What’s so new about fake news?
Like many people I’m sure, a lot my posts are inspired or provoked by something that I’ve read or seen recently. This time, fake news has been on my mind, thanks to Yuval Noah Harari’s latest bestseller, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and of course last week’s US midterm elections, which were the subject of much media scrutiny.
This is a huge topic and the reason that I enjoy Harari’s writing on it so much is because he tackles it, and so many other pressing issues, in a genuinely curious way. A major theme is the absolute deluge of information that we are bombarded with on a daily basis; one of the consequences – and benefits – of the ultra-connected world we have created. So of course the dreaded phrase, fake news, is discussed in some detail.
Like a modern-day, virtual equivalent of the bogeyman (on that, watch out for the Kludde if you ever visit my homeland, the Netherlands), “Fake news!” has become thoroughly woven into our everyday language, thanks in part to a certain world leader – I think you know who I mean.
It’s used to discredit just about anything, from media stories and political arguments to opinions or facts that, quite simply, someone doesn’t happen to agree with. I’ve heard it used as a joke in meeting rooms to try and move things on when there’s a difference of opinion, and it can be really tricky to prove which individual or company was definitively the “first” to claim some achievement – unless you live in Switzerland, where you can have 100% confidence that my company installed the country’s first 5G antenna 🙂
Of course, there are several satirical sites that have been delivering up fake news stories for many years. One of the longer-running hoaxes was about a man who was supposed to have dug a tunnel from his bedroom to the local pub with a spoon, while more recently there have been “claims” that the Campbell’s Soup company is stockpiling tins of its own product in preparation for Doomsday.
But does this era of “alternative facts” mean that our society is now less truthful than it was in the past? Harari suggests not, and I agree with him. We have been telling ourselves and one another tall tales as long as we have been grouping and allying ourselves with – and against – each other.
This is why we have concepts like nationality, religion, politics, war… preferences for favorite football teams, brands, music, clothing… and even arguments about ridiculous things like who produces the best chocolate (this is Switzerland, naturally) or whether fondue is delicious or disgusting (fact: it’s delicious – if made with good quality cheese).
The truth, if we are still allowed to call it that in this so-called post-truth era, is that despite the increasing abundance of information, we are really no more and no less susceptible to being taken in by unproven beliefs or outright lies than we ever were. And I write as someone who was briefly perplexed by the stand for a new “product” called Psychasec at this year’s CES, which turned out to be a joke from Netflix to promote its show Altered Carbon.
On a serious note, it does mean that we need to be much more careful about what we pay attention to, and work that bit harder to separate fact from fiction. As Harari says, these days “clarity is power”. It’s fairly simple to see past those overblown “OMG have you seen what happened to [insert name of celebrity]” links, but sophisticated political campaigning is a different matter.
But before we all get too depressed about it, maybe there is a sign that fake news hasn’t completely taken over yet. When I typed “fake” into an Internet search, fake news didn’t make it into the top suggested themes, while fake ID, fake Gucci trainers and even fake tan remover did. Does this reveal what’s really going on in our collective psyche? Or is Google trying to tell me something specifically…? Maybe that’s one to ponder some other time.