A program of the Center for Inquiry
The pervasiveness of “fake news,” or purposely fabricated stories, may lead us to despair of democracy. After all, democracy assumes that ordinary people have enough decency and common sense to make ethical and intelligent choices about how to govern their society when they are informed of the relevant facts. Fake news obscures and perverts the relevant facts. In this way, it cripples people’s ability to make informed decisions. It would be a tragic irony if the Information Age turned out to be the death knell of democracy—but it need not be. There is a silver lining in the way that fabricated “information” functions. Far from supporting the naysayers who claim that ordinary people are too ignorant and selfish for democracy, it underscores the most idealistic argument for democracy—namely that ordinary people (at least in a literate and secular society where education means more than religious indoctrination) have sufficient intelligence and good will to make democracy a viable form of government.
The election of 2016 was a case in point. Purveyors of fake news who wanted people to prefer Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton for president had to paint Clinton with the darkest brush-strokes. They invented a story, among others, linking Clinton and her global liberal elite with a worldwide racket of child pornography, child trafficking, pedophilia, and satanic rituals. References to “cheese pizza” in her hacked e-mails were deemed to be references to child porn, since both start with the same letters. This fabricated story had a tragic ending at the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington, D.C., named as one of the locations where the nefarious activities took place. On December 4, 2016, a man armed with an assault rifle terrorized the owners and clients at the Comet Ping Pong in an effort to liberate the children.
Purveyors of fake news know that inventing and disseminating ugly “facts” about political opponents can make people reluctant to vote for them, even if they agree with their policies and even if the policies are advantageous to them and their families. In other words, fake news is premised on the recognition that there is an intimate connection between facts and values.
Philosophers have often denied that there is such a connection. They insist that we cannot arrive at any moral or evaluative conclusions from any given set of facts. Nevertheless, acknowledging this falls short of saying that there is no connection. As philosopher Philippa Foot has argued (in “Goodness and Choice,” Anthony Flew [ed.], The Is/Ought Question), the connection between facts and values has everything to do with the nature of human choice. People are naturally inclined to choose the good or the lesser evil. If the presidential election of 2016 is understood as a choice between vulgarity and criminality, then there is no contest. Give us vulgarity—please!
The fact is that people are inclined to avoid evil, even if it means sacrificing their own interests to do so. This explains why working-class and middle-class people vote for the Republican Party—a party that makes no secret of serving the interests of the wealthiest in society. Ordinary people vote Republican to affirm their religious values even when doing so is contrary to their economic interests, as Thomas Frank argued in What’s the Matter with Kansas? Even when Donald Trump—a crude, twice-divorced libertine—became the flag-bearer of the Republican Party, his running mate, Mike Pence, convinced evangelicals that God works in mysterious ways. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for Donald Trump!
In other words, people generally act in the way that J. J. Rousseau, one of the idealistic advocates of democracy, thought they should act. In voting, they do not simply ask: What is good for me? What serves my interests? Instead, they ask, What is good for our society? If people were as fallen and as depraved as Christianity would have us believe, then they would not be fit for democracy at all, whatever Christian apologists may say.
So, if people are operating in a democracy the way they should, then it is reasonable to wonder why American democracy is so dysfunctional. There are many reasons for the dysfunction of American politics; the success and prevalence of fake news is only one of them. Fake news obscures the important distinction between facts and perspectives. There are no alternative facts, but there are alternative perspectives—indeed, there is a plurality of legitimate perspectives. This is not to say that all perspectives are equal—this is why debate is necessary.
Fake news is as averse to debate as it is to persuasion. It prefers to manipulate people instead of persuading or informing them. To manipulate people, it must rely on the tactics that liars have used immemorially—namely, to provide a false account of the facts that would lead people to make decisions that they would not have made otherwise. Like liars of all stripes, the disseminators of fake news realize that it is easier to manipulate the facts on which human choice relies than it is to argue for alternative perspectives. It is easier to turn politics into a struggle between good and evil than a competition between alternative conceptions of the good, because the latter requires argument and persuasion.
There is, especially among Republicans, an unwillingness to defend their perspective on the ends of government, which explains why they were addicted to fake news long before Trump ascended to the presidency. It is hard to sell a view of government as the docile captive of corporate power; it is hard to defend the endless claims of the rich and powerful; it is hard to rob the poor of health benefits so that the rich can have bigger tax cuts; it is hard to defend foreign wars as a lucrative business endeavor. In light of their agenda, it is easier for Republicans to manipulate the people than to persuade them. So, it is no wonder that they enthusiastically embraced Fox News.
There is no reason to lament the loss of the “free media.” On the contrary, we should embrace the post-truth world as a wake-up call. After all, the iconic freedom of speech enshrined in the American Constitution protects citizens only against governmental censorship, not against the censorship of powerful groups, individuals, or corporations. Witness the “free press” in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. They spoke in one voice, beating the drums of war. So, it is no wonder that they have been delegitimized as the “corporate media.” If the mainstream media is so free, why must we watch Russian or British news channels to hear the dissident voices of Americans such as Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges? Not that they are right, but their perspective is worthy of debate.
If the Information Age is to avoid being the death knell of democracy, then disseminators of fake news must be prosecuted, money must be separated from the political process, the media must reassert its independence from corporate interests, and Fox News must defend genuine conservative values instead of being the sycophantic megaphone of Republican administrations.