how to dive into the belly of the fake news beast

Both Finland and the United States have a serious fake news problem, but only one of them has been successful in tacking it. How this played out is both instructive and disturbing

man reading paper on fire
Photo by Marc Schäfer / Unsplash

While the world frets about fake news, one country seems to have hoax-proofed its citizens and earned a glowing writeup from CNN correspondents. The country in question is Finland, which has a long-standing adversarial relationship with Russia, militarily and otherwise, and was often one of the primary targets of its propaganda. How did they manage to control the tide of fake news in the age of social media? By focusing their education system at all levels on promoting critical thinking and skepticism. Kids and adults alike are enrolled in media literacy classes and tasked with separating truth from fiction on social media and across multiple news outlets until they ferret out the truth and spot propaganda and lies.

This is really the only way to counter fake news, by refusing to fall for them and asking a lot of questions about the origin and intentions of the media source in question. What data does it cite, if any? What’s the source of this data? Who else has a similar take? Is there any official or at least credible corroboration for the story? Does it run contrary to every mainstream, official source and if so, why? Fake news only works if its believers refuse to question it and just double down when presented with any hint of nuance or doubt, much less hard proof to the contrary. The more questions you ask, and the more you’re willing to listen to new information, do your own research, and admit mistakes, the harder you tend to be to deceive.

why america struggles with fake news

Hold you, you might object, if all it takes to defeat fake news is critical thinking, why is the U.S. awash in conspiracies, hoaxes, and bullshit? Unfortunately, the answer to that is both simple and disconcerting. With a significant part of the population eagerly embracing conspiracies and open animosity towards their fellow citizens, they’re happy to believe literally anything that casts their friends, family, and neighbors in a bad light, even that they’re participating in some sort of global Satanic pedophile ring that wants to enslave America under “the fake crisis of global warming” and commit #WhiteGenocide with political correctness. Because they’re happy and willing to use fake news to justify and wallow in their worst fears, asking them to apply any degree of critical thinking to what they read and hear is completely out of the question.

And this is another area showing a stark contrast between how Finland and America tackled fake news. (Well, besides the fact that the former did and the latter refuses to.) Finland very correctly framed the torrent of hoaxes and foreign propaganda masquerading as news as an attempt to undermine their national unity and emphasized coming together to stand strong against adversaries who want to see them fail. Far too many Americans, on the other hand, decided to use the fake news in question to fuel their longstanding hatred for other Americans and declare a cold war against them. By othering urban and coastal regions of the country, and tearing down the mutual empathy required for a democratic, healthy society to work, they’re doing the exact opposite of what we need to turn back in the right direction.

how skeptical groups squandered their chance to shine

If you followed enough smaller popular science blogs in their heyday, you may remember the proliferation of skeptical groups and their subsequent myopic obsessions, battles, dramas, and rapid slide into irrelevancy and partisan conflict and zealotry. They spent so much effort trying to explain to people that Bigfoot isn’t real, that no one caught a dinosaur swimming in Loch Ness on video because that would be impossible, that psychics are just using a trick to pretend as if they know something they don’t, and that aliens probably aren’t trying to kidnap you for the 18,893rd time and shot down so many suggestions by their members and allies to branch out beyond these stock topics, is it really surprising that people got bored?

Even worse is that when internal conflict came for them, they circled their wagons and started sniping at each other, easily falling to the same divisions fake news coordinated by scammers and foreign adversaries seeks to exploit and worsen. Imagine if instead, they tried to advance scientific education and critical thinking beyond the same dozen paranormal and cryptid urban legends and fighting creationism. They could have created playbooks to counter fake news and flood the web with proper takedowns of bot and troll networks that infest social media like particularly nasty cases of drug-resistant gonorrhea. But now that we need skeptical groups more than ever, they’ve effectively vanished from the mainstream stage.

where do we go from here?

If there are no skeptical superheroes out to save us, we’re going to need to do it ourselves and the first step is identifying why fake news exists. As we just reviewed, those who disseminate them want to exploit conflicts and divisions in societies for one of two reasons: profit from a torrent of clicks or exacerbating social fault lines to fuel political strife, miring their enemies in internal squabbles while giving them a free hand to operate as they see fit. We need to view this not as the work of supposed truth but as saboteurs and opportunists who want us at each other’s throats while they sit in the stands, laugh, and cram popcorn down their gullets.

They’re happy when we do horrible things to tackle imaginary crises with terrible solutions that will only make things much, much worse and cause new problems. Once we acknowledge that, we can move on to the second phase: creating media literacy and critical thinking curricula meant to help us identify propaganda and hoaxes and working to rebuild a social identity. That said, it doesn’t mean we have to give a free pass to politicians, pundits, and people who eagerly engage in spreading fake news despite being given every chance to return to the real world and renounce their blind faith in the worst about those around them.

We have to call them out and what they’re doing to the society against which they turned and use them as examples in critical thinking courses as propagandists’ ideal targets, feeding what is effectively an entire ecosystem based in an alternative, horrible universe of fear and rage. The followers get convenient scapegoats and justification for their worst beliefs, no matter how unfounded and bigoted, and a license to lash out with them. Politicians get easy, terrified marks. Pundits get an audience they can alternatively terrify and praise for financial gain. In the world of fake news everyone wins. Except the believers and their countries, of course. And we need to start talking about this in great detail, as soon as possible.

# oddities // fake news / propaganda / skepticism

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