To be sure, there is such a thing as actual fake news: made-up stories built to get Facebook traction before they can be debunked. But that’s not what’s really going on here.
What the left is trying to do is designate anything outside its ideological bubble as suspect on its face.
In October, President Obama complained that we need a “curating function” to deal with the “wild-wild-west-of-information flow.” Who would be doing this “curating” is unclear — but we can guess: “Obviously,” Noah Feldman writes at Bloomberg View, “it would be better if the market would fix the problem on its own . . . But if they can’t reliably do it — and that seems possible, since algorithms aren’t (yet) fact-checkers — there might be a need for the state to step in.”
In other words, censorship. And whom might the government look to target in this crackdown? In an interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone last week, Obama said again that “The biggest challenge that I think we have right now in terms of this divide is that the country receives information from completely different sources.” Uh-oh.
Seemingly with a straight face, Obama then told Wenner: “Good journalism continues to this day. There’s great work done in Rolling Stone.” Rolling Stone, of course, ran a sensational, and false, story last year about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity that was thoroughly discredited. The magazine was forced to pay a university administrator it defamed $3 million in damages, and there may be more lawsuits in store. “Good journalism” and Rolling Stone do not go hand in hand.
And then Obama removed all doubt. He blamed Trump’s win in part on “Fox News in every bar and restaurant in big chunks of the country.”
But of course, the fake-news problem goes both ways — and illustrates what’s really on the left’s mind.
Last week, the Guardian ran a column ostensibly written by a liberal man who had fallen down the online rabbit hole of the alt-right and, just like that, found himself becoming a racist.
“I just passively consumed it, because, deep down, I knew I was ashamed of what I was doing,” the author writes. “I’d started to roll my eyes when my friends talked about liberal, progressive things. What was wrong with them? Did they not understand what being a real liberal was? All my friends were just SJWs. They didn’t know that free speech was under threat and that politically correct culture and censorship were the true problem.”
It was the subject, naturally, of praise across the online left. It confirmed their deepest suspicions. It was almost too good to be true.
And it probably was. Godfrey Elwick, a Twitter personality whose bio describes him as a “Genderqueer Muslim atheist who prefers to be called ‘Xir, Xirs Xirself,’” has claimed credit for the hoax. He has been posting what he says is evidence that he wrote it, including time-stamped drafts.
Whether the piece is real or not, it exposes a bigger problem. The point of the column is that if you consume information with which you disagree, you will become brainwashed and eventually someone you don’t recognize. Better not to take that chance! We joke about safe spaces, but the Guardian took seriously the idea that we need to create a safe space for ourselves where no alternative opinions can enter, lest we find that we are unable to digest unapproved thoughts without becoming a monster.
And that’s what the push against “fake news” is really all about. It’s a way to marginalize all nonliberal voices and blur the lines between viral sites pushing questionable content and reliable outlets with which we may just disagree. Obama wants you to think the one major cable network consistently critical of him is brainwashing the population by beaming its talking points into bargoers’ pints.
An echo chamber like the one pushed in the anonymous Guardian piece is much more of a problem in news consumption than inaccurate information. The more “curated” the media becomes, the less likely we are to hear opposing viewpoints and to have ours challenged. That’s a bug, not a feature.