On 9 October 1990, President George H.W. Bush held a news conference about Iraqi-occupied Kuwait as the US was building an international coalition to liberate the emirate. He said: “I am very much concerned, not just about the physical dismantling but about some of the tales of brutality. It’s just unbelievable, some of the things. I mean, people on a dialysis machine cut off; babies heaved out of incubators and the incubators sent to Baghdad … It’s sickening.”
What’s sickening is that this was fake news, broadcast by the president at a time when there was plenty of real information coming out of Kuwait. Iraq had invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, and the following day Kuwaitis living in the US hired a public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, in a $12–million deal, the biggest contract in the history of public relations at the time. The firm settled on a strategy of publicising atrocities being committed by Iraqi troops in Kuwait. Here was born the great incubator lie — a story claiming that Iraqi soldiers ransacked Al-Adan hospital, ripped sick and premature babies from incubators and left them on the tiled floor to die before shipping the incubators off to Baghdad. The story was an “eyewitness account” made public by a tearful 15-year old girl named only as Niyirah, who said she had worked as a volunteer in the hospital maternity ward. The tale was graphically told to Congress in November 1990 before it passed a crucial vote to send US troops to liberate Kuwait.
The move towards the First Gulf War was motivated by a blatant lie. Hill & Knowlton had coached the girl to tell her story without revealing that Niyirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US, Saud Nasir al-Sabah and that she had not been in Kuwait during the invasion. Nurses who lived in accommodation opposite Al-Adan hospital told reporters they had never seen the girl before her public appearance. It took months for the truth to emerge, and Bush mentioned the incubator incident in five of his speeches. Seven senators also referred to it in speeches backing the pro-war resolution. The problem with fake news is not just its fakeness, but that it distorts and discredits real and essential information, especially regarding atrocities. It also undermines the credibility of actions based upon it. Read more »
Aristotle characterized humans as zoon logon echon, the rational animal. In general, we like to believe that our opinions are formed through reason—that we have arrived at them by means of a process of weighing the alternatives, selecting that which we deem most appropriate. This implies a certain mutual intelligibility—I might not share your opinion, but I should be able to appreciate why you hold it.
Yet, with—it seems—increasing frequency, we find ourselves baffled by others’ opinions. Who could, in this day and age, earnestly believe that the Earth is flat? How can a president hold a nearly steady approval rating of over 40%, despite an unprecedented record of lies, scandals, and incompetence?
One might thus conclude that Aristotle somewhat overstated his case. But the issue is more complex: those holding odd beliefs are not typically less intelligent. An answer may be found in the way modern communication media have restructured society, leading to the process of opinion-formation no longer chiefly taking place at the individual, but at the collective level, largely unmoored from concerns of factuality and appropriateness. This is best understood by studying the physics of phase transitions. Read more »
Try it: try talking about the subject of reading without drifting off into how the Internet has changed the way we absorb information. I, along with the majority of people I know whose reading habits were formed long before the advent of digital magazines and newspapers, Google Books, blogs, RSS feeds, social media, and Kindle, usually feel I’m only really reading when it’s printed matter, under a reading lamp, with the screen and phone turned off. But the reality is that I do a vast amount of reading online.
Unsurprisingly, my attention span has gotten jumpy: I click from one article to another, suddenly remember a mail I need to write, consult the online dictionary on a browser that has at least thirty-five open tabs, and before I reach my destination, I see that I have several new Facebook notifications and check these first. By the time I click on the dictionary, a half hour has been lost and I can no longer remember the word I intended to look up. The result of all this is the humbling admission to a new handicap: the need for an Internet access-blocker with a Black List.
For my seventeen-year-old son and his growing brain, the potential for relentless distraction is far more pernicious. This is a kid who was read to every night of the first thirteen years of his life for at least an hour at bedtime, more often than not longer, and yet the dominance of smart-phone technology in his young life means that the greater part of his access to the world of ideas now takes place online.
I’m not going to explore the anxiety of parenthood in the digital age or argue the pros and cons of the Internet here; I myself am far too entrenched to ponder a life without it. But what strikes me is the profound change we’ve undergone in our collective ability to think critically. In an era of fake news and AI technology sophisticated enough to produce video footage that looks like the real thing, the conclusion I’ve come to is this: the ability to read is not the only thing we have to salvage for the next generation; we have to save, from oblivion, our ability to read between the lines. Read more »
Fake news is a problem. That’s one thing that most people can agree on, despite the expanding breadth of their various political disagreements. So what is fake news? In their recent article in the journal Science, David Lazer, Matthew Baum, et al. define fake news as “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent.” That they have provided such a clean and straightforward definition is an achievement — the political vernacular is saturated with charges of fake news, and hence it’s important to introduce some precision into the discourse. This is especially the case in light of the fact that many deployments of the charge of “fake news” are what one might call politically opportunistic, that is, aimed at de-legitimating a story that has been reported as news, while also demonizing the person or agency doing the reporting. Having a precise definition of fake news is needed in order to distinguish actual instances of fake news from the cases in which the charge of fake news is invoked merely opportunistically.
However, it strikes us that the analysis above is yet lacking; there are cases that look to us like instances of fake news that are nonetheless excluded by the definition. So it may be too narrow. Consider the following case:
CRIME REPORT Putative news source (N) reports (accurately) to an audience (A) an incident (I) in which a violent crime is committed within A’s vicinity, by a group identified as Muslim immigrants.
Thus far, the original definition delivers the right result in CRIME REPORT: no fake news is in play. But let’s add to the case that N excessively reports I throughout a news cycle, and reports in a manner that could give a casual member of A the impression that several different crime incidents involving Muslim immigrants have taken place. Now, it seems to us that CRIME REPORT has become an instance of fake news. However, N’s reportage involves no fabricated information; in fact, the reportage is ex hypothesi accurate. The misleadingness might have more to do with errors arising from the availability heuristic and various priming effects than with anything in the content of the claims themselves. Moreover, it might even be the case that CRIME REPORT involves the creation of no new beliefs; the report is misleading in that it confirms or fortifies existing beliefs prevalent in A. Read more »