We should be talking about faith-based news, not fake news. And the way to fight it is by making news useful again.
A lot of time and money is being spent on trying to solve the problem of fake news, with the unfortunate consequence that funds and scarce resources are being diverted from other areas. It’s one of the big new growth industries in media, with experts popping up all over the shop to peddle a combination of reader education, crowd-sourced and professional fact-checking, and machine-assisted quality control. The (sometimes literally) million dollar question people always ask is: How can we get people to stop being fooled by fake news? And the simple answer is: if you haven’t been able to stop people from believing in fake news for the last few centuries, why do you think you can start now?
The truth is, we shouldn’t be calling it fake news. It’s actually faith-based news, and its essential motor has been with us for at least as long as recorded history. Yes, religion: a belief in god (or gods) exactly parallels susceptibility to fake news1. Ask any atheist who has gently tried to point out to a fundamentalist that it’s unlikely that Jesus could bring Lazarus’ four-day-old corpse back to life. No amount of appealing to common sense and science makes a jot of difference. So why wouldn’t Donald Trump believe that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US? That’s actually more believable than the idea that god performs miracles, because Obama, birth certificates and the US actually exist. Although none of us can now be entirely sure about the last one.
A lot of very clever people are coming up with some very clever ways to fight fake news. There are a bunch of tools you can install, for example, that’ll flag if a news source is potentially compromised. Unfortunately, this rather depends on a false premise – that people actually want to seek the truth. It seems unlikely. After all, when we’re talking about religious people, we’re talking about people for whom the Kierkegaardian leap of faith is a happy jump from the ramparts of the Cinderella Castle at Disney World, tied to the end of the elastic bungee cord of the American dream. The origin myths of religion have always been tied to news, and more specifically, to the facility people have to believe what they need to believe. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was Fake News, and the Fake News was God”, to quote John 1:1.2
Examples abound. Think of the adherents to (and this has to be an example of a religion named to increase search engine optimisation) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. Many of them appear to be perfectly happy to believe that their religion is founded on a text without legitimate provenance. An angel called Moroni gave golden plates to Joseph Smith, who translated them using a magic stone, and then carelessly lost the plates. Smith demonstrably plagiarised a fair bit of the Book of Mormon, and the plates were always hidden in a cloth (a primitive version of fake news sites hiding domain details, perhaps) but none of this impacts the belief system of Mormons.
The Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, orally, over a period of 23 years. The Ten Commandments were originally on two tablets, but Moses (displaying the same carelessness as Joseph Smith) broke them. This isn’t even single-source journalism, it’s unverified, anonymous sources.
Mark Zuckerberg, cult leader of the Church of Facebook, has just announced that Facebook “plans to start ranking news sources in its feed based on user evaluations of credibility, a major step in its effort to fight false and sensationalist information”.
Obviously, a lot of this depends on Facebook’s tech, but it is a little like asking religious people to crowdsource a decision on whether God exists. All it’ll do is make sure that individual users see only what they believe in. Italy has an even worse idea: you can report fake news to the police, and they’ll hunt down the perpetrators.
The Catholic church, you’ll remember, already tried that with witches and the Inquisition, and that didn’t work out so well. The Pope, whom Catholics now believe is Irony’s representative on earth3, has gone so far as to declare that fake news is a “very serious sin”.
It’s unsurprising that the Pope would get involved in the business of news. When the American Bible Society translated the Bible into American in 1966, they called it Good News for Modern Man, or The Good News Bible. The Bible, of course, is the very definition of an aggregated news site, with different books specifically chosen from a large, available pool, on the premise that they best suited the brand. Fake news is not just an existential threat to democracies, it’s also 21st century jargon for apostasy, and as much a challenge for monolithic religions as it is for news organisations and democracies.
All this is not to imply that religious people are necessarily stupid. It’s to suggest that people who believe fake news aren’t. Which is why it can be useful pointing out news that is fake, but it’s not particularly effective in the long term. What’s really needed is to convince people to believe in the true news, and its use value. And also, increasingly, to believe in the truth of News with a capital letter: brands that are authentic, authoritative, and based on the tried and constantly tested values of good journalism. But this isn’t a simple thing to achieve. If it was that easy to get people to believe in truth, belief in god would have died out a long time ago.
If we were to push the analogy between religion and fake news a little further (and we might as well, since it probably should have careened off the cliff a few paragraphs ago), we can learn a lot from how Christianity has evolved (and this holds true for Judaism and Islam as well). In general, the birthing of new, modern offshoots has moved Christianity from an utterly ridiculous, grossly racist and misogynist belief system into a belief system that potentially and actually does good in the world. This should be the model for news organisations as well. It’s not enough to tell the truth. You have to make that truth useful, and of its time. DM
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Chris Roper is deputy director of Code for Africa, a Knight Fellow for the ICFJ, a director of the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting, and most recently held the position of editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. He was founding portal manager of Tiscali World Online, portal manager for MWEB, and Editor-in-Chief at 24.com.
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