The real problem behind fake news

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Photo illustration by Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (3)

To the list of historic firsts that Donald Trump seems to rack up daily, we can now add this: He is the first candidate in the annals of American politics to allege massive fraud in an election he actually won.

Trump took to Twitter last weekend to declare that he would have won not just the presidency but also the popular vote had it not been for 3 million people — presumably undocumented immigrants — who came out to illegally vote against him. Because, you know, nothing attracts undocumented immigrants more than a polling place crawling with Trump supporters and local sheriffs.

In what’s now becoming just another day in my industry, most major news outlets felt compelled to note in their headlines that Trump had made this allegation with zero evidence. Instead, he seems to have been citing yet another fabricated story that started on dubious news sites and quickly ricocheted into social media.

The emergence of “fake news” is a searing hot topic these days, as you’ve probably heard — a new, truth-free media to go with our new, truth-free politics. The Washington Post reports that a lot of these phony stories, some of which probably influenced the election in at least a tangential way, originate with Russian “bots” programmed to confuse American readers. (Payback, I guess, for all those years when Voice of America did the same thing.)

Under enormous pressure, Facebook and Google have now promised to do a better job of curating the content that populates their sites. Which is all very comforting, if you really want software engineers assuming the role of civic arbiter that has traditionally fallen to journalists. I don’t.

And the problem with cracking down on social media sites is that it’s a little like the war on drugs. You can try to stamp out the supply of garbage news, but the Web is a vast place, and as long as someone can make money off misinformation, it will always find a crack through which to seep.

No, the long-term solution here is about stemming the demand. The answer doesn’t lie in hectoring tech companies into policing content, but rather in teaching our kids how to consume it.

Think about it this way: 30 years ago, watching the news was like driving a car. Children weren’t born knowing how to do it, exactly, but it was intuitive enough that really any idiot could figure it out.

You had three networks, all of which aired the day’s news at roughly the same time and in the same studiously detached way. You had a major metro paper and a handful of national papers, which reported versions of the same stories, chosen by editors with the same basic objectives.

Some of these papers came at the news from different ideological angles, to be sure. Truths and priorities were shaded. But generally speaking, the difference in perspective between, say, the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald was a matter of alternate worldviews, not dueling realities.

To say that our media has undergone something of a transformation since then is like saying that video games have evolved since “Pong.” It’s not just the onset of technologies, first cable and then digital, that fractured the entire industry and its audience into a million pieces — a Big Bang at the genesis of the Internet age.

It’s also the intertwining of news and entertainment, which I’ve written about before at some length. It’s the proliferation of social media and the rise of mindless aggregation. It’s the do-it-yourself culture that leads everyone with a registered domain name to regard himself as a commentator and an expert.

More than any of that, though, it’s our very human desire to find affirmation where we can, often at the cost of discomfiting truth. We gravitate toward voices that tell us what we already believe, because with so many voices shouting, those are the ones easiest to hear.

Navigating the news media isn’t intuitive anymore; it’s more like flying a plane than driving a car. Knowing real news from fake news, discerning fact from opinion and opinion from propaganda — these are learned skills, not something innate.

Rarely does a week pass now when I don’t get a note or a tweet from someone who is aghast at the injection of opinion into my opinion column. It’s hard to blame them. What meaning does the word “column” even have now, where there is no delineation between “news” and “op-ed,” and when the printed page is obsolete?

Little wonder that, according to the latest polling from Pew Research, only about 5 percent of the public says it has a “great deal” of trust in the news media, and fully 21 percent says it has no confidence at all — which is more than say the same thing about any other professional group, including elected officials.

If we lived in a society where our largest and most trusted institutions had the creativity and ambition to meet modernity head-on, our educational system would be rushing to adapt to a challenge like this. Instead, we are basically nowhere.

My kids will spend months of their young lives studying the Revolution and the Civil War and the advent of mass production, which is fine. In grade school, they spend some part of every year revisiting the social movements of the ’60s, which is noble and important.

But what’s called “media literacy” in the education world — the ability to consume torrents of information with some level of competence and sophistication — is still an outlier in social studies curricula, despite having been discussed now for decades. Even when it’s taught, it’s crammed into a high school unit, by which time today’s grade-schoolers will have been surfing YouTube for half their lives.

According to data compiled by the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts (where I happen to serve on the board of advisers), most high school civics teachers try to cover modern media in some way, but as of 2012, only a third of them said they were “very confident” they could do it successfully.

Given all that’s happened in politics and media since, you’d have to think the job hasn’t gotten easier. But training is scarce, and efforts to standardize the curricula are sporadic.

Here’s a radical thought: If President Trump is looking for a bold and useful education initiative that might serve the incidental purpose of redeeming what’s left of his soul, media literacy would be a pretty good place to start. Getting behind a nationwide push in K-through-12 classrooms could be an important and unifying priority for the incoming education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

Willingly or not, Trump has done more than anyone else to expose the problem. The least he can do is begin to address it.