Much has been made of the fake news articles of late. Many have remarked that these have probably affected the outcome of the election. The more astute observers realize that those are only the most visible part of an enormously partisan media structure where you only have to hear the news and opinions that you want to hear. I haven’t seen a whole lot of people saying how great this is.
Let me be clear. The proliferation of fake news is horrible. There is nothing to be gained by outright lies being spread as if they are truth. But to put them, and the echo chambers into perspective, let’s look at some historical trends to see if we can figure out where we’re headed.
So let’s go back to the 19th century, pre Civil War. Do you think the average white person had the first idea of how black people felt about their situation? How could they? Slaves were, for the most part, illiterate. So they couldn’t tell their own story. Few white people were asking them. This is probably one of the reasons the south fought so hard to keep slaves. They had no idea of how slaves actually felt, so, given that slavery benefitted the south economically, it was easy to assume it was fine being a slave. Let’s go a little later. Our good friend Joe McCarthy claimed to a list of communists who had infiltrated the US government. That was duly reported and thus began the Red Scare. Never mind the lives of US citizens that were ruined by the mere accusation of communism, this helped exacerbate the Cold War, bringing humanity closer to global nuclear war then should have ever happened. Similar things happened during the Vietnam war. At first, the media reported that the war was a good thing. Public opinion only began to seriously change when guys like Walter Cronkite came out against it. Had they not, opposition to the war would have been relegated to the young and mostly poor, and it would have to proceeded to war with China or the Soviet Union.
My point is that for most of media history we have been only able to get our information from a very narrow list of sources. How we felt as a society was directly impacted by what those sources said. Flash to now, and there are reasons to assume this should be even worse. Only a few companies own nearly all the media. Local newspapers are all but dead. The primary difference between CNN and Fox news during the run up to the Iraq war seemed to be the commercials. But despite that we suddenly have access to countless sources of information. The North Dakota pipeline protests are something that probably wouldn’t have gotten any media time at all even a decade ago. But now the story stays alive, and as a result, the protestors make an impact.
Ever go and read someone else’s echo chamber? It’s fascinating. Most of the time people aren’t talking about how correct their side is. They’re talking about how crazy the other side is. Frequently, you see comments asking how so many people can be so wrong. This is a self-reinforcing system that will just go forever and ever unless, and this is important, we change our narrative about ourselves just a little bit. All we need to do is change from an us vs them mentality, to one where we are all fighting on the same side.
The fact that it’s easy to stay within your own media bubble also means it’s easy to access others. Outright lies will slowly vanish and be replaced by stories that more closely reflect reality. That isn’t to say this time is a utopia compared to 50 years ago. There are lots of problems we need to deal with now that no one has had to deal with before. But we’re also solving problems that we’ve been dealing with for all of human history.