Is fake news really that fake?

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Written by:

EVP & Group Director, Anthropology

Election season is upon us and the issue of “fake news” is all the rage once again. But is “fake news” really that “fake”?

Our assumptions about what is or isn’t “fake” is based on our understanding of what makes something true in our society.

Truth, however, is one of the most misunderstood ideas in culture. As much as we’d like to think of truth as a singular rational idea — that which is observable and verifiable — the reality is that our minds don’t quite work in such a rational way. We’re not rational beings, as much as we’d like to appear like we are. So as irrational and emotional beings, we’re often susceptible to perceptions and ideas that we seemingly have little control over. Our beliefs and life experiences dictate the instant judgement of whether what we’re hearing is true.

You see, truth is actually a question of meaning, rather than the presence of empirical evidence. Of course, the question of truth isn’t a new concern. It has been baffling scientific philosophers for hundreds of years. But two theories of truth in particular popularized by the American Pragmatist Philosophers in the early 20th century are of key concern to us in the discussion of “fake news”.

The first theory is what we call the Correspondence Theory. It states that something is true when it has a clear observable phenomenon attached to it. This is the most commonly accepted theory of truth in our modern world. If something is empirically verifiable, then it is true.

The second theory of truth is called the Convergence Theory. It basically states that something becomes true when a community of people converge upon it over time. This convergence theory of truth deals particularly well with the idea of meaning. That is, it understands that everything we say or do has meaning, and the more people converge toward one set of meanings, the more those meanings hold true.

The discourse on “fake news” on pretty much any and every issue (including the pandemic) shows us that as much as we’d like to hold ourselves and others to the more rational Correspondence Theory of truth, we all actually behave in accordance with the Convergence Theory. Simply put, people with differing beliefs take the same data and conclude different outcomes from it and then brand the other, disagreeable conclusion “fake”.

“Fake news” isn’t a Republican or a Democrat. It’s innately human. And curiously enough, it isn’t a new concept. Clearly, it mattered enough that more than a hundred years ago, scientific philosophers and logicians recognized the need to redefine what made something true given human nature and belief systems.

The reason it bothers us all so much in today’s environment is that the irrationality of the human mind is more visible and audible now than ever before. Which troubles us as human beings because we don’t like the idea of more than 6 Billion irrational minds walking this earth. We like to think of ourselves rational beings and often judge the action of others based on a rational framework of truth when in reality we are all judging what is and isn’t true based on ‘a feeling’.

In a business setting, the irrationality of the human mind is widely accepted. For example, if you look at the meanings around gut health, you’ll find that the strongest proponents of raw fermented foods and beverages are people who believe that a good gut will significantly reduce their chances of getting cancer and increase their life’s longevity. None of which is empirically verifiable of course. At least not yet. But those meanings are strong and they’re furthering the popularity of a multi Billion dollar industry dedicated to foods and beverages with gut health benefits.

Another great example that only recently began to unravel is on the issue of racism. If racism had an empirical evaluation it would show just how innately racist most people are. But there isn’t any such truth and therefore what is true is really what is converged upon. Before George Floyd’s death, most people believed that they weren’t racist at all. So most people converged on the idea that racism was a “thing of the past”. Since his death, a lot has changed. There’s greater convergence on the idea that we all need to be more critical of ourselves (especially those of us who aren’t black) and our own ideas of racism. Only now are more and more people talking about the innately racist beliefs and ideas they hold. Showing us just how meanings shape our understanding of issues and ideas and how the convergence of a set of meanings makes something true or false.

So why then do we struggle so much with the idea of “fake news”? Because if you really think about it, it’s not any more “fake” than our understanding of racism or our beliefs about the benefits of probiotic or fermented foods or thousands of other issues for that matter.

“Fake news” is ultimately just “human news”. Recognizing this will require a deeper recognition of our own beliefs and the role it plays in shaping our worldview and the selective hearing we humans subconsciously practice.

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