by Thomas R. Wells
The statistics are shocking. A Russian troll farm created false anti-Clinton stories and distributed them on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. As many as 126 million Facebook users may have encountered at least one piece of Russian propaganda; Russian tweets received as many as 288 million views. The Russians, just like Trump’s campaign itself, leveraged the adtech infrastructure developed by social media companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to identify and target those most receptive to their lies and provocations.
What is going on? Is this something new? Does it matter?
I. Do People Believe Fake News?
One popular interpretation of what is going on is that social media and its associated adtech have isolated us in filter bubbles and made us newly vulnerable to politically or commercially motivated lies. The bubble is a controlled information environment based on what we want to hear and what adbuyers want people like us to believe. Organisations that know how to use this – whether a Russian troll farm or the company hired by the Brexit campaign – can exercise enormous power over the information we are exposed to and thus our beliefs about the world.
I disagree. I think very few people actually believe fake news. Rather, they indulge in believing that they believe it. People’s relationship to such beliefs is much more like the way they relate to icecream than the enlightenment idea of respecting objective truth. Consider Pizzagate, a recent very famous example of fake news.
At the end of October 2016 an anti-Clinton conspiracy theory started circulating on fringe rightist social media and fake news websites like Infowars. Russian troll accounts seem to have been among those helping the story spread. Over the next month, millions of Americans heard or read that top members of the Democratic Party were running a child sexual slavery ring from the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington DC.
Infowars talkshow host Alex Jones talked about it repeatedly:
“When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped, I have zero fear standing up against her….Yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children. I just can’t hold back the truth anymore.” (In a since-deleted Youtube video quoted by the Washington Post)
According to Public Policy Polling’s survey on December 6-7,
Q28. Do you think that Hillary Clinton is or is not connected to a child sex ring being run out of a pizzeria in Washington DC?
- 9% Think Hillary Clinton is connected to a child sex ring being run out of a pizzeria in Washington DC [14% of Trump supporters]
- 72% Don’t think Hillary Clinton is connected to a child sex ring being run out of a pizzeria in Washington DC [54% of Trump supporters]
- Not sure 19% [32% of Trump supporters]
Extrapolating from the survey percentages, there were millions of Americans who heard the story and would claim to believe it if you asked. But how many really believed?
The problem is that survey questions like this don’t get at how much people believe something. Talk is cheap. The test of whether someone really believes something is whether they will pay a price to act on it.
The social media response to the pedophile ring claims did produce lots of cyber harassment and nasty phone calls: concerned citizens reached out to the owners and staff of the pizza restaurant and other businesses on the block with hatemail, death threats and by doxxing them to encourage offline in-person harassment. But that kind of thing is so easy these days that it hardly demonstrates commitment.
Out of all the millions of people who believed that they believed that a child sex slavery conspiracy was going on, only one bothered to drive to Washington DC with a gun to save the children. Only one person acted as if it was real.
This example demonstrates that fake news does not work in the way we might naively suppose. Exposure to it does not brainwash people into believing things that aren’t true. People aren’t that dumb. Rather, we are choosing make-believe stories to read, share, and talk about because those are the stories we enjoy. Hence the popularity of conspiracy theories, which make the world seem more intelligible and exciting than it really is.
Love of conspiracies isn’t limited to the populist right. The stories about Russian spy trolls stealing the US election are doing so well because they are fun for non-Republicans to believe in. They make losing the election more bearable by allowing us to pretend that it never really happened – the other side cheated! We get to feel outraged and indignant, which is much more pleasant than feeling like a loser. The details of the spy troll story may be true (unlike Pizzagate), but the overall story is wrong. Russia may have messed with Americans’ Facebook feeds but Russia couldn’t make them believe anything they didn’t want to.
There is a deeper pathology at work here than any conspiracy: Consumerism. The point of facts is that they are objective. Their truth can be discovered by us but is independent of our wishes. The point of consumerism is that value is entirely subjective, bestowed by the individual according to whatever standards he pleases. Facts are out, likes are in. According to the consumerist view of truth, all these claims are of the same kind, and equally legitimate.
