Solving the Problem of Fake News
What we are now calling fake news—misinformation that people fall for—is nothing new. Thousands of years ago, in the Republic, Plato offered up a hellish vision of people who mistake shadows cast on a wall for reality. In the Iliad, the Trojans fell for a fake horse. Shakespeare loved misinformation: in “Twelfth Night,” Viola disguises herself as a man and wins the love of another woman; in “The Tempest,” Caliban mistakes Stephano for a god. And, in recent years, the Nobel committee has awarded several economics prizes to work on “information asymmetry,” “cognitive bias,” and other ways in which the human propensity toward misperception distorts the workings of the world.
What is new is the premise of the conversation about fake news that has blossomed since Election Day: that it’s realistic to expect our country to be a genuine mass democracy, in which people vote on the basis of facts and truth, as provided to them by the press. Plato believed in truth but didn’t believe in democracy. The framers of the American Constitution devised a democratic system shot through with restrictions: only a limited portion of the citizenry could vote, and even that subset was permitted to elect only state and local politicians and members of the House of Representatives, not senators or Presidents. In guaranteeing freedom of the press, the framers gave a pass to fake news, since back then the press was mainly devoted to hot-blooded opinion. They felt protected against a government that came to power through misinformation, because the country wasn’t very democratic, and because they assumed most people would simply vote their economic interests.
Only in the twentieth century, as the United States became a complex modern society with mass media and professional journalism, did people begin to worry about the fake-news problem, and when they did they usually came down either on the side of restricting democracy or restricting the media. (As American democracy came to include a greater number of people—former slaves, immigrants, and women—élites, including liberal élites, began to find it more worrisome.) Walter Lippmann began “Public Opinion,” published in 1922, with a long quotation from Plato’s cave parable, and wound up abandoning the idea that the press or the public could discern and then pay attention to the truth. Instead, he wanted to create “political observatories”—what we’d now call think tanks—that would feed expert advice to grateful, overwhelmed politicians, relegating both the press and the public to secondary roles in government policymaking.
In the nineteen-twenties, when radio was as new and vastly influential as the Internet is today, the United States decided not to create a government-funded news network like the British Broadcasting Corporation, but instead to turn broadcasting over to private industry and to regulate it heavily. The American news world that many people are nostalgic for had only three networks, which were required to speak in a nonpartisan voice and to do money-losing public-service journalism in return for the renewal of their valuable government licenses. That world disappeared when Ronald Reagan deregulated broadcasting, in the nineteen-eighties. When cable television and the Internet came along, they were structured on the more libertarian idea that everybody should have a voice and everybody should have free access to all forms of information, including misinformation. It shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of people, both creators and consumers of journalism, prefer fake news to real news.
So what should we do about journalism’s role in non-reality-based politics? The easy part—which won’t be all that easy, because of the current economic troubles of journalism—is to expand the real-news ecosystem as much as possible, by training people in how to do that work and by strengthening the institutions that will publish and broadcast it. (Along with this goes enhancing the smaller ecosystem for correcting fake news: snopes.com, PolitiFact, factcheck.org, and so on.) The hard part is figuring out what to do about the proliferation and influence of fake news. It’s a sign of our anti-government times that the solution proposed most often is that Facebook should regulate it. Think about what that means: one relatively new private company, which isn’t in journalism, has become the dominant provider of journalism to the public, and the only way people can think of to address what they see as a terrifying crisis in politics and public life is to ask the company’s billionaire C.E.O. to fix it.
Our government has many ways of dealing with the natural tension between public opinion and reliable information: think of the Federal Reserve Board, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the federal judiciary. People grouse about these institutions—one can caricature them, and people do, as élitist or as inexcusably political—but, on the whole, they work. Most countries, including the United States in the past, have found their way to some parallel structure for real news. Many countries are stricter about enforcing diversity of private media ownership than we are, and they find ways to give an economic advantage to the better news organizations while still maintaining public-service requirements to shape the behavior of private companies that use public airwaves.
It’s facile and unhelpful to assume that government’s role in journalism can be either nothing or absolute control for propaganda purposes. There is a big difference between state media (like the odious Russia Today) and public media (like the BBC). Most developed countries with press freedom have far more public media, including multiple government-funded broadcast-news channels, than we do. National Public Radio is one of the very best American news organizations, but it has minimal government funding; the Public Broadcasting System is also mainly privately funded, and it doesn’t maintain a large network of national and international correspondents the way NPR does.
It’s sad that, in the wake of the election of a President who doesn’t hesitate to tell his followers things that simply aren’t true, we are not even talking about any of this. If people really think that something should be done about the fake-news problem, they should be thinking about government as the institution to do it.