Do We Want Fake News?

Do We Want Fake News?

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Even in the title to this brief essay, I found myself challenged to come up with a headline that struck a proper balance between interesting, descriptive, and philosophically honest. The best I could come up with was one that is semantically honest. In an effort to be philosophically honest and to subvert Betteridge’s Law: I do not want fake news, I just don’t think most people really consider the effects of feeding the algorithms that provide their news choices.

I read this tweet yesterday:

“.@Google killed its Reader in 2013 because RSS as a format doesn’t track browsing to sell ads, and lets the user chose what they want to read. As opposed to algorithmic personalization which siloes us into increasingly homogenous demographics for advertisers” @LucLewitanski (www.twitter.com, 7/2/18)

When I read this, it triggered these thoughts: I still use RSS as a news source. And, dammit, this is probably true.

I consider myself moderately aware of my own cognitive dissonance, and I try to combat it proactively when reading the news. For example, in my Apple news feed, which is the most algorithmically personalized source that I regularly use, I have added NPR, Fox News, The New York Times, and Breitbart as favored sources. Even with such ideologically different sources, I find the articles I tap on end up defining my reading preferences in ways that I want to avoid. Based only on my experience, I expect that most people’s Fox News online reading is loaded not with right-wing bolstering, but with crime stories. To test this, I navigated to foxnews.com using a VPN browser extension that said I was in the U.K. (As I write this, I live in Texas, but am visiting California.) I then clicked on “U.S.” on the homepage and was treated to a list of mostly political news stories, but check out this screenshot of the link to “Trending in US”:

from foxnews.com on 7/6/14

from foxnews.com on 7/6/14

The top three links are the types of story that usually show up in my Apple News feed, the fourth is nominally political. If I were to believe the perception that my Twitter stream offers about Fox, it would be that they are more focused on feeding me right-wing propaganda than anything, but they seem happy to follow the mainstream news maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads,” but this is self-fulfilling. There is likely a preference among readers and viewers for these stories. I certainly fall victim (pun intended?) to at least reading the headlines, even if I don’t click on most of the stories. And when I do resist the temptation to read the ones I’m most curious about, it’s at least partly because I don’t want to feed the algorithm.

I am a proud skeptic. When I describe myself as such, I don’t mean in the sense of leftist politics and fake-news-fighting. I even try to avoid cynicism, though I am frequently unsuccessful. I believe in skepticism in terms of lack of belief in objective facts. I believe all facts are subjective because I believe humans are unavoidably subjective.

When it comes to media and my skepticism, I recognized the opportunity for easy media silo building as a teen. I grew up in California in the pre-internet era and loved reading the L.A. Weekly and O.C. Weekly, mostly for the movie reviews and concert listings, but as a voracious reader I was so hungry for material that I read most of the cover stories, which frequently highlighted local political and social issues. It seemed to me that they trended strongly leftist and they seemed to sell me a different perspective than the Orange County Register, which seemed strongly right-leaning. I realized that if I read about an issue in both, I could feel confident that the information that was presented the same in both sources could be a reasonable simulation of a “fact.” I still take a version of this approach in my media reading in an effort to avoid the silos.

Which brings me back to RSS. Frankly I use it to largely avoid mainstream headlines. The most mainstream is NPR’s news headlines, which provides me with the closest thing I’ve found to bi-partisan summaries of national news and capsule views of international stories. I mostly use RSS for fairly niche art blogs or webcomic postings or “indie” music news or “alternative” comics news or the handful of online writers I like who offer RSS feeds. None of which I can reliably get from Apple News.

I know that I have created my own silo of information with my RSS feed, but at least it’s not an international company’s algorithm creating it.

Having presented my personal perspective, I see little example (anecdotally) of people who resent this algorithmic consolidation. I think that most people are happy with the news that is packaged and delivered to them in a way that doesn’t test their mindset to strenuously. I say this not with disdain, but with envy. I occasionally wish that my head were not filled with skepticism, but that I could unselfconsciously enjoy the world around me. And I could write another five thousand words on why I don’t wish that to be the case.

I am happy in the silo I create by following non-homogenous sources, self-selecting for people like me. People who don’t buy the mainstream American approach to systemic homogenization. My family is filled with people I love who are very happy with their Facebook feeds and Apple News headlines. I have tweens and I can’t decide on which side of the fence I want them to end up. Do I want them to suffer my continuous dissatisfaction, or do I want them to be mostly comfortable with whichever biased (“fake”) news source they like the best? That is a question I don’t have an answer for, Betteridge be damned.