The Drunkard’s Search for Fake News
There is a lot of concern about fake news lately. Open a browser and you see fake news as the source of problems not just locally, but around the world.
“84 percent of voters are at least somewhat concerned fake news is “hurting the country.” January 24, 2017, Fox News poll
“Fake News Threatens Critical European Elections” January 7, 2017, Forbes
“Fake news is killing people’s minds.” Tim Cook, CEO of Apple
The clear takeaways are there are too many lies and clicks are more important than facts. There are too many fake organizations pushing fake messages about an organization, an ideology or a special interest just to make money.
But, what if fake news is not new? What if this didn’t start in 2016? What if it’s always been part of the American public discourse?
Fake News From our Founding Fathers
Benjamin Franklin has been called the greatest of the founding fathers. He was a skillful politician, but was better known in his day as a publisher and owner of a printing press. His business was the modern day equivalent of a combined Facebook, Amazon and YouTube all under one roof.
In 1872, Franklin was working on a diplomatic campaign to get money from Britain for lives and property that were lost during the war. His approach to the campaign was to use his printing press to create fake newspapers, publish fake articles written by himself under pseudonyms and distribute them to unsuspecting editors whom he hoped would reprint the articles to create a viral campaign.
Fake News From our Journalists
In the 1890s, the practice of “yellow journalism” was coined to describe a war between two of the biggest publishers of the day – William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. In New York, there was a circulation war between the two publishers and the battle was for readers (today’s equivalent of eyeballs, clicks and likes).
Both publications sought out crime, scandal and salacious details. If facts got in the way of a gripping story that could sell, well, facts could easily be left out. Imaginary details could easily be added and any excuse to add an image of a scantily clad woman was welcome to get attention. The goal was to create sensationalism that would get people to buy a paper. The truth was often sacrificed for profit.
It is important to note these historic examples because focusing on the content of fake news is a classic example of an observational bias called the “streetlight effect” or “drunkard’s search.” It’s when people search for something and look only where it’s easiest. The bias is often illustrated through an old joke:
A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”
Therefore, the problem with fake news is probably not what people are receiving, but instead how people are receiving it and the amount they are receiving in today’s environment. If we only focus on the content that is considered fake news and how to control the content, we are probably on our own drunkard’s search for a solution to fake news.