False News

At the time when the Founding Fathers codified freedom of speech, they had few illusions about the press or its truthfulness, but at that time, they were used to untruthfulness being applied more to character and personal acts, or to failures in acting responsibly. While there were instances of false news and manufactured blatant non-personal falsehoods, since media consisted largely of local newspapers and broadsheets, the impact of such was largely restricted to specific and limited numbers of cities.

Even with the growth of newspaper chains in the 1890s, it took significant personal and corporate resources to manufacture and spread totally false and incorrect news on a wide regional or national scale. This was largely the case until roughly the early 1990s, when the internet and low-cost and sophisticated electronics made low-budget national media campaigns possible, including those spreading total falsehoods. But the full impact of the Media Revolution didn’t really register on the public consciousness until after the Founding of Fox News in 1996, and particularly after Roger Ailes became CEO in 2001.

The greatest danger of false news is that so much of it is designed to appeal to people’s emotions, rather than to their intelligence, and it’s often so well designed that even highly intelligent people are sucked into believing things which are factually untrue. A peer-reviewed study by researchers at New York University and the Université Grenoble Alpes in France has found that from August 2020 to January 2021, news publishers known for putting out misinformation got six times the amount of likes, shares, and interactions as did more trustworthy news sources, such as CNN, BBC, or the World Health Organization.

Under current statutory and case law, it is perfectly legal to print absolute falsehoods, no matter how untrue or outrageous, so long as they do not cause verifiable and provable damage to an individual, and usually that damage must have an economic component.

One of the legal rationales for this is the idea that any law that criminalizes falsehoods places the definition of a falsehood in hands of the government, which can and, in the past, has led to the destruction of freedom of speech.

In the end, the only thing that can halt the spread and growth of misinformation, falsehoods, and disinformation is for individuals to monitor their sources of information for accuracy, rather than for comfort – and that’s largely contrary to human nature, which means that false news is here to stay. Because it is here to stay, it’s likely that a greater number of politicians will espouse views and actions unsupported by facts or even reality.

Welcome to the world of newspeak.

4 thoughts on “False News”

  1. Joe says:

    It’s much worse than that.

    We have sock-puppet accounts creating fake facts on social media. With deep fakes, things are going to get worse.

    We have fake scientific papers, which no one can replicate, polluting our scientific journals. Actual replication results are deemed too boring by journal editors to publish.

    The news & government seem to believe its role is to shape people’s behavior rather than inform impartially, something also known as propaganda. Just recently, the BBC claimed hospitals in Oklahoma were overwhelmed by people dying from using horse ivermectin (not true). CNN claimed Joe Rogan was taking horse dewormer (not true, unless you redefine millions of African people saved from River Blindness to be horses). But it’s not new. There was fake news out of the Iraq war (WMD). There was fake news out of Donbass about MH17. At this point, the world is so saturated with fake news, I’m not sure the journalists know what is real.

    Schools and universities indoctrinate students into various illiberal theories, rather than concentrating on teaching the best math/physics/whatever. A friend said her daughter who teaches engineering at university got tenure because she’s female and homosexual.

    The World Health Organization told us Sars-COV2 does not spread from person to person, travel from China was fine, while China itself was locking down its internal borders between provinces. It told us that Sars-COV2 could not have leaked from a lab. It states that various treatments that seem to have worked in India don’t work. It has also discredited itself.

    It’s now extremely hard to know the truth, but simply relying on “trusted institutions” doesn’t work anymore either. At this point, if you can’t verify something, you don’t know whether it is true. The West is living in hyper-normality, which was the term Russians used for the phase before the USSR collapsed.

  2. Kevin says:

    I sometimes wonder how society got to where we are with respect to news – it is much like a news equivalent of Greshams Law where the bad news is driving out the good.

    Although LEM mentioned Fox news, I think there are two other well known outlets that may have contributed to where we are at, with perhaps less intent.

    I doubt that Saturday Night Live introduced the concept of “News as Entertainment” (The National Enquirer started in 1926) but they very much popularized it with their Weekend Update. This wasn’t news, but looked like it. They had no obligation to be accurate, as it was entertainment, and they were not. But it looked like news and today’s descendants in shows like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report (no longer produced) continue with that tradition. They do not have to follow any journalistic standards but it seems like they might. I think this resemblance has chipped away at the standards we hold the real “news” to because of the association effect.

    The second outlet is CNN. CNN certainly didn’t create the environment that allowed a “News as a business” to flourish, but they demonstrated it could be big and very profitable. With “News as a business” comes marketing (my profession), which starts with target markets and messaging. At its core, marketing is all about tailoring the deliverable to resonate better with the intended audience. In some cases this is passive (merely adapts to an existing dynamic) but it can also be active in that it creates the market it intends to serve.

    For a business whose purpose is to report news, what news it delivers is its deliverable. It is almost inevitable that what it chooses to say, over time, becomes shaped by what it believes its listeners want to hear. The more the listeners get what they want, the more they watch. Ratings go up. Commercials become more valuable and profits increase.

    I miss the days where news was mostly at a local level (national newspapers excepted). Shaping of the news for money certainly still existed, but the scope was much better contained.

  3. David Middleton says:

    False News is pervasive in society, and as long as sources and data are not publicly and freely available for fact-checking, then dis-information will continue to grow. In some cases, outside influences are actively encouraging this, so having anonymous accounts creates massive opportunities for malicious persons/countries. I remember a quote from the Climategate files where one of the researchers refused to release publicly funded gathered data because “you will just find problems with it”. I always thought that science had an obligation for publication and verification.

    I also seem to remember several of your novels, eg “Slant” and “Ecolitan Enigma” involved plot lines about communication problems and news outlets, and the consequences of information bias. Interesting concepts, and applicable today to separating the factual nuggets from the detritus of slanted news.

    As always, thanks for sharing your opinions and your writings.

  4. Joe says:

    Funny that you published this today, LEM. Russian president Putin was also speaking of newspeak today, at the Valdai international discussion club, albeit about a slightly different topic:


    But in a way it is about truth and emotion though.

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