Fake News vs. Real News

It’s interesting to me, as a linguistics major, to watch the evolution of words. To see how they change and adapt over time. How they’re invented. How they’re commandeered by one group or another. There’s a battle over words sometimes, and other times they just sort of inch their way from one meaning to another.

The term “fake news” has garnered more and more attention lately. So much that I started to think about its evolution. It started with the Onion, right? The satirical news site that published clearly fake news. Except once those new stories were shared on social media, not everyone could tell they were fake. And then there were more and more of the sites, and some of them were designed to look as real as possible, and so people began to be fooled more often. Enough that warnings were circulated. Facebook was going to monitor “fake news” and keep it out of feeds.

And now, of course, we’re to the point where anyone can take whatever news they want and choose whether to believe it or not. If it says something you don’t like, call it fake and move on. Or (apparently according to Trump) just call the entire news organization fake and move on.

But as I thought more about it, maybe the root of this fake news came with Wikipedia. With people knowing they could just alter the site the way they saw fit. It reminded me of Colbert’s fairly famous “Wikiality” segment:

Reality itself turns into a sort of popularity contest, where all you need to believe is what you choose to believe, and facts are pieces on a board that can be manipulated and moved as you see fit. This is anathema to me. The whole concept behind it just makes my skin crawl. I love doing research and looking at things with as unbiased an eye as I can, and then making my own mind up based on that research.

So, of course, I had to research “fake news.” And I found out that this is much older than I guessed. That news has been tweaked and stretched and lied about for as long as its been reported. (This article does a great job summarizing some of it.) Our propensity to lie in the news or elsewhere is matched, apparently, only by our willingness to believe what we want to believe.

The thing is, either side of an argument can use and believe this phenomenon. Take global warming. Environmentalists can point fingers at the unwillingness of their opponents to believe the research the scientific community has produced. Their opponents can point fingers at the willingness of the environmentalists to believe the lies they’re being fed. It’s the “lamestream media” argument. The very existence and pervasiveness of fake news in the popular consciousness seems to have made it so that it’s even easier to just believe the preconceived notions that appeal to you the most.

How depressing is that?

As for my take on the latest Trump scandal about the compromising videos and information Russian spies have apparently compiled on him? I have no idea if it’s true or not, and in the end, I suppose it’s not going to make a difference. (It seems.) But a wise man sat me down a long time ago and had a very serious talk with me. And I still remember his advice, verbatim, these many years later. He said, “Bryce, you need to live your life so that if you’re ever accused of paying Russian prostitutes to give each other a golden shower on the bed where the the President of the United States of America and his wife once slept, that everyone who hears that accusation is shocked and comes to your defense, saying how out of character that would be for you. Because if you’re living your life in a way so that when people hear that accusation, they think about it for a moment and then nod their head and shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Yeah. He might have done that.’? If that’s how you’re living your life, then you’re doing something wrong. Bigly.”

Words to live by, my friends. And I’ve done my best to stick close to them these many years later. If only someone had told Trump the same thing way back when . . .

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