Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The fake-news problem

with 2 comments

When it comes to the fake-news and hate-speech* issues, there are three overlapping aspects that have disturbed me for some time and that have been repeatedly illustrated during the recent COVID-19 reporting:

*I will mostly leave out hate speech, for simplicity, but similar abuse is common, e.g. that statements with the “wrong” political opinions are often condemned as “hate speech” in a blanket manner, and often after a severe distortion, exaggeration, or unproved claim of intent. Cf. e.g. portions of [1], [2], [3].

  1. What is considered fake news is determined less by objective criteria* than by (a) who said it, (b) whether it matches the perception** of scientific consensus or some other ideal, e.g. the ideological*** message a certain journalist or politician wants to push.****

    *E.g. statistics cited and arguments raised.

    **An important word: politicians and journalist often have the science incredible wrong, as with e.g. I.Q.—especially, when the ideas or consequences are not compatible with their ideological positions. Sadly, the same applies to many social scientists. In the Wikipedia consensus debates, it is often not a matter of establishing the true scientific consensus, but the consensus among the editors what the scientific consensus would be—or, even, just the consensus among the editors.

    ***While I have seen much more of such problems on the Left, especially in Sweden and Germany, the problem is by no means limited to the Left, especially in the U.S..

    ****Here and elsewhere: Note that there are many blatant cases of actually incorrect claims being described as “fake news” (e.g. “COVID-19 was created by Donald Trump to defeat China”). Here I concern myself with the more subtle, e.g. “COVID-19 numbers over-/understate the problem because X”. However, note that much of the same argumentation extends to more extreme cases due to the problems of (a) where to draw the border, (b) who decides. In particular, while COVID-19 is almost certainly not created by any government, it is not inconceivable that someone at some point in the future does try to direct an artificial virus against an enemy—and what if a rightful warning is shouted down with “Fake news! Fake news!” until it is too late?

    Was a particular text written (claim made, whatnot) by a journalist for a news-paper? Then it will almost always be considered “news”, no matter how poorly researched or reasoned it was. (And journalistic texts are poorly researched and poorly reasoned disturbingly often, and quite often incorrect too. Most of the exposure to actual “fake news” that the average person has is likely to come from journalists and politicians—exactly those complaining of “fake news” the loudest.)

    By a blogger? Might well be condemned as “fake news” even when the text is well-researched and well-reasoned. (The more so, all other factors equal, when poorly researched, but for non-journalists there is no guarantee even for a quality piece. Even actual scientists specializing in the area at hand might be condemned as spreading “fake news”.)

    Does the text match the perception of scientific consensus (the doctrine of the dominating ideology, whatnot)? If so, it will almost always be “news”.

    Does it go counter to the perception? If so, it is very likely to be “fake news”, even when it matches the real scientific consensus or when at least some reputable experts believe the same.

  2. There is no awareness of the risks involved in approaching a question with the attitude “this is the truth and no-one has a right to say the opposite” (instead of “I am almost certain that this is the truth, but let us look impartially at the arguments for and against each side”).

    While many perceived truths have been truths or very good approximations* of the truth, they have also often been wrong—and there is often a long period during which we cannot say for certain whether a perceived truth actually is the truth. When no-one is allowed to question these perceived truths, this might or might not be beneficial when they are truths, but it is highly damaging when they are not and they are allowed to hang on long past their expiration date. Indeed, those who have raised new and unconventional ideas that were correct have often been disbelieved, ridiculed, or even per- or prosecuted, as with criticism of many issues relating to religion or kooky ideas like evolution and continental drift. Today, sadly, even well established actual truths can lead to condemnation when they do not fit the ideologically imposed new “truth”, as with e.g. the influence of inborn factors on behavior or success in life.**

    *Even in science, it is par for the course that well established, strongly-supported-by-evidence theories are refined over time. Even something that, in some sense, actually is true is not necessarily the last word on the issue.

    **Indeed, here it is not uncommon that the mere mention of the possibility is met with a storm of outrage, e.g. that someone is condemned as a disgusting sexist for even contemplating the possibility of men and women (viewed as groups) having different inborn preferences for math and nursing.

    For my part, I have always found that my insight grows the most when I listen* to different positions and opposing arguments. This sometimes even for the patently absurd**; very often, when there is some room for doubt. This type of campaign does not just imply that the campaigner is denying himself the benefit of such growth, but that he is actively trying to prevent others from gaining it. Worse, any serious attempt at debate risks drowning in name calling, where whoever has the most or loudest supporters wins—not whoever has the best arguments. It certainly relieves the one party of the duty of providing own arguments.

    *A partial explanation for the problems discussed here could be that some are unable to understand the difference between “listens to” and “sympathizes with” or even “will be converted to”. (Possibly, because they are themselves so weak critical thinkers that they might be convinced in the same situation …)

    **For instance, consider the deeply flawed anti-evolution argument that evolution is like having monkeys type randomly in order to reproduce Shakespeare. It is almost entirely without merit and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what it attempts to disprove—but understanding why it is without merit, etc., can help someone develop his own understanding. Notably, most people who “believe” in evolution do so just because they have been told that it is true—not because they have any own insight into the matter.

