The Costs of Fake News
I still remember my terror listening to the news during winters. Will my restaurant staff show up to work? Will vendors deliver supplies? And most importantly, will customers stay home?
In the age of “fake news,” it does matter if what you hear is reliable. There are two parallels in our recent history worth recalling.
The first dates to World War II and the Cold War. The role of propaganda was immensely important both for domestic consumption and for demoralizing the enemy.
By now, three kinds of propaganda are classified in terms of intent, the reliability of the source, and the reliability of the information. “White” propaganda comes from a reliable and identifiable source and the information is accurate, even when the delivery is supposed to influence those listening to it.
“Black” propaganda is deliberately attributed to unidentified or false sources, and it spreads lies about whatever is at issue, where missiles are located or how many troops are being deployed.
“Gray” propaganda is somewhere in between, so that sometimes the sources are correctly identified but the information is misrepresented, or when enough ambiguity of the content of the message makes it impossible to figure who said what to whom and why.
As in courts of law, when we try to get to the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” we always question the intent behind a news report from official sources, especially when sources seem to have an agenda or an axe to grind.
The second parallel dates to the debates over the tobacco industry’s claims that smoking does not cause cancer. In this case, and others such as asbestos, coal, drug abuse, and climate change, scientific testimony in courts of law by the “other side” has been discredited as “junk science.”
Junk science is any scientific study you disagree with. Admittedly, every collection of data is inevitably incomplete and deserves critical assessment. In this sense, every scientific theory can be challenged. But here, too, the question of intent is paramount.
We should check what is at stake when data are presented: can someone, a pharmaceutical spokesperson or political candidate, benefit from spreading this information? Once the answer is clear, we can proceed to examine the data themselves.
It’s obvious that a tobacco company will try and convince smokers that cigarettes don’t kill them. But when this claim is supposedly backed by science, a sinister element becomes apparent: profits trump truth. In most cases, judges and juries have to figure out if and when the evidence is indeed “junk science.”
We have business-related laws against false advertisement and there are penalties for misleading consumers, claiming, for example, that your diesel car is both energy efficient and pollutes less than the competition. In addition to reimbursing American car owners some $15 billion, VW agreed to pay $4.3 billion to settle criminal charges of deliberately violating EPA rules.
Though our local VW dealer claims that the scandal hasn’t hurt sales, one wonders if it should have. Is it a question of punishment for past transgressions (less sales), or are we immune to all car advertisements (same sales)? Perhaps we don’t care enough to find the truth about what we buy, from cars to food.
But should we? Politicians are notoriously unreliable sources of information about themselves and the policies they will enact when elected. Are businesspeople any better? Should you trust your broker? Can you trust that the food you are served in fact was sourced from a local farm (as advertised)?
Journalistic codes of ethics have traditionally tried to make sure all data are verified so as not to mislead the public, With the expansion of media into the world-wide web, those codes have been stretched and tested more than ever before. Most websites don’t have the layers of editorial policing that established news outlets have, but this alone isn’t the reason to distrust them.
In an environment where so many news outlets vie for attention, when so much is at stake for financial survival and viability, there is no wonder that outrageous and unsubstantiated news are loudly spread. Digital exposure raises new challenges. Can we decipher what is true?
Truth is difficult to fully ascertain, but obvious fakes are easily detectable. If a business deal is too good to be true, it surely is. And if a snow-storm is announced, better be safe than sorry. But looking out the window may be a prudent policy as well.
Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com