I like chocolate icecream best.
I like that photo best.
I like to believe that Hillary Clinton rapes and chops up children.
II. Is This New?
People consume fake news because it is more fun. This is not a new phenomenon. It is how gossip works. We had already industrialised the gossip approach to news with the tabloid press, like the Daily Mail and Fox News. Yet some things have changed with the arrival of social media.
There are high fixed costs to setting up and running a TV station or newspaper. The business logic of mainstream media requires long-term investment for long-term returns. Therefore there was an enduring institution that could be held accountable to society for the truth and decency of its output. Some people even prefer to consume their news rich in facts, and some media companies invested in a reputation for truth to serve that niche.
Social media provides a distribution system, and, via adtech, a targeting and payment system, that frees publishers from even minimal accountability to society. Falsehoods spread as fast as people want to hear them, thanks to social media and search engine algorithms designed to give you what you like to hear so you will spend longer on the platform and see more ads. Corrections travel much slower, thanks to those same algorithms protecting you from facts you find inconvenient or boring. Checking sources is difficult. For example the way Facebook was presenting stories on its NewsFeed make emphasised the headline rather than the – so even those media companies that have invested in truth brand cannot be distinguished from the babble.
Yet I don’t pin all the blame on social media. I think we have been heading down this road for some time. TV has been getting better, they say. But what it seems to have gotten better at is immersive pseudoreality, at getting us used to living in worlds that are more fun than the real one (full of magic and conspiracies). Advertisers have always tried to pull us away from the reality we have and point us towards the reality we deserve to have . Since their propaganda often funded the officially factual news, viewers had to constantly toggle between the two. Institutions that are supposed to hold the line between wishful thinking and truth have failed. Pharmacists, for example, have always stocked Fake Meds next to real ones. And the most common way for people to find out about outrageous claims being made on social media is still via the mainstream news – when they report on ‘the controversy’, i.e. read out whatever is trending on Twitter.
III. Does Fake News Matter?
People are increasingly unable to explain the difference between fact and make-believe. But, as the response to Pizzagate shows, in practise we are more sensible.
Once real, personal consequences are involved most ridiculous beliefs are revealed to be what economists call ‘cheap talk’. Lots of people claim to believe in god. Very few would pass the test god inflicted on Abraham to murder his child to prove his faith. (Which is a good thing!) Likewise, lots of people claim to believe in homeopathy and other Fake Meds. But when they or their loved ones are seriously ill, nearly all go to a real hospital. Republican politicians from red states deny climate change in public, but the state governments they run are still basing their coastal infrastructure planning on real climate science.
Few people are willing to pay a price for their belief in fake news. So one might suppose it is harmless. Actually it is a great threat to democracy because voters pay no personal price for their mistakes.
From the individual perspective the important thing about fake news is that, like celebrity gossip, it just doesn’t matter. There is no cost to believing that a movie star is secretly gay, or a lizard monster from space. You are very unlikely to ever face a situation in which believing such silly things would cause you trouble. So if it makes you feel better in some way to believe it, why not?
Likewise, almost everything you hear about in the news is too far away to matter to your life. Political news is the most irrelevant of all – and it makes sense that false stories about politics seem to spread the fastest. Since your vote has no chance of shifting an election (the error rate in counting votes being greater than one) there is no practical reason for voting as a way to achieve something you want. Therefore there is no practical reason to bother to find out the facts about the different candidates and their positions, or even to learn how the political system works in the first place. There is no mechanism by which being well or badly informed will come back to personally affect you, and so no reason not to vote according to whatever facts you feel like believing in.
Unfortunately what is rational from the perspective of the individual is less so from the perspective of a democratic society as a whole. An authoritarian regime like Putin’s is happy for its people to believe whatever drivel they like. It stops them from ever thinking straight or thinking together about how Russia should be governed. But a democracy depends on the ability of society to think together about its problems, to govern itself. That requires a shared understanding of how the world works and a less self-indulgent attitude to facts than we take to icecream.
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Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher’s Beard.