There is No Solution to the Problem of “Fake News”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the term “fake news”, seldom heard previously, became ubiquitous. This was, of course, no coincidence: the unexpected victory of Donald Trump cried out for an explanation, and invoking the concept was one such attempt by the president’s many critics, who could not bring themselves to face the possibility that he won fairly. As one conservative commentator saw it, “just as progressive ideas were being rejected by voters across the western world, the media suddenly discovered a glitch which explained why. Fake news is the new false consciousness.” But the dissemination of disinformation and propaganda is as old civilization itself. The internet is merely a new means of spreading these, and even then, not especially new. Consider, for instance, the anti-vaccination and “9/11 truth” movements of the preceding decades, and the role played by the internet in amplifying the noises of otherwise small groups of dedicated ideologues or charlatans. So we are still left wondering: why only in the last few years has the term “fake news” entered public discourse?

A possible answer is that the point has been reached at which traditional purveyors of news feel that they no longer have control over broader narratives. Their sounding of the alarm over “fake news” is thus a desperate rallying cry in order to regain this control. Some have drawn an analogy to the invention of the printing press in the 16th century, which also revolutionized the spread of information and led to the Protestant Reformation (and of course, disinformation, such as exaggerated accounts of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition). From this perspective, it is futile to resist the changing ways in which information spreads. One must adapt or die. In many ways, Donald Trump, who began his presidency fighting off a cascade of “fake news” allegations, including about such petty matters as the size of his inauguration crowd, has done a better job of adapting to the new informational eco-system. Twitter, with its 280–until recently, only 140–character limit, has turned out to be the perfect medium for a president with a reportedly short attention span. He also uses it to bypass the mainstream media in order to reach the public directly with his own message or narrative. And the president has masterfully turned the weapon of “fake news” around, aiming it right back at the media. At the end of 2017, his first year in office, he seemed to relish releasing the “The Highly Anticipated Fake News Awards”, a list of misleading or false anti-Trump news stories undermining the media’s insistence that it is impartial.

For all its faults, however, the mainstream media does have a legitimate point about the dangers of “fake news”. There must be an objective standard against which all purveyors of news are held and there does need to be a common set–or at least core–of facts upon which all rational parties in society can agree. But this is easier said than done, and it is far from obvious that there is a “quick fix” solution to this problem that does not merely favor one set of news purveyors over another, based on criteria other than factual accuracy. For example, many in the US fear that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) proposed changes to “net neutrality” rules will give a few major companies the ability to speed up, slow down or even block access to certain web addresses or content. Comcast, for instance, is simultaneously the largest television broadcasting company, through its National Broadcasting Company (NBC) channel, and the largest internet service provider in the United States. Should the current FCC chairman’s plans to end “net neutrality” succeed, this will put Comcast in a powerful position to regulate–effectively–much of the online media landscape according to its own financial interests as a news organisation.

Social media companies such as Facebook have come under fire for spreading “fake news.” Although Mark Zuckerberg initially argued that Facebook is a tech platform and not a media company per se, he was eventually forced to concede that whatever he had originally intended the company to be, an increasing number of people around the world did in fact get their news primarily from their Facebook newsfeed and that Facebook therefore had a “a responsibility to create an informed community and help build common understanding”. Behind this corporate newspeak must also lie a very real fear that government regulation of Facebook as a media company could end up crippling its business model. If Facebook could be held liable for the spread of false information, it would need to hire thousands of fact checkers to nip this in the bud whenever it occurs, but doing so would be far too costly for the organisation, to say nothing of the practical challenges involved. Thus, it has had to rely on very imperfect “fake news” detection algorithms, and more recently, a deliberate de-emphasis of news altogether, the idea behind this being to return the platform to its original purpose of connecting friends and family.

