Fake news isn’t the same as lying

First published on GroundUp.

Objectivity is impossible to achieve. We all have our biases, and on top of that, we all have brains that work to confirm those biases, and to undermine the impact of information that could change our minds.

We are of course not helpless in the face of misinformation – we can remind ourselves to read and think about dissenting views, we can debate issues with friends from different parts of the political spectrum, and most importantly perhaps, we can remind ourselves that discovering our own errors is an essential component of triangulating on the truth.

In all of this activity, though, we have poorer prospects of success when we fail to call things by their proper names, or share the same understanding of a term.

You might know that “post-truth” was named “word of the year” by Oxford dictionaries. But does that word mean that the speaker doesn’t care about the truth (whether she says something true or not); that nobody cares about the truth; or that we are no longer able to discern between truth and falsehood?

My question has a commonly-agreed upon answer (namely that the emotional appeal of a statement to an audience is more important than its factual accuracy), but definitions shift, and are also often dependent on audience. It takes concerted effort to clearly define, and then constantly defend, one particular application of a word.

This effort is however worthwhile, because what we call things matters. The word “lie” or “liar” speaks to intent to deceive, and to considering oneself outside of the usual realm of being accountable to the facts, and to the correction of one’s peers.

To be called a liar is to be the subject of a strong moral judgment – far stronger than being accused of merely having a bias. The words we choose to describe something or someone therefore signal the extent of our disapproval, or the extent of the problem.

And this is why we need to be more careful with the phrase “fake news”, which has rapidly become a catch-all term for both news that is empirically false (which should of course not be called “news” at all) as well as news that speaks from a certain perspective, and is likely to confirm our existing biases (whether in favour of, or in opposition to, the topic at hand).

Fox News is conservative, in general speaking to the Republican voter, while CNN leans liberal and Democrat – and while both these sources, as well as all other media, can be classified on a spectrum of bias, this rarely justifies the claim that they lie rather than that they tell “one side of the story”, and thereby potentially mislead their audiences.

You might think the distinction trivial, or even non-existent. But compare the “news” that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump with, for example, Fox News showing pictures of Trump’s inauguration from an angle that exaggerates the size of the crowd.

The former story is false in all respects, and doesn’t serve any agenda other than driving traffic to garner ad revenue. The latter is a framing device for presenting a flattering perspective of a particular political ideology, and it only becomes an overt falsehood or a lie when a Fox News anchor explicitly uses it to refute claims that the crowd was unusually small.

To be clear, I am not arguing that it’s desirable to mislead in this more subtle way, or to stop even trying to present a balanced perspective. My claim is that there is a spectrum of wrongfulness, as is usually the case, and that “fake news” refers (or should refer) to something different to a misleading or partisan report, namely something fake, rather than something you don’t agree with.

It’s for you to consider which is the greater moral evil, or to what extent it’s our fault that we are susceptible to fake news at all, thanks to not being attentive and critical enough.

Furthermore, it might be worth considering whether our current obsession with “fake news”, and our liberal application of the term, is just another way to dismiss things without thinking about them.

After all, if we can dismiss information we don’t like by calling it “fake news”, we not only compromise our ability to make distinctions between bias and bullshit, but we also undermine our ability to expose the biases of not only others, but also ourselves.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.