Truth Amidst “Fake News”

The broad characterization of media as “fake news” furthers the possibility of buying into false facts.


Gavin Zhang, Staff Writer

In the past few years, a growing distrust of the media has cemented itself in politics. Some conservatives, for instance, have expressed a deep opposition to what they call the “mainstream media”––that is, most non-conservative media outlets––with President Trump even calling major newspapers and news networks the “enemy of the people.” This cynicism towards the reliability of the media has the capacity to do extreme harm to our society, as it inherently leads to the disintegration of the concept of a shared reality itself.

The media is how we receive information about the outside world. Usually, when something important happens, we aren’t there to see it ourselves—instead, we trust that somebody who was there will create an accurate account of what happened. This system seems to be working for the most part—the facts each media outlet narrates are usually consistent across sources. If one outlet makes a mistake, it can be easily spotted by comparing its assertions to what other sources have published.

News reporting doesn’t necessarily have to be true to seem accurate; it just has to be consistent. As a result, when two different media outlets contradict each other, it can be hard to tell which is correct and which is not. However, the process we use to determine which source is more credible is far from objective. We may look at how consistent a source is with other authoritative sources, but we also judge sources based on their emotional impact on us––we tend to trust sources that affirm the values that we already hold, for instance. As a result of this lack of objectivity in how we assess sources, there is often confusion on which source is correct when these contradictions arise, resulting in disputes about what is true.

Such confusion can easily be exploited by people attempting to control the narrative. The most notorious example of this is the demonization of mainstream media as “fake news,” a term popularized by President Trump and now frequently used by the right to discredit others when disagreements arise.  The saying’s ability to undermine the credibility of the right’s opponents is frighteningly effective at controlling the narrative––if right-wing media is the only news that isn’t fake news, there is nothing else that its audience can turn to in order to verify the claims it makes.

This problem is further exacerbated by social media. Social media networks have to keep users on their platforms for as long as possible to generate profits. Therefore, they are incentivized to create echo chambers, only exposing their users to the viewpoints that they are already open to. Think about unverified “news” accounts you might’ve seen on Twitter, Instagram, or other platforms. While many of these accounts claim to report on factual evidence, the owners of such accounts have no obligation to post nuanced or fact-checked information. However, users who agree with the opinions expressed on such accounts are unlikely to verify their posts because they already believe that they are correct.

By creating these echo chambers, attacks on the credibility of the media weaken our belief that there is a consensus reality in the first place––the truth becomes a mere opinion, one that we can simply agree to disagree on. Therefore, without the belief in the same set of facts, cooperation becomes nearly impossible. The result is the extreme polarization of society into completely irreconcilable groups, unable to trust each other’s credibility enough to work together. 

The truth becomes a mere opinion, one we can simply agree to disagree on.

To illustrate this polarization, consider the challenges President Trump recently brought against the 2020 election results. In a variety of states he lost, many of which historically vote Republican–Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin–Trump and his officials claimed that legal ballots were “mishandled” by poll workers, and “fraudulent” ballots were counted. No evidence was given to back up such claims, yet because of these statements, the results of the elections were seen as invalid by many of Trump’s supporters. Such instances often divide us into two groups: those who attempt to justify the claim, and those who attempt to debunk it. Individuals from different groups won’t be able to see eye-to-eye, because they simply can’t agree on a shared reality.

The disintegration of a consensus reality is highly driven by the emotional impact news has on us. While we like to think of ourselves as purely rational thinkers who are able to access information from a detached and emotionless perspective, facts have a very real and tangible effect on our emotions. Facts that contradict the values we consider a fundamental part of who we are can be especially uncomfortable to hear. There is also a social component to our fear of being wrong—we are afraid that our mistakes will lead others to think less of us, especially in a culture as competitive as America’s. The idea of “fake news” provides relief from this discomfort, reassuring us by telling us that we were right all along, that our beliefs are still supported by empirical evidence. This is particularly true when the “fake news” in question implies that we have done something morally wrong and that we are bad people as a result.

In order for us to regain a consensus reality, one that takes all factual evidence into account rather than creating separate “echo chambers,” we must understand that it’s okay to be wrong. We shouldn’t be dismissing every piece of evidence that doesn’t support our ideas as “fake news,” but rather, we should take all solid facts into account to create well-supported opinions.