False News—False Reality?

There is a lot of discussion in the opinion world about “false news” these days. There is a discussion on the great web site 3QuarksDaily on the topic with a link to a piece by Matthew Continetti, a conservative writer in Commentary, which argues that it’s an old phenomenon inherent in human nature that isn’t worth all of the attention being given to it now. Continetti believes that the press, which Tom Wolfe called a “Victorian Gentleman,” is not telling people what happened any more, but what to think instead.

The press, Tom Wolfe wrote, is a Victorian Gentleman, the arbiter of manners and fashion, the judge of right conduct and good breeding. But the fragmentation of the media landscape, the decentralization of the Internet and social media, and the rise of Donald Trump have set this Victorian Gentleman back on his heels. Long ago he changed his job description and went from telling his readers what had happened to telling them what to think. And the fact that so many people now have the means to disagree with him, to challenge him, to speak unmediated and uncensored, is profoundly disturbing to his sense of authority and self-worth.

And, he says, many liberals explained Trump’s victory by blaming a fake-news explosion that deceived a lot of voters. But hey—people on the Left are always putting out a lot of falsehoods, too, and the “oligarchs that own social-media platforms” should just cool it.

There always have been and always will be cynics, fabulists, and crazies, because these human types express durable traits of our nature. But the free-speech zone of the World Wide Web is the result of human artifice, and thus contingent in space and time. It would be folly, and injurious to freedom, if the oligarchs that own social-media platforms allowed the Victorian Gentleman to reassert his preeminent status through censorship of speech that disturbs his liberal, affluent, entitled cocoon.

I’m not sure what the space-time contingency of the WWW has to do with any of this, but Continetti clearly thinks—as do a lot of "conservative, affluent, entitled people" on the Right—that those pernicious Lefties are once again brutally censoring the voices of the poor, downtrodden masses.


Actually, I would assert, the Victorian Gentleman is still telling us what has happened as well as what to think about it, at least sometimes, and when he does the latter, he does, also at least sometimes, have rational, empirically sound reasons for his recommendations for what to think.

Things are changing pretty rapidly in this new electronic world, true, but there are vestiges of the pre-revolutionary era that are lingering on. 

For those of us ancient enough to remember a pre-Internet world, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.

The Internet enables anyone who can type more or less well, get access to a computer and go online to tell anyone in the world what they think. Conversely, anyone with Internet access can find out what anyone else thinks. Couple this with the fact that what most people think most of the time is really best left inside their own heads, and we have a flood of ignorant, unintelligent, and frankly often consciously ill-intentioned communications constantly washing over the world. 

A lot of this flood comes from the aforementioned masses, that is, from ordinary people, and far be it from me to want to stifle them. But I am worried that the Internet is exerting a powerful force in the direction of erasing in a lot of people’s minds the basic difference between reality and illusion.

It used to be that, given a basic level of education, most people could agree, not only that there is a real world, but also that it is possible for everyone to find out many things about that world by using their rational thinking faculties. For example, it used to be possible for nearly everyone to agree that the Pope did not endorse Trump, a bit of fake news Continetti refers to in his article, because most people were able to grasp at least that much about what is real. 

But those days are apparently gone forever. No longer can we rely on a state of public discourse that is largely anchored in reality (although I, for one, happen to believe that that reality still exists). Masses of people type out nonsense, and masses of people believe it. How it is possible to cope with this new situation without the world going completely nuts is not clear.

qedd© Jon Johanning 2011