Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat published a piece on Wednesday last that offers chilling insights into fake news. His piece, titled “UW professor: The information war is real, and we’re losing it,” summarizes the research of University of Washington Assistant Professor Kate Starbird.
“Your brain tells you ‘Hey, I got this from three different sources,’ ” she says. “But you don’t realize it all traces back to the same place, and might have even reached you via bots posing as real people. If we think of this as a virus, I wouldn’t know how to vaccinate for it.”
Starbird says she’s concluded, provocatively, that we may be headed toward “the menace of unreality — which is that nobody believes anything anymore.” Alex Jones, she says, is “a kind of prophet. There really is an information war for your mind. And we’re losing it.”
Professor Starbird goes on to confess, “I used to be a techno-utopian. Now I can’t believe that I’m sitting here talking to you about all this.”
For my students and for others who follow this blog, Professor Starbird’s confession might sound an awful lot like Thucydides’ observations about late classical Athens.
People of violent views won automatic credence, and any opposing them were suspect. To lay a plot and succeed was clever: smarter still to detect another’s plot. Anyone whose own plot was to remove the need for any plotting was thought to be subverting the party and scared by the opposition. In short, the currency of approval was damage done — either the pre-emptive strike before an opponent could do his own intended damage, or the instigation of those who otherwise had no thought of doing harm. And indeed family became less close a tie than party, as partisans were more prepared to do the deeds without question. Such associations had no sanction in the established laws, but were formed in defiance of the laws for purposes of self-interest. The partisans’ pledges of loyalty to one another were cemented not by divine law but by partnership in some lawless act. Any fair proposals made by the other side were accepted by the stronger party only after precautionary action, and in no generous spirit. Revenge was more important than avoidance of the original injury. If ever there were any sworn reconciliations, the oaths on either side were offered simply to meet some current difficulty and had only temporary force, while one side or the other was without support from elsewhere. But when opportunity presented, the first to take bold advantage of an enemy caught off guard relished this perfidious attack yet more than open reprisal: into his reckoning came both his own safety and the accolade he would also win for intelligence shown in achieving gain through bad faith. Most people would rather be called clever rogues than stupid saints, feeling shame at the latter and taking pride in the former.
The cause of all this was the pursuit of power driven by greed and ambition, leading in turn to the passions of the party rivalries thus established (Pelopponesian War 3.82.4-8).
In his text, Thucydides makes clear where he feels blame lies for Athens’ descent into chaos. When public office stipulated strict qualifications, prior to the rise of Pericles; when office holders held one another in check; and when citizens held office holders in check with the threat of ostracism, there was less risk that equally qualified, equally powerful office holders could “pull a fast one” over on their peers. Cynically, Pericles eliminated all qualifications for office holding, inviting anyone and everyone to hold office. So long as he believe he could manipulate their decisions and thereby determine policy outcomes in his favor, it hardly mattered what their qualifications were. The trick worked. Pericles became immensely popular precisely among those whom he manipulated.
But his success was ephemeral since government by deceit and manipulation rewards precisely those qualities through which corruption spreads and empires fall. When Philip of Macedon grew weary of the civil wars to his south, he found it relatively easy to conquer this corrupt and corrupting so-called “civilization” of Athens.
Athens’ loss was Aristotle’s gain. Where once he was forbidden to establish a school — he was, after all, a Macedonian — he suddenly saw doors open. His instructor, Plato, had believed that statecraft could be saved only by the secret collaboration of those who were wise, who knew themselves to be wise, and who also accepted the corruptibility and corruption of those in power. The “guardians” would govern secretly “behind the scenes,” manipulating governors and governed alike “for their own good.”
Aristotle disagreed. Virtuous institutions are inseparable from virtuous citizens. Republics needed therefore to focus all of their resources on cultivating and preserving the conditions that make for virtuous citizens. Corruption and deceit by rulers cannot be undone by philosopher kings whose equally deceitful (if less corrupt) methods differed little from those in power. For such deceit, in Aristotle’s view, leads to precisely the conditions observed by Professor Starbird: “the menace of unreality — which is that nobody believes anything anymore.” So, what did Aristotle recommend?
Many commentators on the current crisis over “fake news” (mistakenly in my view) focus on the news itself instead of on the conditions that enable us to make reasonably good sense out of the barrage of information that comes our way. To be sure, just as there is value in professional standards for doctors, psychiatrists, engineers, architects, and pharmacists, so there is value in professional standards for journalists and information. But, unless we expect information consumers to vet every piece of information that comes their way, we must leave the ultimate vetting to the good, albeit rough, “common sense” of those who consume news. This is because, as Professor Starbird’s research suggests, our brains are hardwired to make sense out of all of these pieces of news that come our way, often not knowing that they come from the same compromised source. You don’t know what you don’t know.
And it was for this reason that Aristotle recommended that we begin at the other end of this knot. Individuals are deceived because they need to be deceived; and deceivers deceive them because they win rewards from doing so. If I am not well fed, well clothed, and not in particularly good health; if I feel insecure, threatened, and ill-equipped to master all of the questions that come my way, then I have an interest in believing that my shortcomings and fears can be resolved by, say, building a wall or getting tough on crime. Need provokes a need to be without need. Need is an absolute precondition for charlatans. Some examples:
If I enjoy good health and good healthcare, if I eat well and exercise often — if I feel good about my body and my self — I am much less susceptible to snake-oil peddlers who are selling just what I need to make me feel good. If I am reasonable well off, not wealthy, but not in need, and am happy in my occupation, which offers real opportunities for performance-based advancement, I am not looking elsewhere to explain why I am not well off, why I am poor and in need, unhappy and unfulfilled.
More than perhaps anything else, the New Deal and Great Society, by placing the good life within reach of ever expanding groups of individuals, shifted our focus away from the immediate causes of our pain and suffering — our need — and gave us the luxury to focus instead on the blessings we already enjoyed and the opportunities that lay ahead.
Fake news feeds on suffering, pain, and discontent. My need is like a flashing neon sign inviting the attention of every fake news outlet. Why do I fall for every piece of left-leaning, but imperfectly vetted, news? “Trump Resignation Immanent, sources report.” One reason is that I so desperately want — need — to see some ray of light, of hope.
According to Aristotle, what I really should be focusing on is making sure that an ever-expanding circle of citizens enjoys good health, good education, security, and sufficient leisure time to grow and mature and participate. Charlatans there will always be. The Peloponnesian War unleashed such pain, fear, and hopelessness — such need — that Athenians grasped at any piece of information that offered solace. It would have been nothing short of miraculous had Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania not voted for Trump. Ironically, their voting patterns vindicates the validity of our model.
Put differently, what we know (or think we know) has everything to do with where we come from and where we think we are going. The most sure antidote to “fake news” may therefore be to do all in our power to make sure that where people are is safe, secure, affirming, and healthy. So, while we often portray health, education, and welfare as though these were matters of equity (which, of course, they are), it might be more helpful to think of them as the very conditions that make for a robust republic.
This throws the burden back in our laps, I know. We are the change we seek. Yet, this, it strikes me, offers a far more realistic portrayal of the conditions that make for good information than epistemological hand-wringing over the conditions that make for accurate coverage, reporting, or dissemination of news.