You, according to fake news
Is fake news an influence, or is it a reflection of who we are?
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A good lie is never known as a lie. A famous lie is a different matter. A lie that is famously a lie is the very opposite of a good lie. How then does it become popular? In the answer lies the true nature of “fake news”, which is an unsatisfactory name given to a broad range of things—fabricated information, propaganda, rumours, pranks and hoaxes.
You may have wondered why you are reading so many articles about fake news these days. The matter appears to be an internal crisis of journalism, so why must you be bothered so often by what interests journalists? But fake news is almost entirely about you. According to mainstream intellectual opinion, you are often a victim of fake news, a gullible simpleton who falls for any nonsense you read free of cost on the Internet, which you then transmit to your friends. But it is this hypothesis that is too simple. Something else is going on.
Several months ago, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced Rs2,000 notes, word spread that the notes were the most technologically advanced currency ever, so sophisticated that they could be traced by the government, even tracked a few metres underground, which was a nice touch. The popularity of the lie was on a par with the best lies that US President Donald Trump’s campaign had generated. For instance, the news that the Pope had endorsed his campaign. Most observers appear to believe that such lies contribute to the popularity of notorious public figures. But if this view were true, lies would be universally helpful, and the liar with the highest marketing budget would win. But that is not how it goes. All lies are not equal, and the most successful lies appear to help only a particular type of people.
When a public figure is immensely popular but reviled by an intellectual elite that has an outsized influence over the respectable media, then he does not become even more popular because a piece of fiction has gone viral. Rather, what appears more probable is that the piece of fiction goes viral because of the popularity of the public figure. Modi and Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not become popular because of the lies. The lies became popular because of them. Successful fake news contains excellent storytelling techniques—it has a strong protagonist who is very interesting because he is unpredictable, blunt and morally ambiguous, it captures the current of the times and it appears to be highly probable. It succeeds for the same reason that good yarns work well. People wish to believe it.
Truth is always slower than a convenient lie. That is why health myths, for instance, go deeper into the minds of people than health facts. The half-truth that exercise could make you fatter than sloth would always be more popular than the truth that complete abstinence from refined carbohydrates will have a profound effect on your well-being.
I do not suggest that fake news does not create misinformation at all, just that its transformative powers are overstated.
Yuval Noah Harari, a historian who is best known for his book Sapiens, argues that the very success of the human race lies in its ability to believe in fiction, which according to him includes religion and all political and economic ideologies. “Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions,” he wrote in a Bloomberg View column. “The truth is that truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens.”
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Harari is speaking of powerful forces, like delusions and their ability to travel fast. Modern fake news is not always driven by such major elements. It is, instead, the minor after-effect of colossal fiction that has already been established, like the news of an idol drinking milk or the statue of a Jewish virgin shedding tears are minor effects of the establishment of two gigantic works of fiction.
The idea that a hugely popular lie is not influential but a reflection of current beliefs, should alter our perception of the most organized form of fake news—propaganda. Propaganda is usually generated by a dominant political force. The perception that propaganda was how, historically, evil men influenced ordinary people, is itself a form of fake news. Over the decades, artists and academics, who make a living out of sympathizing with social underdogs, have successfully created the myth that ordinary people are victims of propaganda. The German public of Hitler’s time, for instance, is only mildly implicated in his crimes while the fact is that their political views and disposition made it possible for the propaganda to be successful.
The conscientious liberals lament fascist propaganda and other forms of fake news but they, too, generate or transmit it. But their fake news never travels as fast and as wide as the right-wing fake news, and is almost never as successful. A few days ago, some people were excited by the cover of Time magazine, which is taken seriously these days only when there is a hoax. The cover called Donald Trump “Liar-in-chief”. Not surprisingly, intellectuals of a type loved it and passed it around. But when they realized it was a hoax, they had to take it down to guard their own reputation, and take it down with sheepish notes about how the image had come from very credible sources, how they were so very sorry for promoting a hoax.
About 15 years ago, the novelist and activist Arundhati Roy used some strands of fake news in her essay on the Gujarat riots. One suggested that Congress MP Ehsan Jafri’s daughter had been stripped and murdered, while she was safe thousands of kilometres away. Roy had no choice but to tender an apology, however grudging.
The transmission of liberal fake news is often slowed this way—by the strict requirements of decency. But intellectuals fall for and transmit fake news for the same reason that semi-literates do: The news corroborates their delusions.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.