Rome, year 175 AD:
Emperor Marcus Aurelius is dead!
Shouted a man in the streets of Rome. The news resonated at the speed of light. It eventually landed in Avidius Cassius‘ ears. Avidius was an opportunistic Roman general. He seized the moment to organize a coup.
Yet Emperor Marcus Aurelius was not dead. While fighting to defend the northern borders of the Empire, he got very sick. Soon he managed to recover. That is how a fake news became a civil war.
Only the blood flowing of thousands of people put an end to the civil war. Marcus Aurelius managed to reconquer his power, while Avidius Cassius was fiercely defeated.
Why Fake News Is Only in Part a Fake News
Fake news isn’t new. Today like yesterday it spreads. At times fake news only creates harmless urban legends which persist for decades. Other times it has the potential to destabilize our society.
Three factors might play a vital role in “the fake news framework,”
1. Why it spreads
2. How it spreads
3. The source
While those three factors are the same today as they were yesterday; There are some subtle differences in the fake news framework.
Why it Spreads: Make It Juicy, and It’ll Go Viral
Let’s go back in time again, for a few seconds. Imagine you are one of the men in Marcus Aurelius’ camp. You see Marcus Aurelius getting sicker and sicker. The rumor of his death starts to spread. To avoid political instability; the generals ask to keep it secret. As soon as the news got deemed secret, it spreads outside the camp, until it reaches the heart of the empire in no time.
British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, thought of language as a way to allow humans to build, foster and maintain relationships. He called it Gossip Hypothesis. There is no better way to foster a relationship than giving a fellow human a secretive news.
In short, the news was so juicy to make it go viral. This is the same logic of contagion. Yet while in the past news went viral based on human psychology. Nowadays algorithms play a key role.
Think of a FaceBook post which carries news that has the potential for contagion. As soon as the post gets its first likes and shares, the algorithm accelerates the spread of that news.
While the juicy factor, in the past, was mainly about human psychology. Today algorithms exasperate human psychology by catalyzing the spread of fake news.
What about its vehicle? Is there anything new about it?
How it spreads: It Isn’t Anymore About the Vehicle
Going back to Marcus Aurelius’ camp the news spread through word of mouth. There is one problem with that though. When information spreads from brain to brain, it changes of shape. In short, spoken words are not an accurate means of communication.
Think of a man whispering the news in another man’s ear. Repeat that for thousands of times, and you get the spreading of the news. Yet we can assume the news was, “Marcus Aurelius is very sick.” But when it passed from ear to ear, it got edited at each step of the chain. Until it became “Marcus Aurelius is dead!”
In the past, this kind of news manipulation was pretty standard. Nowadays the means that convey information are much more reliable. When you post on FaceBook, the set of zeroes and ones that make your text seen on the screen get passed on with a hundred percent accuracy.
Thus, on the one hand, we removed the accuracy problem we had with word of mouth and gossiping. But, we introduced a new form of bias, the so-called algorithmic bias.
Once the algorithm gives the green light, the news spreads with a hundred percent accuracy. This though raises up some questions. If the news gets spread with a hundred percent accuracy; does it mean the news was fake since the beginning? If so; this means nowadays is an issue of fact-checking. How do we solve this dilemma?
The source: The Fact-Checking Dilemma
In the previous paragraph, I assumed Marcus Aurelius’ death wasn’t a fake news. But it became so due to the means through which it got conveyed.
We also saw how this is not possible due to the hundred percent accuracy of modern media. If the issue is not about the vehicle, then it must be the source of information.
In short, it’s all about fact-checking. Easy said than done. Fact-checking is controversial since the dawn of time. A fact is a truth. The fact is something proved. The definition might seem simple, but it is not. Philosophers have debated the meaning of truth for thousand of years. Think about Marcus Aurelius’ death. When can we call someone dead?
The concept of death for how trivial it might sound it is controversial. There is no single definition of mortality. You’ll find death as a concept that assumes several shapes. According to the culture, legal system and field of study.
A lawyer will believe someone’s death only after seeing the death certificate. A neuroscientist will find someone’s death when the brain stops sending electrical signals.
If we cannot have a lawyer and a neuroscientist agree on what’s death; Are we sure fact-checking is a solvable issue after all?
If not what’s the solution?
The Solution: If It survives It Will Be Worth Knowing
My opinion is that reading or giving too much attention to the news is by itself useless. If the news is worth remembering, it will find its way toward you. Therefore it makes sense to adopt a skeptical approach to any news and always take them with a pinch of salt!
That is only my opinion. What’s yours?