addressing the related pertinent topic of relativism; the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality vary in relation to culture, society, or historical context.
Relativism holds that there are no absolute truths, that my truth is determined by circumstance and my opinion of what is or should be. To a relativist, all information or data are of equal value, which (if true) means that nothing in particular is to be valued at all. This is a cynical perspective of life that regards truth as opinion, and opinion as no more important than deciding which shoes to wear.
We can connect the dots from alternate facts to relativism to “fake news.” This term has been used to denigrate or dismiss articles in the news media as being intentionally incorrect—fabricated and misleading. This is a particular problem of modern, on-line forms of communication. Increasingly manufactured data has been planted in electronic media to reach a mass audience. It has become commonplace for the Internet to be used to disseminate information: from doctored photos to manufactured quotations, etc. Persons and organizations plant fake news for a variety of reasons: revenge, outrage, pride, political advantage, you name it.
This raises the question: how is one to assess the validity of information in the internet age? In Europe the EU combats fake news with a committee created to comb the Internet in search of fake news stories. Since its inception 16 months ago, it has discredited 2,500 stories (many with links to Russia). These are not simply news stories with inaccuracies; rather, these are posts (or Tweets, or blogs) crafted with falsehoods calculated to manipulate an unsuspecting public. It is unlikely that a similarly constituted committee would fare well in the USA owing to the jealous protection of the First Amendment.
That means the responsibility to identify fake news falls largely to each of us. It is always wise to consider sources when reading a news article, and most of us know to give greater authority to stories with named sources. In the Information Age one must be alert to the possibility of “fake news,” but that does not mean that everything is relative or that you can’t trust what you read. The normative Press will make errors, but at least it has mechanisms in place to correct the record. Competition alone largely ensures that the truth will eventually come out. Not so fake news; it hangs about as a distraction or assertion lacking veracity. The presence of fake news in our culture means that fair-minded persons have an obligation to go beyond headlines and Tweets and to use their discernment to differentiate fact from fiction. It also means that we should not permit uncomfortable realities to be gratuitously dismissed by those in power as “fake news.”
There is much irony in the fact that just as the Internet gives us unparalleled access to data, we have become increasingly dependent upon the Press to help us make sense of it. The amount of readily available information overwhelms, and some fake news slips past mislead us to undermine our confidence in a free and vigilant Press
The Occasional Word of the Day (OwotD)