Fake news, as I discussed last month (“Faking It,” The Rockford Files), is a very real problem, though less for the reasons commonly given (the potentially destructive effects it may have on our “democracy”) and more for the fact that it both flows from a lack of concern for truth (and thus says something about the character of those who consume and disseminate it) and reinforces that lack of concern through the “rush” that sharing fake news (on social media especially) provides. (As Aaron Wolf explains in his Heresies column this month, social media encourages this disregard for truth through the short-term dopamine “hit” that one gets from striking out at one’s enemies, real or imagined.) The explosion of fake news, or rather the credulity with which it is accepted and promulgated, is in the end just another symptom of our subjugation of culture (of which the transmission of truth must always be not merely a central concern but the central concern) to politics, in which the only “truth”—or, at least, the only one that “matters”—is winning.
A sober, rational discussion of the danger of fake news has been hampered by the problem of definition: What, exactly, qualifies as fake news? In the roughly eight weeks (at the time of this writing) since the rise of fake news became a real news story, the definition has morphed repeatedly, depending on the circumstances and the political leanings of the person or institution offering the definition.
The first definition, which most people, left and right, seemed initially prepared to accept, was fairly clear—a fake news story is an Onion-style satire or parody presented by its publisher, and accepted by significant numbers of readers, as if it were true. Mainstream news outlets, most notably the Washington Post and the New York Times, ran extensive profiles of fake-news publishers, often in Eastern Europe (a very high number are based in Macedonia, for some reason), who crank out poorly crafted (and almost always poorly written) satire by the gigabyte, hoping that one story or another will go viral and lead to millions of page views, thus driving up revenue from ad networks (including, despite its supposed concern for truth and reliability in search results, the one owned by Google). These fakesters assured the Times and the Post that they are essentially equal-opportunity, throwing stories left and right and not caring which ones will stick, so long as something does. (Indeed, many of their fake-news stories have nothing to do with U.S. politics and everything to do with trending topics; Pope Francis is another frequent subject of such pieces.)
The second definition of fake news followed only a week or so later, and quickly eclipsed the first. As I discussed last month, the fake news stories that were most frequently shared on social media in 2016 were those targeting Hillary Clinton and her campaign, rather than Donald Trump and his. That imbalance was worth exploring, though few reporters from mainstream publications were able to do so well, because the reason for the imbalance has to do not simply with “right-wing echo chambers” on Facebook and other social media, but with an overreaction to the left-wing echo chambers found in mainstream newsrooms. This manifests itself among self-identified “conservatives” in an odd mix of cynicism and credulity, in which any news story, no matter how pedestrian, reported by the mainstream media is immediately suspect, while the fact that an outlandish claim, such as the “Pizzagate” rumor, did not appear in mainstream publications is seen not as evidence of some remaining level of journalistic standards at those publications but as evidence that the story must be true.
Unable to cop to their own role in engendering a backlash that fostered the acceptance of fake news, mainstream reporters had to come up with another reason for the imbalance. Despite the fact that fake-news purveyors had gone on the record to say that all they wanted to do was to make money, and that in creating fake-news stories they targeted Donald Trump as often as they did Hillary Clinton, and that they were themselves surprised by the fact that negative fake stories about Clinton were shared more often than negative fake stories about Trump, mainstream reporters sensed a grand conspiracy: The imbalance must be proof of a massive fake-news propaganda campaign designed to aid Donald Trump. That the imbalance existed in the subject of the articles most shared, and not in the subject of the articles created, should have made it clear from the beginning that this theory had problems, but coming as it did at the same time that CIA leaks were alleging that the Russian government had tried to swing the election in Trump’s favor by obtaining and releasing emails and other documents from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the theory quickly became accepted as fact. After all, many of these fake-news sites were based in Eastern Europe, and Russia’s somewhere over there, right?
Where the first definition of fake news made it seem a crass commercial enterprise that may have had some unintended consequences because of the gullibility of American voters, the second took on a much darker cast. And that led to another backlash, this time among Trump voters and other political conservatives who decided that, if “fake news” were now to be defined as “Russian propaganda,” then those who expressed a concern about fake news could only be doing so in order to call into question the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election—which, to be fair, does seem quite often to have been the case (particularly among writers for the Washington Post). But it does not follow—as many then concluded—that there is no such thing as fake news, and that the very concept was simply ginned up by the mainstream media for political purposes. The first, straightforward, definition of fake news can still be correct, while the second may be ideologically driven and wrong.
Yet when truth is subjugated to political necessity, such rational distinctions fall by the wayside. And so a third definition of fake news arose among Trump voters and fellow travelers: Fake news is all a matter of perspective. If Pizzagate can be called “fake news,” then so can “Gropegate.” In this definition, what makes something “fake” is not whether it actually happened—that is, whether there is some element of truth to it (Donald Trump did, after all, actually say what he was recorded saying)—but whether disseminating the story advances or hinders one’s own political agenda. And so a not insignificant number of people who have for years decried the rise of “relativism” have become relativists themselves.
A concrete example can be found in the abandonment of Pizzagate by its chief promoters (Alex Jones of InfoWars and his ilk) when, in the wake of the shooting at Comet Pizza (the supposed site of Hillary Clinton’s and John Podesta’s “underage sex-slave ring”), the story became a political liability. Jones and others who had promoted Pizzagate did not recant the story, much less apologize for having promoted it; they simply expunged it from their websites and social-media outlets, trying to send it down an Orwellian memory hole (after, it should be noted, a brief attempt to claim that the shooter was simply an actor hired to try to discredit the promoters of Pizzagate—a particularly odious claim considering the role that they had played in destroying this man’s life, yet one that was not surprising, coming as it did from people who had also claimed that the massacre of innocent children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 was a “false flag” operation designed to further the Obama administration’s gun-control agenda). Either the allegations that formed the core of Pizzagate were true, or they weren’t; that they were politically useful before the election and no longer so after some poor patsy landed himself in jail because he believed them shows that a concern for the truth played no part whatsoever in the decision of Jones and others to promote Pizzagate.
A concern for the truth—no matter how politically inconvenient it may be, or how politically useful a lie may prove—lies at the heart of any true conservatism (and, it goes without saying, at the heart of Christianity). Those who cannot see that—or, rather, refuse to see that—are as much the enemies of civilization as those who deliberately attempt to undermine it. Like everything else in life, sharing something on Facebook or Twitter is a moral act; failing to determine whether something is true because you hope to harm your “enemies” by spreading the story around does not mitigate the sin of calumny—it deepens your culpability.
First published in the February 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.