There’s an epidemic of distrust in institutions like the government, the news media, and education going on around the world. Since reality isn’t doing a particularly good job of fixing the problem perhaps we can look to fiction for some clarity. But let’s get to some of the basics before delving deeper.
“This statement is false.”
This is known as the liar’s paradox. If the statement is true then the sentence is false, but if the statement is false then the sentence is true.
Well, it’s self-referential, so that’s a problem. How can we trust a story that only refers to itself?
With fake news we tag the item with: “That statement is false.”
No paradox there, some external source is judging its validity.
However, what follows is that we don’t know whether the judgment is an opinion or if it’s based on some sort of empirical evidence. We need to assess the validity of that source.
But what happens when anyone freely can tag anything as being false without consequences, verifications, or skin in the game?
This in turn leads us to ask other questions such as “What happens when trust erodes, when ordinary people realize that they no longer know what’s true?”, or “Is the source reliable or not?”
If you haven’t seen “The Thing” (John Carpenter, 1982), then I suggest you see it and view it as an analogy for fake news.
The movie is set in Antarctica where a group of researchers come in contact with an alien life form that can perfectly imitate other organisms, including humans.
This is when distrust and paranoia creeps in. Who’s the real deal and who’s an imitation?
There’s a scene where MacReady (Kurt Russell) puts a heated wire to a sample of blood from each of the group members. The thinking goes that the blood of an alien will react differently than that of a human.
MacReady: We’re gonna draw a little bit of everybody’s blood… ’cause we’re gonna find out who’s The Thing. Watchin’ Norris in there gave me the idea that… maybe every part of him was a whole, every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. Ya see, when a man bleeds, it’s just tissue, but blood from one of you Things won’t obey when it’s attacked. It’ll try and survive… crawl away from a hot needle, say.
Now, this is an objective way to discern the real from the fake. When discerning real news from fake news it becomes harder. We rely on our own ability as critical thinkers to make the distinction. Unfortunately we’re prone to fall prey to confirmation bias, the halo effect, and various heuristics so the system isn’t perfect. But it’s what we’ve got.
What we really need is an objective (or at least, more objective) way to measure and differentiate between what’s real, what’s not, what’s opinion, what’s fact, and also what biases the source(s) of the news has. This in some ways can tell us what the “DNA” of the story is, and as such how much weight we should give it.
And that is really, really hard to create. Especially since it’ll be human minds creating the system.
The benefits of not having gatekeepers is something we should embrace, it levels the playing field and gives room for stories that don’t always get the attention they deserve. At the same time it opens the floodgates for a lot of bullshit to mix with the facts.
When that happens trust erodes, and we want our gatekeepers back. Unfortunately, this isn’t a solid, long term solution.
It’s not one or the other, it’s both. We need well regulated and formalized outlets of news. However, we also need a place with a level playing field.
What we don’t want to do is to confuse the two and view them as equal. They’re not.
It’s like the difference between medicine and alternative medicine. Both may have their pros and cons, both may offer something of value, but they are not equal and do not operate under the same rules.
As for the damage fake news has made, it’s already done, and at this point we need to put systems in place to make sure that we can start building up the trust that’s been lost.
If you don’t want to know how “The Thing” ends, you can stop reading here. But I think the last lines of dialogue can tell us something about what we’re headed for.
MacReady survives the final assault by the alien and has burned up the camp when Childs turns up. Since they were separated earlier, neither one fully trusts the other not to be an alien. Realizing that help is not likely to show up for some time the following dialogue takes place.
Childs: Fire’s got the temperature up all over the camp. Won’t last long though.
MacReady: Neither will we.
Childs: How will we make it?
MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.
Childs: If you’re worried about me…
MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it.
Childs: Well, what do we do?
MacReady: Why don’t we just… wait here for a little while… see what happens?
There is no one coming to save us, we’ve got to do it ourselves. Like Childs and MacReady, we need to earn back each other’s trust. Not only the media and the public, but also as a society at large.
This doesn’t mean we should let go of critical thinking and blindly believe everything anyone says, just that it isn’t going to be the ultimate solution. There are other solutions we need to look at as well.
This isn’t the first time in history we’ve faced these kinds of issues, and it won’t be the last.
And while perhaps our trust in the news and institutions won’t survive, maybe we can stop the distrust and paranoia from spreading to generations to come.
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