But it is gradually dawning on many people that the war on “fake news” may be unwinnable. This is because there is no in-principle solution to the age-old philosophical problem of how to know what is true. If anything, this problem has become vastly more difficult now that there is an abundance of information to sort through, presented to us in a non-random–but not necessarily truth-tracking–way. We would all do well, however, to exercise greater skepticism in response to all truth claims, including official ones, such as the vague claim that Russia “hacked the election”. Skepticism does not come naturally to human beings, who are notoriously credulous. One should thus be taught to be skeptical from a young age, and to favor logical consistency and empirical evidence over other considerations when evaluating competing truth claims. This approach falls well short of a real solution, but it may help us individually and collectively to navigate the treacherous ocean of information in which we find ourselves. Hopefully, we will find ways of adjusting to our current information environment and a new equilibrium will emerge from the informational chaos. Cronycle is one platform that is ahead of the curve in this respect: it not only recognizes the problem of information overload, but provides its users with useful tools for finding the trustworthy, high quality content out there in the Wild, Wild Web.

Is the Indo-Pacific Here to Stay?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Coverage of Trump’s recent tour of Asia has tended to focus on a few areas. There were his readiness to speak kindly of China, in spite of earlier campaign promises. Then there was the continuing war of words with North Korea, which has reached farcical levels. And finally, the obligatory snaps of Putin and Trump together, cast as pet and master.

Less attention was paid to the US President’s use of ‘Indo-Pacific’, at least in the West. It could have been an error on his part, a confusion with the more common Asia-Pacific – except that reports say that General McMaster is also a fan of the term. In spite of Trump’s ‘economic nationalism’, inherited from Steve Bannon (which casts Indian workers as interlopers in America), and a spate of shootings involving the diaspora in America, the president is continuing his predecessors work.

Indo-US relations have not always been the warmest. During the Cold War, presidents traditionally sided with Pakistan, whilst the Soviet Union supported nominally socialist India. In 1971, at the height of the Bangladeshi War of Independence, Richard Nixon sent an aircraft carrier into the Indian Ocean as a potential deterrent to further Indian action (thankfully for all parties, it was never used). The pro-Pakistani position continued up until George W. Bush and to a degree into the Obama Administration (although given the heavy use of drone strikes, it was a contentious relationship to say the least).

Nevertheless, the previous government realised that Afghanistan and Iraq had worn down US forces, and left them without the training needed for fighting conventional warfare. As US officials realised the futility of attempting to achieve stability in the countries which they had invaded, they also saw that China’s power projection had only grown greater over time.

And that also meant that they needed partners in the Asia-Pacific region. There was Japan and South Korea, of course – in spite of Trump’s threats during North Korean missile testing, the alliance with them has held strong. Australia, too, could play a part, although its distance rendered it a less useful ally in curbing Chinese soft power. At stake was not merely territory, but hegemony over the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries: a loose grouping of small states including Thailand, Vietnam, the Phillipines, and Myanmar. All have felt (in varying degrees) Chinese influence, and are wary of further pushes by the world’s most populous country.

As its neighbour, and in theory regional counterweight, India could be the final part of the equation for the US. The restarting of the ‘Quad’ talks between Japan, India, Australia, and the US, on the sidelines of Trump’s tour, hinted at an arrangement which could reasonably support small nations facing Chinese pressure.

It would also fit into India’s plans to gain greater ties with the ASEAN, in the so-called Act East policy. The world’s biggest democracy has long suffered from poor relationships with its direct neighbours, Sri Lanka and Pakistan (Bhutan is the exception to this rule, although an attempted Chinese incursion might have lead to a regime change). China has capitalised on this, using investment as a tool to build a ‘string of pearls’ to limit India’s abilities to power project.

There are obstacles to making the Indo-Pacific a reality: the group haven’t even held a naval exercise together yet (a previous attempt fell apart due to external pressure from Beijing). Trump could always change his mind, and attempt to gain more concessions from India, although this seems unlikely – his relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi has proven smooth so far. A more real obstacle is India’s limited naval power: a series of mishaps aboard submarines have killed a number of sailors, and made it even more decrepit in contrast to China’s arsenal.

But as China’s power continues to grow, it’s difficult not to see at least some form of cooperation between India, other regional powers, and the US. There’s too much at stake in the region: a fact which might bring some scant relief to the members of ASEAN, who are the pawns in this global game of chess.