  3. It is a massive threat to freedom of speech, especially when entities like Facebook are more-or-less forced to track down and delete what is considered “fake news”, “hate speech”, whatnot. (Note recent political trends to enforce just such obligations, as well as the voluntary or “voluntary” efforts by such entities on their own.)

    For free speech to be worth anything, it is not enough that someone has the legal* right to speak his mind. It is also necessary that he is protected from attempts at sabotage, intimidation, ad hominem** attacks, whatnot. This includes the wide range of “fake news” accusations. If a certain claim or set of claims is false beyond a reasonable doubt, it is better for all parties (possibly, excepting the accuser) if this falsity is demonstrated, than if it is just met with outraged screams of “Fake news!”. If it is not false beyond a reasonable doubt, on the other hand, then the outraged screams are entirely and utterly inappropriate.

    *But note that even this right is increasingly under challenge.

    **Excepting those very rare cases when the man is actually relevant to the issue. Either the arguments for and against are sufficiently clear, and there is no reason to attack the man; or they are not, and then it is the more important that we focus on the issue, not the man.

(And, yes, there is some overlap between these items and opinions that I have expressed in more generic contexts, including free speech, intellectual honesty, and “scientific mindedness”. And, yes, like with COVID-19, we might well have a situation where the attempted counter-measures do more damage than the original problem.)

Indeed, many appear so sure of the truth of a matter, the benefits/dangers of a certain behavior, whatnot, that they are willing to exaggerate or outright lie, slander and libel, use intellectually dishonest arguments, etc., just to ensure that others land at the “right” opinion. (Cf. e.g. portions of [4], as with the attempts to trick children into believing that “snus” comes from chamber pots, to ensure that they stay away from it.)

This is, obviously, quite incompatible with the ideals of a good journalist—someone who realizes that it is his job to report so that others can form their own opinions, not to just shove his opinion down their throats. (Cf. [5], which also covers some of the same ground as the current text.) If anything, a journalist should expose and criticize common misperceptions and -conceptions—not perpetuate them.

Worse, I cannot suppress the suspicion that at least some journalists abuse the “fake news” formula to discredit non-journalists, so that they can save their own industry—at a time when the quality of journalism, news-papers, etc., is at a disastrous low. I do note that the term “fake news” first became wide-spread in Germany (but not internationally) in the wake of the reverse accusation of “Lügenpresse” (see [5] for an explanation).

As an aside, the sheer quantity of accusation along these lines (“fake news”, “hate speech”, “racism”, …) has grown so long and contained so many unjustified cases, that I consider the current press and a great portion of the current politicians/parties as “the boy who cried wolf” (and I am hardly alone in this, something which should give the accusers reason to reconsider their approach):

By now, I tend to view any and all accusations from certain groups with extreme skepticism, sometimes to the point of having a subconscious reaction* in the other direction, and I expect them to support their own claims and opinions with the more evidence before I believe them (but they hardly ever do). Moreover, in some cases, I must suspect that the reason for this type of accusation is the lack of own evidence, which then is a rational indication that the accuser is in the wrong.** Indeed, these constant cries of wolf have strongly contributed to my changed take on man-made global warming, from “definitely real” to “I do not know”—my previous belief was based on claims made by journalists and politicians, experience shows that I cannot trust their claims, and I have (to date) never done the leg work to actually form an independent opinion on the matter.

*E.g. in that claims like “X is Y!” subconsciously cause me to view “X is not Y” as more likely without looking at the evidence, or in that I have some degree of automatic sympathies for X.

**Not to be confused with the more automatic reaction of the previous footnote. A good example is “The Bell Curve”, where the vast majority of the criticism seems to be some variation of “It is racist!”, while very few bother to explain why it would be racist and many of the accusers simply have never read it or engaged with its content in any other non-trivial manner—they are merely repeating what they have been told to believe. Moreover, the ‘It is racist!” typically serves as a blanket condemnation, without any attempt to analyze any individual points of the book, some of which might have been true and/or thought-worthy, even had the book been racist. As an extreme example, the first German animal-rights laws were instituted by the (indisputably racist, genocidal, and otherwise problematic) Nazis. Should we, then, automatically conclude that animal rights is something negative? Should these laws have been automatically repealed after the fall of Nazi-Germany?

Written by michaeleriksson

April 8, 2020 at 10:23 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] in well with some of my past writings, including (again) [1] and a portions of a recent text on fake news and COVID-19. In particular, we have here publications that at least partially* are “fake news”, […]

  2. […] In the current free-speech crisis this is a disaster—and it would be so, even if the distortions were guaranteed to be introduced fairly and competently. In reality, however, more-or-less the opposite is guaranteed. (Cf. earlier texts, notably [5].) […]


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