Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fake news versus real news: Is there a difference?

Donald Trump in his presidential campaign last year popularized the practice of labelling news reports with which one disagrees “fake news.” Since then, the practice of calling news reports “fake news” has proliferated, spreading among conservatives and liberals.
Is there a difference between “fake news” and “real news”?
In answering that question, I want to avoid using the word “truth” and its cognates. Truth has too many meanings to permit easy use in this context. A friend and I had an extended conversation on Ethical Musings some years ago about the nature of truth. He argued that if truth does exist, it is impossible for humans to know truth with certainty, a position akin to that of Hegel’s postmodern individualism.
On some issues I agree with my friend. For example, nobody can prove that God (a human word denoting ultimate reality) does or does not exist. Furthermore, given the unknowability of ultimate reality and the limitations of human language, each person lives with her or his own truth with respect to God. Witnesses to a crime (or any other incident) similarly have personalized, unique memories of the event, shaped by the individual’s inherently selective perception of the event, pre-existing brain patterns that process those perceptions, and their brain’s retention or non-retention of those processed perceptions. Again, truth is highly individualized. Yet another example of the elusiveness of truth is the partial displacement by, and uneasy coexistence of, Newtonian physics and quantum physics.
However, I disagreed with my friend about other issues. In these instances, the word “truth” has a different meaning. “Truth” may denote a fact (or set of facts) or perception supported by the available evidence that was accumulated from multiple sources to ensure its validity and then tested for reliability. Illustratively, if numerous people describe a wall as red and a properly calibrated spectrometer agrees with that description, then I believe that we can truthfully say “the wall is red,” with the word “red” connoting the absorption of all light except that of wave lengths that humans usually describe in English as “red.”
By this standard, “fake news” denotes a news report in which the reported facts do not cohere to valid, reliable facts. Of course, opinions about the import of the facts will often vary widely. In the case of opinion, whether a person expressed a particular point of view is an issue of fact; the opinion, per se, represents a form of relative truth, personally determined.
To illustrate the distinction between fact and opinion, consider reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections. Factually, the Russians meddled. The preponderance of evidence is valid (actually reveals Russian attempts to interfere in the election) and reliable (comes from highly trustworthy, multiple independent sources). Reports of Russian meddling are not fake news but real or true. However, far less certain is whether the Trump campaign colluded or was aware of that meddling, at this time more a matter of opinion than fact. Concern about the integrity of US elections should prompt continuing efforts to resolve the truth of all such claims.

Civil discourse and the search both meaning both require clarity about truth. I’m deeply disturbed that claims of “fake news” are proliferating in an effort to dismiss uncomfortable truths, i.e., facts one strongly prefers to discredit and then ignore. Distinguishing “real news” from “fake news” requires the hard work of setting aside personal prejudices to dig into available data and engage in the careful, time-consuming analysis. On occasion, the process may entail suspending judgment until sufficient valid, reliable data becomes available.

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