Fake News

Randall published this on January 14, 2019

You're likely worrying about the wrong problem


In the past few years, the world has been awash in a term called "fake news." I recall first hearing the term in conjunction with the US presidential election campaign in 2016. My American colleagues at the time were chatting about whether news they were seeing and reading was real or not. I could sense clearly that this situation was to them quite troubling. How to know who to vote for? How to know if a given story was trying to trick "us"?

After a bit of squirmy hand-wringing, one of them helpfully pointed out that there was a website (or was it several websites?) that could confirm/verify whether a given story would pass a fact check. The rest of the group seemed pleased with the tip. Problem solved. How useful!

Here's my perspective. "Fake news" is a red herring. It is likely the biggest red herring that I've seen in my lifetime. The problem is not whether news is fake or not. The real problem is whether news is useful, relevant, and actionable. And to that, dear reader the answer is definitively "No".  News has never been worth ingesting.

So how could the term "fake news" even become a thing? As I've pointed out in an earlier writing, news addiction is real. There is a large portion of the population that has been trained (either by education or by socialization) that the consumption of news is a de-facto requirement for an informed life. I don't pretend to know what percentage of people fall into the addicted category, but based on the people I encounter in my daily travels I'm guessing it's 80% or more. The message that one must follow the news is everywhere. And, as you might expect, that idea is spread by the creators and sellers of news and by politicians and propagandists who know that a news-consuming public is a public that is easily manipulated.

The regular consumption of news (RCON) is an epidemic. It's also an excellent vector for attacks on people's thinking.

Scott Adams (the famous Dilbert cartoonist) is an extremely clever (and controversial) audiocast personality. (If you aren't familiar with his work I recommend you check it out.) Scott has written and spoken at length about master persuasion techniques. One of the most powerful techniques that he has brought to my attention is "thinking past the sale". Thinking past the sale is the notion that if you want to persuade someone to think (or do) something, you should offer an idea that is one or more steps beyond the position that you are trying to persuade them to adopt. For example, if I'm trying to sell you a car, I might describe a perfect roadtrip that you are taking with the love of your life. A beautiful scenic drive down an idyllic country road. The top down. The wind in your hair. See what I just did? You haven't even bought the car and you're already on the road in a dream.

So, if I were a propagandist and well-versed in the techniques of persuasion and manipulation and wanted to exert control over people, I would distract people in this way too. Who wouldn't?

The next time you hear the term "fake news", I recommend that you think of it as the cunning tool that it is: A sneaky trick designed to persuade you that news is worth something when it's actually worthless, fake or not.


(Image Credit: The Public Domain Review)

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